Paula's Reviews > The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
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Mar 01, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in February, 2009, read count: 2

I appreciate DuBois’s classic study of race as an historical document, and at times even as a piece of literature. I particularly value his depiction of the political, social and material conditions in the South immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, I question some of his proposals and conclusions. Although his views may have been radical in 1903, many of them now sound paternalistic and outdated. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is a sign of progress.
The Souls of Black Folk, of course, is didactic. It’s also a polemic, for DuBois’s stated aims are to both instruct and convince his audience. Many indications in his prose suggest that he conceived his audience to be “the best kind” of white people, and more Northern, I think, than Southern. I don’t think his arguments are directed toward “the best kind” of Negro. I use these terms because they are his, and because this sorting of people, both black and white, into categories of “best” and “worst,” is one of the things that most irritates me about DuBois’s thinking. He touts The Talented Tenth (although he may not have coined this phrase, it became intimately associated with his ideas) as worthy candidates for a classical liberal education and as the source of leadership for “their race.” He admits the need for a sort of benevolent guardianship (by the Talented Tenth and enlightened whites) over the masses of unschooled and largely impoverished black folks in the South. He says, “the paths of peace winding between honest toil and dignified manhood call for the guidance of skilled thinkers, the loving, reverent comradeship between the black lowly and the black men emancipated by training and culture.”
Besides the Talented Tenth, two other concepts are integral to Du Bois’s thinking, that of The Veil, which is both a physical and social demarcation of difference, and double-consciousness, defined as “a peculiar sensation, . . . this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others . . . . one ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro.”
Although he argues against Booker T. Washington’s preaching of abandonment of political and social goals in order to focus solely on material gains for blacks, Du Bois himself proposes that blacks not fit to benefit from the education he proposes for The Talented Tenth should indeed settle for training in a trade and much more limited aspirations.(Apparently, Du Bois modified these views somewhat later in his life.) On the other hand, Du Bois is often forceful in his defense of equal rights for all blacks, for example, when he states, “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”
Although many of the social conditions that Du Bois references have been ameliorated over time, some of his observations sound uncomfortably current today, such as the following: “the white folk say it [the county prison:] is ever full of black criminals,--the black folks say that only colored boys are ever sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor.”
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Thomas An excellent summary, even if I don't share its viewpoint.


message 2: by Robert (new)

Robert A I think the comment is sincere and articulate. However, what would be your review in 1903; when people of
African descent lived in a terror state. Completely at the mercy of their masters?
Most people of color were still not allowed to read. As far as progression or coming a long way; I could find hundreds of youth who feel trapped inside hi-rise ghettos or violent neighbor hoods. Booker T. Washington actions where percieved as total capitulation so that they would stop killing his people "which by the way was not a crime." Booker T Washington argument was practical, but allowed those who were silent still stinging from the failure of reconstruction. Those good hearted christian white folk who no longer cared nor saw Black people as equal. None of them was there protecting them from the lynch mobs. DuBois argument was intellectual and necessary to prove and convince white folks at that time who needed convincing of Black Peoples intellectual capacity.


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