I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I first picked up The Souls of Black Folk – but I certainly did not expect to encounter quite as many statistics… W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his PhD, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, at Harvard, and his scholarly apparatus is in evidence in his essays examining “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”
Many of these essays are focused specifically on analyzing the situation of African-Americans in the South after the Civil War. My knowledge of that period is literally non-existent, so it was very interesting for me to find out about the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was set up in 1865 to provide education and justice for former slaves. It was deeply controversial in Du Bois’s time. His measured response is a calm analysis of the almost impossible task the Bureau had faced.
What came to me as a surprise was learning about Du Bois’s disagreement with Booker T. Washington. I was completely unaware of Washington’s programme of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to political rights.” Du Bois’s defense of higher-education in ‘Of the Wings of Atlanta’ is incredibly inspiring – and it would be better if more academics and students were acquainted with it today.
Yet, focused on the informative parts of the book, one somehow might neglect its astonishing lyricism. My favourite essays, perhaps, ‘Of the Meaning of Progress’, ‘Of the Black Belt’, ‘Of Alexander Crummel’ and the heartbreaking ‘Of the Passing of the First- Born’ (about the death of Du Bois’s first son) are written in first person and incorporate Du Bois’s private experience of living and teaching in the South. After all, it is in this book that Du Bois states “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.”
Reading The Souls of Black Folk required some considerable focus and concentration on my part, especially in the essays focused on historical analysis. But it was definitely worth the effort.