(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)
ph_0111215305-Dubois.jpg W. E. B. Du Bois Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” As the century draws to a close, the visionary quality of Du Bois’ thought has become increasingly clear. As Du Bois realized, political events—the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the independence movements which have led to the decolonization of most of the Third World—only hint at the importance of race in the development of the modern sensibility. Of equal importance, but much less widely recognized, is the way in which racial issues shape psychological, cultural, and social experience in areas not directly concerned with race.

The publication of an anthology of Du Bois’ writings in the Library of America thus provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate and reassess the legacy of one of America’s most far-ranging thinkers. Edited by the distinguished Afro-Americanist Nathan Huggins (best known for his ground breaking history Harlem Renaissance, 1971), the volume includes The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1898), a revised version of Du Bois’ Harvard University dissertation; The Souls of Black Folk, the masterpiece of Du Bois’ early career; the prescient, and undervalued, autobiography Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940); a generous selection of essays written during Du Bois’ editorship of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; and numerous other essays, including “The Talented Tenth” (1903), “The Souls of White Folk” (1920), “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), and “A Vista of Ninety Fruitful Years” (1958). Given the immense quantity of Du Bois’ published writing, Huggins’ selections are excellent, providing both breadth and depth in their coverage of Du Bois’ development. The only serious complaint concerning the volume is that it is destined to stand alone in the Library of America. Readers seeking further exposure to Du Bois’ thought must seek out his poetry, drama (the pageant The Star of Ethiopia, 1913), fiction (particularly The Quest of the Silver Fleece, 1911; Dark Princess, 1928; and The Black Flame trilogy, 1957-1961), and additional nonfiction (the full text of Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920, John Brown, 1909, The World and Africa: Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, 1947) on their own.

Questions about the editorial policy of the series, however, should not detract from appreciation of this volume. Spanning nearly a century, Du Bois’ career brought him into contact with most of the major figures of twentieth century Afro-American history, most notably Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Frequently cited as the archetypal struggle over Afro-American political strategy, Du Bois’ near-legendary debate with Washington can be traced through various stages. In his classic statement “Of Booker T. Washington and Others,” included in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois opposed Washington’s gradualism with an unswerving insistence on full social and political rights for Afro-Americans. As Washington’s influence began to fade following his death in 1915, Du Bois gradually assumed the more distanced perspective which enabled him to place the original controversy in its historical perspective in Dusk of Dawn. The change reflects the general triumph of Du Bois’ position, which established the theoretical basis of the Civil Rights agitation from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. Ironically, by the time his earlier position had received general vindication, Du Bois had modified his stance to accept some forms of segregation as necessary stages in a larger process. This position, which Du Bois defended as a logical extension of his pragmatic focus, was the issue which lead to Du Bois’ resignation in 1934 after twenty-four years as editor of The Crisis.

While the early stages of Du Bois’ career receive full (and appropriate) representation in Writings, selections reflecting his later fascination with Marxism and Pan-Africanism are relatively sketchy. When he published Dusk of Dawn in 1940, Du Bois was just beginning to articulate fully the changes his thought had undergone during the twentieth century. Insisting that “I was not and am not a communist,” Du Bois nevertheless identified Karl Marx as “one of the greatest men of modern times,” maintaining that “he put his finger squarely upon our difficulties when he said that economic foundations, the way in which men earn their living, are the determining factors in the development of civilization, in literature, religion, and the basic pattern of culture.” For Du Bois, this perception led inexorably to a greater emphasis on the shared economic problems faced by people of African and Asian descent, both on their native continents and in the United States. Not surprisingly, Du Bois’ anticolonial stance brought him into the conflict with the United States government recounted in “The Trial” and “The Acquittal,” originally published in In Battle for Peace (1952), in which Du Bois defends himself against the Red-baiting of the 1950’s. In part because he wrote comparatively little during the ninth decade of his life, the Pan-Africanism of Du Bois’ final years—his death in Ghana on the eve of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington has an unmistakable symbolic resonance—receives relatively little space in Writings. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Du Bois’ insistence on the shared destiny of the black, brown, yellow and red people throughout...

(The entire section is 2400 words.)