No one did more to write the African American people into the textual universe of speaking subjects, as agents, than did William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in his canonical work of American literature. “The Souls of Black Folk,” the masterpiece in Du Bois’s considerable oeuvre, has deserved every bit of critical acclaim and explication it has received since its publication in 1903. Du Bois’ signal achievement was to employ two tropes that encapsulated both the history of a people freed from centuries of human bondage, finally, just 38 years before he published his book, railing at the beginning of a new century against the most diabolical attempts to deconstruct the transformations wrought by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and entrap African Americans once again as quasi-citizens stuck forever in the limbo of forms of neo-enslavement.
One was “The Veil,” behind which the social and spiritual life of a people-within-a-people unfolded in the fullest range of complexity of every other branch of human civilization. Another was “double consciousness,” a metaphor with a long history tracing back at least to Emerson, if not beyond, to which Du Bois most probably was introduced by his mentor, William James. Du Bois’s signifying riff on the concept was to insert a “hyphen” as, itself, the liminal space that simultaneously separated yet connected the African American’s dual identity, as “an American” and “as a Negro,” as he put it, “two warring ideals in one dark body.” And third, Du Bois was the first scholar, I believe, to posit as an equal member of the canon of the artifacts of classical world civilization a specific corpus of the African American sacred vernacular form, forged from within the crucible of slavery by the enslaved, composed by “black and unknown bards,” as the poet James Weldon Johnson so aptly put it, in a poetic diction that itself was an astonishingly compelling example of an Africanized refashioning of King James English. Ever the prose-poet himself, Du Bois, Black America’s Victorian sage, dubbed these “The Sorrow Songs,” America’s only truly original and genuinely sublime contributions, he boasted, to the greatest monuments of genius in the long history of civilization.
Du Bois, in other words, gave not only a rhetorical structure to the historical and dynamically unfolding multiple identity of this black nation within a nation, he found metaphors to name key aspects of their liminal cultural and social being. Above all else, he named, with seminal tropes of his own fashioning, the conflicting identities of being black and being American, tropes that would resonate down through the canonical texts in the African American tradition, from James Weldon Johnson’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” and Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” through Ralph Ellison’s monumental novel “Invisible Man,” at mid-century, all the way to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “Jazz,” two achievements alone justifying her receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature. Though the subject matter of “Souls” is rooted squarely in a fin-de-siecle discourse of the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois’ analysis, his metaphors, have traveled supremely well across time and through space, remaining desperately relevant today, especially today, as black people continue to confront a systemic, structural racism — a mutation inscribed between the spaces of our Republic’s Founding Documents — that affects them in ways even our most sympathetic allies across the color line can scarcely comprehend without considerable effort. Race relations in our wonderful country would measurably improve if all students were required to read this book.
— Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Director, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research