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A Challenge to White Supremacy, 100 Years Later

April 15, 2003

A Challenge to White Supremacy, 100 Years Later


"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

So wrote W. E. B. DuBois in the opening essay of "The Souls of Black Folk." When it was published 100 years ago this month, the book was something entirely different in American letters. In 14 essays that swooped from music to history to politics, it was both a depiction of black life in America and a meditation on the meaning of blackness.

It was also a groundbreaking challenge to white supremacy. In 1903, an era of lynchings and widespread belief in innate black inferiority, "Souls" was both embraced and reviled. Today it is widely viewed as having recast the black struggle as a quest for constitutional rights and social equality, rather than the accommodation advocated by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century.

In "Souls" DuBois famously predicted that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." He interpreted Negro spirituals. More personally, he wondered aloud if death from diphtheria had spared his 2-year-old son, Burghardt, from a life of indignities.

Now in this centennial year, "The Souls of Black Folk" is being celebrated in a host of events intended to introduce DuBois's most famous book to a new generation. On college and university campuses nationwide, conferences will examine what "Souls" means in the 21st century. At the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta this July, the focus will be on the music, drama and other arts inspired by the book. A staged adaptation of readings from the book had its premiere in New York last week. At least three new books of essays analyzing "Souls" are out.

Some scholars and artists say the centennial celebrations offer a chance to rethink how DuBois and "Souls" have been viewed and studied. "If there's ever a crossover intellectual, it's in the one figure of DuBois," said Robin D. G. Kelley, chairman of the history department at New York University. "DuBois was the most important American intellectual to reflect on the meaning of modernity in the Western world, with influence on all aspects of human science."

But while "Souls" remains widely read by undergraduates, they, too, often meet him in black studies courses, said Mr. Kelley, rather than history, politics or sociology.

"We are in a turn-of-the-century moment again, and the big question is, When will DuBois be embraced by America and be required reading for everyone?" Mr. Kelley said.

DuBois used "Souls" to make the African-American story a universal story of human rights, human suffering and the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, a story that even DuBois's critics say should beckon a broader audience in the new millennium.

"When he talked about the color line, he wasn't talking about just black people," Mr. Kelley continued. "He was talking about the sources of violence and greed that lead to war."

Last week Mr. Kelley appeared as the narrator during dramatic readings of "Souls" excerpts staged by the playwright Thulani Davis. The show, featuring Danny Glover, Jeffrey Wright and Phylicia Rashad, had its debut at the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. It will appear with a different cast at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in July.

"Every generation reads 'Souls' differently," said David Nasaw, director of the Center for the Humanities. "It was once seen as a primer for black power." In putting the varied voices onstage one can get a sense of living history from the perspective of a grieving father, a preacher, an intellectual, Mr. Nasaw said, to convey the idea that DuBois "belongs everywhere on the cultural, intellectual strata."

A journalist, historian, sociologist and civil rights leader, DuBois created an extensive body of work that includes sociological treatises, a history of the African slave trade and a novel. Born in 1868, he was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and over the years variously embraced socialism, communism and pan-Africanism. He was the first black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He died a citizen of Ghana in 1963, on the eve of the march on Washington, disillusioned with American politics.

" 'The Souls of Black Folk' is probably one of the most commented on and written about books in black American letters, but it has been narrow-cast and reduced to sound bites about double-consciousness and the color line," said Dolan Hubbard, chairman of the English and language arts department at Morgan State University.

"DuBois was a founding father of multiculturalism, of blending races and ideas," Mr. Hubbard said. "You can trace the lineage of black music all the way to hip-hop in 'Souls.' And certainly there is the religious imagination, the question of how people deal with the problem of human suffering, a problem as old as Job."

To get people to dig deeper, Mr. Hubbard edited and wrote the introduction to the book "The Souls of Black Folk One Hundred Years Later" (University of Missouri Press, 2003). Its essays are by authors from many disciplines, including whiteness studies, aesthetics, psychology and music. In September Morgan State, a historically black university in Baltimore, will hold a multidisciplinary symposium on DuBois.

Similarly, dozens of scholars and cultural critics met at a conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last week. They presented papers on everything from DuBois as a public intellectual to how "Souls" reflects mourning and loss in African-American culture.

DuBois belongs on the bookshelf with commentators on the American social contract like Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry Adams, Lord Bryce, Andre Siegried, Richard Hofstadter and Michael Harrington, said David Levering Lewis, a professor of history at Rutgers University who won Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2001 for his two-volume biography of DuBois.

So much of "Souls," Mr. Lewis said, was prophetic about the central questions of American culture and politics. With his idea of double-consciousness — the struggle to reconcile being black with being American — DuBois forecast the way James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison argued that there was no America without black people, Mr. Lewis said.

"If one reads on, he talks about a merger of the two; he was a good Hegelian who looked for synthesis," Mr. Lewis said.

Anniversaries can prompt reading on, but they also risk trapping their subjects in one point in time or eliding their complexity, Mr. Lewis said. He said that is often the case with black thinkers because race is such a complicated topic. DuBois, 35 when "Souls" was published, became more radical with age. Some historians say he has already been marginalized and his legacy diluted.

"I would suspect that what has happened to DuBois is what also happened to King and to Malcolm X," said Manning Marable, director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia University. "Their global views are made parochial; they are not seen as international or universal. It's like Martin Luther King frozen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial saying 'I have a dream' but not seen protesting the Vietnam War, or Malcolm saying 'by any means necessary' but not seen discussing using the U.N. to protest the condition of black Americans."

Even the famously self-assured DuBois himself worried that his book would not find a wide audience or would be misread. In the "Afterthought" to "The Souls of Black Folk," he wrote: "Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that his book fall not stillborn into the world wilderness."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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