When first published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk struck like a thunderclap, quickly establishing itself as a work that wholly redefined the history of the black experience in America, introducing the now famous “problem of the color line.” In decades since, its stature has only grown, and today it ranks as one of the most influential and resonant works in the history of American thought.
This centennial edition contains a landmark Introduction by historian David Levering Lewis that brilliantly demonstrates how The Souls of Black Folk remains indispensable not only to an understanding of the history of race and democracy in America but to considerations of the future of racial and cultural comity in the twenty-first century.
“One hundred years after publication, there is in the entire body of social criticism still no more than a handful of meditations on the promise and failings of democracy in America to rival William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s extraordinary collection of fourteen essays.” —from the Introduction by David Levering Lewis
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois--sociologist, historian, educator, journalist, and civil rights activist--was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He was the only child of Mary Burghardt, a proud woman of Dutch-African stock, and Alfred Du Bois, a French Huguenot. Du Bois experienced relatively little discrimination growing up as one of the few blacks in Great Barrington. His first exposure to segregation and the realities of race in America occurred in Nashville where he was a student at Fisk University. In 1888 Du Bois entered Harvard, earning both a B.A. in philosophy and a M.A. in history.
Afterward he attended the University of Berlin, and in 1895, following a brief teaching assignment at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he became the first black to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, Du Bois's doctoral thesis, was published in 1896. It lead directly to a position as instructor at the University of Pennsylvania; there he compiled research for The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). In 1897 Du Bois was named professor of economics and sociology at Atlanta University, where he taught for the next thirteen years. The Souls of Black Folk brought Du Bois to national prominence when it appeared in 1903; at the time the book was especially noteworthy for its criticism of Booker T. Washington, then the undisputed leader of American Negroes.
In 1910 Du Bois helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was appointed director of research and editor of The Crisis, a monthly magazine that became a forum for confronting the prejudice faced by Negroes in American society.
Du Bois also lectured widely in the United States and abroad, educating a whole generation of blacks in the art of protest and wrote a number of books--including The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), The Negro (1915), Darkwater (1920), The Gift of Black Folk (1924), and Dark Princess (1928).
Du Bois broke with the NAACP over questions of ideology in 1934, and for the next ten years he taught at Atlanta once more. Resuming the role of dispassionate scholar, he wrote Black Reconstruction (1935), Black Folk, Then and Now (1939), Dusk of Dawn (1940), and Encyclopedia of the Negro (1945). He also founded Phylon, a quarterly journal addressing world race problems, published by Atlanta University.
In 1944 Du Bois resigned from teaching and returned to the NAACP. The next year he acted as a special consultant to the American delegation at the conference drafting the United Nations Charter. Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945) presents his views at the time on African nationalism. After another clash with the NAACP over ideology Du Bois left the association for good in 1948.
He later served as head of the newly formed Council of African Affairs, a group listed as 'subversive' by the Department of Justice. In 1950 he made a failed bid for the United States Senate as a candidate of the American Labor Party. Du Bois's controversial left-wing opinions steadily eroded his influence. In 1951, at the height of the McCarthy era, a federal grand jury indicted the eighty-three-year-old activist for involvement with a dissident organization called the Peace Information Center, charging him with being an unregistered agent for a foreign power. Although he was acquitted the experience disillusioned Du Bois with American democracy. He recalled his arraignment and trial in the book In Battle for Peace (1952) and paid tribute to 'the communists of the world for their help in my defense.' During 1958 and 1959 Du Bois traveled extensively in the Soviet Union, where he was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize, and the People's Republic of China, where he was honored by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Shortly after joining the Communist Party in 1961 Du Bois emigrated to Ghana at the invitation of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to direct publication of Encyclopedia Africana. W.E.B. Du Bois died as a citizen of Ghana on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the civil rights march on Washington. His last book, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, was brought out posthumously in 1968.
David Levering Lewis is Martin Luther King, Jr., University Professor in the department of history at Rutgers University. He won Pulitzer prizes for both volumes of his landmark biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, along with many other awards, including the Bancroft and Parkman prizes. He lives in Manhattan.