Read an Excerpt
From Farah Jasmine Griffin's Introduction to The Souls of Black Folk
Since its publication in the spring of 1903, The Souls of Black Folk has became a founding text of African-American studies: Its insistence on an interdisciplinary understanding of black life, on historically and philosophically grounded analysis, on the scholar's role as advocate and activist, and on close study of the cultural products of the objects of examination-all became tenets of the study of black life in United States. In its insistence that any understanding of the United States has to be attentive to the contributions and struggles of black Americans, Souls has also contributed to a revision of American history and culture. Furthermore, in recent years the book has spoken to students of postcolonial and critical race studies as well. However, the text was never meant for a purely academic audience. And perhaps here lies its greatest contribution: It is a brilliant, multifaceted, learned book addressed to an intelligent lay audience as a means of informing social and political action.
Du Bois's best-known intellectual contributions are introduced here: "double consciousness," "the Talented Tenth," "the Veil," and the Du Bois versus Washington debate (see "Comments and Questions) that has characterized our understandings of black leadership throughout the twentieth century continue to be the major contributions of the text, and they have been explored and written about at length. With these concepts, Du Bois provided a basic vocabulary and foundational language for scholars and students of African-American history and culture. Double consciousness defines a psychological sense experienced by African Americans whereby they possess a national identity, "an American," within a nation that despises their racial identity, "a Negro." It also refers to the ability of black Americans to see themselves only through the eyes of white Americans, to measure their intelligence, beauty, and sense of self-worth by standards set by others. Du Bois defined the Talented Tenth as "leadership of the Negro race in America by a trained few." In The Souls of Black Folk, he envisions this educated elite at the vanguard of racial uplift. Later in his life he disavowed this theory.
Du Bois's ideas have been explored in detail, but only recently, through the efforts of black feminist writers such as Hazel Carby, Joy James, and Nellie McKay, has his notion of black leadership as fundamentally masculine received scholarly attention. These writers have opened up new ways of reading The Souls of Black Folk.
Another distinctive feature of the book is Du Bois's consistent use of the first person, his insertion of himself as a subjective student of and participant in black life and culture. In the opening pages, he introduces himself to his reader in the following manner: "And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil." With this Old Testament allusion Du Bois establishes his relationship to the people about whom he writes as one of sacred matrimony: of man to woman, of husband to wife. In Genesis 2:23 Adam says of Eve: "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Du Bois's use of the Veil, the enduring metaphor of the book, not only refers to that which separates black from white, to that through which black folk peer at the world, but it might also be the veil that covers women's faces in many religious traditions. So those who live beneath the Veil, the black folk, might be gendered as female-ever mysterious, unknowing, and unknowable-while the black elite, intellectuals and leaders, are gendered male. Du Bois promises readers that he has "stepped within the veil" and raised it to expose "deeper recesses." While he elsewhere claims to have lived behind the Veil throughout his life, here he positions himself as someone who dwells both within and just outside its cover-and, most important, as the investigator, the communicator, the native informant who can render the mysteries behind the Veil known.
The fourteen chapters that follow this promise represent Du Bois's best efforts to make known the strivings and yearnings of black folk in the United States of America. There is something, however, that remains unknowable and impenetrable even to this great bronze Adam. In the first nine chapters, all of which were revised from previously published essays, Du Bois turns to academic fields of knowledge such as history, sociology, and philosophy to assist in his interpretation of the complexity of black lives. While these fields help to provide the framework for his analysis, his prose is shaped by biblical and mythological narrative, metaphor and allusion. In the last five chapters, only one of which had been published previously, though they are still informed by philosophy, sociology, and history, Du Bois turns to elegy, poetry, religion, and song. In doing so, he attempts to better understand and express the longings of those who live beneath the Veil; consequently, he turns his critical eye to black people and their culture in an effort to comprehend how they have made sense of the absurdity of their situation.