It is with a ferocious certainty that The Souls of Black Folk rises to the challenge of racism. W.E.B. Du Bois, in this masterful collection of essays, conveys to his reader the true meaning of what it is to be an African American growing up in the 20th century. While much of what was written is now historical in nature, the message that Du Bois wants to convey is still extremely important today. He himself sums it up perfectly by coining the idea that "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." His essays go a long way towards convincing us of this very point.
Du Bois, the first African American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard, gives us, in this book, a beautiful collection of historical, lyrical, and autobiographical essays that share in the express purpose of education. He teaches us that racism is, undeniably, one of the greatest injustices of his and our time. While Du Bois himself does not directly confront racism, his choice of topics and his presentation of those topics are delightfully compelling attacks in their own right. By presenting the history of racism in America and by celebrating what it means to be black, Du Bois is cleverly stating his argument through the weaving of powerful stories and factual information. It is this academic style, combined with brilliant reoccurring metaphors (a Veil that separates the black man from his freedom) that truly convinces us of his viewpoint in a sublime, yet powerful, manner.
Du Bois’s writing flows like poetry, and you can almost hear the songs of the first black slaves in it’s passing. At times cluttered with historical information, at times metaphorical, Du Bois writes in a style that demands a certain attention. However, once you get a feel for the rhythm, this book can become wholly engrossing. The topics are vital, and on their own each chapter raises another question in the race problem. What part does education play in racism? How do African Americans view themselves? What roll does economics have? What is freedom? Each chapter is a foray into different aspects of the same question: What is racism and why is it the biggest problem of our time?
"But when we have vaguely said that Education will set this tangle straight, what have we uttered but a truism? Training for life teaches living; but what training for the profitable living together of black men and white?"
As Du Bois attempts to provide answers to these questions, he paints a terrible picture of the plight of African Americans in a post civil war United States. Even when slavery is over and the black man is emancipated, what does this really mean for the lives of the former slaves? It becomes obvious that equality does not exist, that freedoms are being infringed upon, and that injustice is occurring. Du Bois discusses these topics brilliantly, presenting them from a refreshing, scholarly point of view. At the same time, Du Bois is a masterful weaver of stories, producing tales that build upon the strengths and resilience of a people who have done no wrong, yet suffer every day for it.
"The great brown sea lay silent. The air scarce breathed. The dying day bathed the twisted oaks and mighty pines in black and gold. There came from the wind no warning, not a whisper from the cloudless sky. There was only a black man hurrying on with an ache in his heart, seeing neither sun nor sea, but starting as from a dream at the frightened cry that woke the pines, to see his dark sister struggling in the arms of a tall and fair-haired man."
Description, metaphor, storytelling ability, and historical brilliance gives Du Bois’s essays clear credibility. No, this is not the rant of an angry black man, finally driven to write under the weight of injustice. This is, instead, a thought-provoking collection that celebrates the fight for freedom, gives overwhelming insight into the nature of racism, and hands us all the evidence we need to be convinced that there is indeed a problem with our society. From vivid forays into the squalor of black childhood, to awakening essays on the importance of song in African American life, we are treated to refreshing viewpoints and interesting insights that our civil rights classes never dreamed to touch upon. Du Bois writes with such beauty and such vividness that the reader must slow down in order to take it all in.
It is the opinion of this reviewer, and surely others, that this book is a definitive historic guide to black suffrage. Ingeniously conceived, well executed, perfectly polished in it’s outcome, I was sincerely moved by the plight of the Black Folk. The stories of Du Bois, John, Alexander Crummell, and others, are forever fashioned in my thoughts as I consider my own involvement in the problem of race. W.E.B. Du Bois writes for the common man in a distinguished and yet gloriously poetic voice that is insightful but not overbearing. This style of writing struck a chord for me, and even when I was forced to take a break from the torrent of information, my thoughts were always on the stories and suffrage of the African American. It is with no reluctance that I recommend this book. While it may not excite as much as a foray into popular culture, its true value is nonetheless timeless. A true understanding of its material would lead to a vastly more tolerant society.