Book Review: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois is perhaps the greatest and most under-read African-American voice of the 20th century. What he offers here is an analysis of race in the United States that remains as relevant now, more than a hundred years hence, as when it was first written in 1903. His prescription to remedying the racial divide and gap in achievement between African-Americans and European-Americans is a combination of political involvement and higher education which will result in African-Americans building up a cultural heritage from the primitive roots already in place while become at once part of the mainstream of American life.

Access to a liberal education for African-Americans is one of the most powerful points that Du Bois stresses, and it is one that has, unfortunately, not improved much since this book was written. In fact, it has become more difficult not only for African-Americans to receive a liberal education, but for all Americans to receive such an education. The current focus on “STEM” and “college and career readiness” in America’s public schools has only served to bolster the Book T. Washington-model of technical training over the Du Bois model of an education for thinkers and leaders.

The result is that all culture, including African-American culture, has been degraded. Not only does a black school child not have access to Shakespeare; he often no longer has access to the treasures of his own culture in Negro spirituals and in the great works of great men like Du Bois. Instead, “language arts” teacher, with their misnamed discipline, import rap songs into the classroom in a condescending and debasing attempt to make a curriculum without meaning seem, just for a moment, like it has real relevance to the lives of their students. Meanwhile, the true things of perpetual relevance — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — are cast aside in favor of higher standardized test scores and employment in technical, service, and labor jobs.

Even the great liberal arts universities have gotten in on the debasement and condescension, with an Ivy League school recently publishing a book of annotated hip hop lyrics. Meanwhile, little boys and girls across the United States, both black and white, are further removed from access to the great ideas and the eternal things, the things that will make them not “black” and “white” but human in the fullest and truest sense of that word.

Du Bois is an essential read for anyone who is seeking to understand race in America, both in history and today, as well as anyone interested in giving access to a full and happy life to all people of whatever race.

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