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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

Du Bois' classic 'Souls of Black Folk' resonates in 21st century

By Deborah Kong
Associated Press

David Du Bois, 77, holds a portrait of his father, W.E.B. Du Bois, at his Amherst, Mass., home. He says he regularly reads his father's 1903 work, "The Souls of Black Folk."

Associated Press

On the Web:

W.E.B. Du Bois Scholars Institute

In "The Souls of Black Folk," his powerful, poetic collection of 14 essays, activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of "the strange meaning of being black" at the turn of the 20th century and how, as a boy, he realized he was different from white playmates, "shut out from their world by a vast veil."

His classic helped frame race relations, black identity and culture for future generations. A century later, many blacks say they still recognize their experiences in his words, and many whites still turn to its pages for its scholarship.

Du Bois' enduring message is why "The Souls of Black Folk: Centennial Reflections" was chosen as the theme for this year's National Black History Month celebrations. His landmark collection of essays is being celebrated throughout the year by schools, libraries and organizations such as the American Historical Association.

Du Bois' legacy is so far-reaching that, "in a sense, it would be true to claim that all black intellectuals and all of our civil rights leaders are, in some manner, his heirs," Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West write in "The African American Century."

"So much of what we think of as the black experience stems from Du Bois' literary and political ideas," says Manning Marable, author of "W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat."

"Even though I've read it a thousand times, I pick it up and find something every time."

The book was published in Chicago in April 1903 by A. C. McClurg & Co. Writer Henry James called it "the only Southern book of any distinction for many a year."

"Du Bois' son, David, now 77, remembers reading the book for the first time in college to challenge a history teacher who said slaves were generally treated well.

Though David Du Bois never discussed the book with his father, he reads it regularly. "It's constantly with me," said Du Bois, president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Foundation in Amherst, Mass.

W.E.B. Du Bois' influence is "the backdrop of all African-American scholarship," said John Bracey Jr., a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The concept that there's a community and life behind what Du Bois called the veil of Jim Crow is the operative concept in virtually all aspects of black writing."

Du Bois' ideas on how culture brings out continuities and contradictions in black identity can be glimpsed in the work of writers Zora Heale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and John Edgar Wideman, said Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "He took folklore and the vernacular seriously," Morrison said.