Summary: Series of 15 essays that range from personal (death of his son and his early teaching experience) to approaches toward racism (a break with Booker T Washington) to historical and sociological exploration.
As far as I can remember I have not read a full book by WEB DuBois previously, although I know I have read a couple of essays. He is a fascinating character. He was born during reconstruction and earned a PhD from Harvard in 1895. He helped to found the NAACP and became the director of Publicity and Research, which included being the publisher and editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, which hit a circulation of 100,000 in 1920. In the 1920s DuBois became involved in the Pan African movement and promoted Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement before breaking with Garvey over political issues (DuBois disagreed with Garvey’s position that African Americans should move to Africa to become the new leadership of Africa.)
His life really is complicated and there is far too much that is important. But at 93 he moved to Africa and after the US suspended his passport in 1963 he officially became a citizen of Ghana where he died at the age of 95. I want to read a good biography of him, if anyone has a suggestion I would like to hear it.
The Souls of Black Folks is a fairly early work. It was published in 1903, just 7 years after finishing his PhD. It is far more wide ranging than I would have guessed. And without making this a 2000 word post, there isn’t really any way to cover all of it.
It is fascinating to read about the internal politics of the African American world at the time. His fight with Booker T Washington or his philosophy of education for African Americans or his fight against corrupt pastors are all covered here.
One of the most interesting chapters for me was the fictional chapter that looked at the result of two promising young men from a small town that go away to be educated and how they are helped and hindered and return to their community. One is black and one is white. The story is really a tragedy, but that fictional story cuts through reality in such a different way than some of his historical or sociological essays.
DuBois can write. The era it was written in did have a different style of writing than what is common today. But it really is beautiful writing. I listened to it as an audiobook (only $0.99 and linked below). It is in the public domain so you can fairly easily find a free copy of it (the Kindle edition listed below is free.) It does make me want to read more by and about DuBois.
There is a new Penguin Classics edition Souls of Black Folks that was released with an introduction by Ibram Kendi. It was DuBois’ 150th birthday last month. NPR had an article about the book a couple weeks ago.