Skip to main content


The Souls of Black Folk

by W.E.B. Du Bois. Introduction by Vann R. Newkirk. Illustrations by Steve Prince. Restless Books, 2017, pp. 239

First published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk remains an iconic text that conceptualizes what it means to be black in America. Written as a collection of essays, a short story, songs and poems, Souls traces a psychological and philosophical narrative on race unlike any text before it, and quite frankly, after it. W.E.B. Du Bois begins with the question that lingers in the African American collective psyche: “How does it feel to be a problem?” The book’s purpose could be seen as formulating an early critique to white hegemony, which increasingly saw blackness, both culturally and politically, as problematic. To say that we have found a solution to America’s racial divergence would be misleading when one considers our current political and social climates. Indeed, the continuity bridging the moment of Souls’ first appearance to the time of this newly reprinted volume from Vann R. Newkirk II and Steve Prince (Restless Books, 2017) illustrates the tumultuous road we are yet traveling.

When Souls debuted on the literary and scholarly scene, enslaved African Americans were only just released from the lamentations of bondage forty years prior. At the close of the American Civil War, and with a failed attempt to reconstruct the American South in favor of political equality, racial violence reached its tipping point in the 1890s. Even when Du Bois, born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to an affluent family, was heading to Berlin on a fellowship to complete his graduate education (at Harvard) in 1892, lynchings of African Americans increased. One could speculate that this violence, what Ida B. Wells-Barnett called “acts of conscienceless outlawry,” would lead to Du Bois writing this foundational text in sociology. Souls not only explores, with a sincere hope of veneration, the trials of black life, but also draw upon the perilous history and present woes of the American color line. In perhaps his greatest addition to American philosophy, Du Bois termed “double-consciousness” to illustrate how black folk had a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 9).

In what operates as both a critical and personal introduction to this new edition of Souls, Newkirk takes into consideration the prominence of the book when it was first published as well as his own story of how he came to admire the work. This rhetorical move allows the reader to better understand Du Bois’s original aims while it also positions the text contemporaneously. For Newkirk, Souls is personal. Du Bois’s ardent defense of historically black colleges and universities inspired Newkirk, who attended Morehouse College. We learn through a personal anecdote that it was at Morehouse that Newkirk was first introduced to Souls and the lifelong writing career of Du Bois. As Newkirk attests, it is through Du Bois’s method to bridge “reporting, commentary, cultural analysis, and history” (vi) that we see the importance of black America in a divisive nation. Newkirk credits this groundbreaking method for the success of his own writing career, which suggests one particularly personal way in which Souls continues to impact readers.

Indeed, overall, Newkirk, a veteran writer from The Atlantic, desires to show how, in his words, “it is obvious that while Du Bois now rests, his most-famous work does not” (vi). Newkirk thus infers a question of his own: how could the color line still be the problem that we are faced with today? We read, for instance, “From Barack Obama’s presidency to the rise of Black Lives Matter to Donald Trump’s election amid a furor over voting rights, white nationalism, and racism, the color line is still the country’s core subject” (Newkirk v). For Newkirk, Souls is a primer for young activists who adamantly oppose white supremacy in the twenty-first century. But it is also—he insists—fundamental to any non-black person who seeks to better understanding the warring dualities of African American self-perception within current racial and political issues.

Newkirk’s critical framing of Souls is not without faults. In his attempt to position this text around current issues, Newkirk glazes over important moments within the wider history of Du Bois’s life. For example, Newkirk only makes glancing mention of Du Bois’s “crude and chauvinistic descriptions of women, his genteel elitism, and his theory of black leadership” as being at odds and out of touch with our current political and social climate (Newkirk vii). Though this characterization is accurate—since many current social and political leaders concern themselves with issues that are inclusive and intersectional—Newkirk understates the scope and seriousness of the problem with Du Bois’s writings. Du Bois’s philosophy strategically maligned certain people—namely black women and uneducated black folks, like skilled laborers and sharecroppers—during his lifetime. In framing Du Bois’s life, Newkirk’s introduction lacks the examples necessary to fully contextualize Du Bois’s tempered actions towards women and the way in which Du Bois’s philosophy alienated people who were not members of his “talented tenth.”

Newkirk’s reticence regarding issues of class and gender extends to the visual timeline of Du Bois’s life, which is noticeably lacking in its treatment of black women leaders. Provided on pages xvii through xxvi, the timeline’s chronology traces not only Du Bois’s record but also lists other important moments in African American history, from the Underground Railroad to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. While this timeline is helpful in a general sense, Newkirk omits many vital moments in which black women stood in the gap for racial equity. Only one woman is heroically listed: Rosa Parks, in her brave retort to segregation in Montgomery in 1955. But any reader would benefit from reference to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, for instance, whose activism was equal to black men such as Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in the 1890s and throughout the early twentieth century. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature emphasizes how men like Du Bois ignored Wells-Barnett’s contributions. Even the NMAAHC explores this contentious relationship between Wells-Barnett and Du Bois in their Ida B. Wells-Barnett exhibit. Newkirk, on the other hand, excludes Wells-Barnett along with the likes of Anna Julia Cooper, Pauline E. Hopkins, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, among others. Such a selective timeline makes, yet again, invisible the long history of black women’s efforts in civil rights. Similarly, although the timeline (and the introduction as a whole) does include the founding and impact of Black Lives Matter, Newkirk omits the names of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors as the original crafters of this now international movement. (Although, to be fair, Newkirk does recommend several women activists in his further reading section.)

Working with Newkirk, Steve Prince includes ten art pieces within the volume, thereby bridging “current black art and cultural criticism” (Newkirk xiv) wonderfully. It should be mentioned that one of Du Bois aims in Souls is to show the importance of black art and cultural productions, so it was refreshing to see how well Newkirk and Prince collaborated to bring this aspect to the page. The art, which Prince creates from the imagery of Du Bois’s seminal text, draws upon the storied form of block printing—from German Expressionism to revolutionary Mexican print to the Black Arts and Black Power movements. Prince’s artwork showcases the power of resistance in the “face of hegemony” (Prince xv). For instance, his piece titled “Forty Acres” is named for General William Sherman’s proverbial promise of Special Field Order No. 15, which promised forty acres of land to nearly 18,000 freed slaves in 1865. Prince’s piece not only suggests that America’s promise of equality has yet to be met, but, more strongly still, insists that the effects of American chattel slavery still linger. If Newkirk’s goal is to situate this text within present frameworks, then Prince’s art also showcase the “traumatic psychic burden” (Newkirk xiv) that challenge African Americans today, namely voting rights, equal and fair access to housing, economic instability, and the industrial prison complex, among others. Other pieces from Prince include: “Fertile Land,” “John Henry Dreams,” and “Jubilee.” The images are in black and white, expressive of the color line, and are each majestically drawn to cover two pages. They are grand, beautiful, and fulfilling within the context of Du Bois’s words. The inclusion of Prince’s artwork alone makes this new edition worth picking up. Readers will be amazed at the complexity of these pieces and how they pair visually with Du Bois’s critique of America.

Souls is required reading. Just as it was important then and is important now, a text such as this will be even more important as the future unfolds. Notwithstanding the incomplete history of the time before and after Du Bois’s life, Newkirk’s introduction is worth reading, as well. His personal treatment of Souls is full of allusions to his own first reading, and many thereafter, of Du Bois, which shows, among other things, the timelessness of Souls. In short, Du Bois captures the essence of black life in post-Reconstruction America more vividly and creatively than any other writer. And Newkirk and Prince, in keeping with Du Bois’s own goal—“to make a name in science, to make a name in art and thus to raise my race”—recapitulate this essence in this new edition of The Souls of Black Folk.

Comments are closed.