The 1903 publication of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk is considered a watershed in the history of American arts, letters and politics. Du Bois (1868-1963), then a sociologist at Atlanta University, offered his theory of “double-consciousness” – the notion that black Americans are deprived of agency and self-awareness because survival in a racist society requires that they constantly police themselves to remain acceptable to their oppressors.
A lot has been written about Souls of Black Folk and the contemporary relevance of Du Bois’ argument. The best literary and rhetorical analysis, as far as I am concerned, is still Arnold Rampersad’s Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 1976.) Rampersad situates Souls within the context of Du Bois’ evolving framework for thinking about race, which rested on several key tenets:
- People of African descent are one people, with great internal diversity.
- Colonialism and slavery had a defining impact on African peoples in ways that bind them together despite their diversity
- Contrary to Hegel, et. al, African-descended people are contributors to history (this conviction grew over time. At the time of Souls, he identified spirituals as an indication of the capacity for cultural contributions.) African-descended people have made strides in the years since slavery.
- Strategies and policies for making progress should be built upon empirical evidence, not faith or ideology. That requires a cadre of trained and educated leaders, ergo, the “Talented Tenth“
Rampersad said that if “Huckleberry Finn” is regarded as the seminal work in American literature, “Souls of Black Folk” has the equivalent place in African American literature. Subsequent generations have had good reason to use it as the point of departure from which to articulate their own views of the African American experience. Agree or disagree, one has to reckon with it.
In a new monograph, The Soul-less Souls of Black Folk: A Sociological Reconsideration of Black Consciousness as Du Boisian Double Consciousness Paul Mocombe appears to argue that WEB Du Bois’ Hegelian articulation of the black experience really was about the desire of elite black folks to be accept by elite white folks. He says Du Bois relies on essentialist biological and cultural notions of race that were prevalent among 19th century intellectuals and steeped in white supremacy. Aspects of his critique are familiar, but his analytical framework seems new and inventive.
I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Mocombe’s assertion that Du Bois was in thrall to scientific racism. I’d say Du Bois struggled with them, trying to find an alternative framework that met the scientific standards of that day. (Mia Bay’s essay, “The World Was Thinking Wrong About Race: The Philadelphia Negro and Nineteenth-Century Science” from WEB Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) speaks to this brilliantly.
Still, I’m putting Mocombe on my summer reading list, and I’d love to know what Dr. Rampersad thinks of his thesis.