One hundred years ago two brothers took their new-fangled flying machine for a North Carolina ride. Both the Buick and the Ford motor companies were born.
That same year William Edward Bughardt Du Bois burst upon the cultural scene as a writer of courage, elegance, and erudition. He did so with the publication of a collection of essays entitled The Souls of Black Folk.
“It struck like a thunderclap,” someone said. Another described it as “the only Southern book of any distinction published in many a year.” Its only rival for influence within the black community was Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
From the day of the book’s publication until his death in 1963, Du Bois was an intellectual and literary star with few peers.
I picked up a centennial copy of the book some weeks ago, published by The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books. The introduction alone was worth the price, a biographical and literary preface written by David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Rutgers University.
Here’s what I learned: At age 20, Du Bois entered Harvard, eventually becoming the first black person to earn the doctor of philosophy degree from that university. At 34, while a professor at Atlanta University, he published the aforementioned book. At 42 he was instrumental in establishing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At 66 he broke with the NAACP, returned to teaching and in the following years published four books. At age 76 he served as adviser to the founding of the United Nations. At 83 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Senate and then was indicted by a McCarthy-era grand jury, leaving him disillusioned with American democracy. At 90 he was honored by both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. At 95 he died a citizen and resident of Ghana.
Here’s what Lewis thinks: “Du Bois wrote of the genius, humanity and destiny of people of African descent with a passion, eloquence and lucidity intended to deliver a reeling blow to the prevailing claims of the day of black inferiority.”
Along the way, Du Bois criticized the then-dominant, technical-school philosophy of Booker T. Washington, advocating instead the long-term necessity of liberal arts and professional education.
Du Bois introduced the hyphenated description “African-American” and preferred the phrase “people of color” to the term Negroes. He pioneered a sociological analysis based of close observation and description, first in Philadelphia and then in Georgia. He understood, long before others, that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”
He spoke of “the Veil” that separates the black from white; and of his own first-born son: “And thus in the Land of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil. Within the Veil he was born, and there within he shall live, seeing with those bright, wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of the Veil as it passed over my baby.”
W. E. B. Du Bois asserted that “the music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.” He would not, therefore, have been surprised at the numerous offspring of this music–with names like jazz, rhythm-and-blues, gospel, rock-and-roll and soul.
“But back of this,” he observed, “still broods silently the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart, the stirring unguided might of powerful human souls who have lost the guiding star of the past and are seeking in the great night a new religious ideal. Someday the Awakening will come, when the pent-up vigor of 10 million souls shall sweep irresistibly toward the goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—liberty, justice, and right—is marked For White People Only.”
A work of prophecy and also of powerful prose, it is no wonder this book was deemed worthy of a centennial edition. It certainly is worthy of another generation of readers.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.
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