This is the centennial year of the publication of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk, first published April 18, 1903. The centennial takes place at a time when the Bush administration has come out openly against affirmative action and is simultaneously flouting immigrant rights, democratic rights, and the rights of working people overall. Furthermore, the centennial takes place at a time when the Bush administration is playing the role of global military outlaw with its pro-corporate doctrine of permanent aggression against sovereign nations, starting with Iraq.
These aspects are interconnected. The Bush doctrine of unilateral aggression takes its place alongside its attacks on affirmative action in fanning chauvinism and racism. The Bush administration crudely demonstrates the proposition that the Bush global war is also war on the rights of the American people.
Ranged against this syndrome of imperialist grab is the life and work of Dr. DuBois, including his great contribution, The Souls.
This book, a collection of fourteen of his essays, some published for the first time, sings with his dedication to the African and African-American people, with an outstretched hand to all people. Frequently quoted, it has stood the test of time and has many lessons for us 100 years later.
Souls is a book of superb beauty, rooted in the life, culture, history, aspirations, and struggles of the African American people. At the same time it is not only a beautiful piece of literature. It is also a call for struggle. It can be seen as touching off the modern civil rights movement.
Roy Wilkins, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said, “This volume established [DuBois] as the voice of the twentieth century civil rights movement.”
For example, not long after Souls came the Niagara Movement, which led into the founding and building of the NAACP. DuBois played a leading and founding role in both.
The greatness of DuBois’ contribution comes through when we realize that it was published in the repressive “Nadir Period” – a low point for the rights of African-American people. This was the period after the betrayal of Reconstruction by the industrialists of the North in league with the plantation lords of the South. It was the period of the onset of disfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation and lynchings. With no action by the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court codified this white supremacist rule with its Plessy v. Ferguson segregationist decision. DuBois, as in the essay on Booker T. Washington, rejected accommodation to white supremacy. He gave support for such demands as voting rights, higher education, and equality in citizenship for all avenues of life.
With DuBois, his thorough scholarship went hand in hand with his championship of and deep ties with his people. In the exquisitely beautiful essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” DuBois showed that these ties were many-sided. African American folk songs, or spirituals, he said, were songs which stemmed from both enslavement and the collective will to survive. Providing both words and music, DuBois showed these songs expressed both the sorrow and oppression of an enslaved people but also their unquenchable humanity, peoplehood, and confidence that a better world would be achieved both through faith and struggle. For example “Steal Away” spoke not only of heaven but possible flight from the plantation, similarly “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
He showed these songs, passed on from generation to generation have been a tower of strength to people, including himself. He ends this essay with the forward-looking note, “... that sometime and somewhere” people “will be judged by their souls not by their skins.”
The importance of the stand against white supremacy taken by DuBois is brought out by the incisive question he asks in the book: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” He went on in the essay “Of the Dawn of Freedom” to make the question of racism central in the famed formulation that has rumbled through the century: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Souls, DuBois rounded out his formulation in terms of the socio-economic roots, the colonial and national liberation struggles and the momentous struggle for world peace.
Eight years later, he joined the Communist Party USA. On joining, he issued a statement that put the roots of racism directly in capitalism and the solution in socialism. He said: “Today I have reached a firm conclusion. Capitalism cannot reform itself. It is doomed to self-destruction. Communism – the effort to give all (people) what they need and ask of them the best they can contribute – this is the only way of human life.”
From oppression in Souls to the solution in social ownership of production and the needs of people first – what an awesome example Dr. W.E.B. DuBois has set.
George Fishman is an independent historian and a member of the American Federation of Teachers retirees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
PDF version of '100th anniversary of The Souls of Black Folk'