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The Souls of Black Folk
W. E. B. Du Bois [1868-1963]

Jubilee Edition (50th Anniversary)
1953 (Blue Heron Press)


1. The Forethought (Du Bois's original, 1903 introduction)
2. Fifty Years After (new introduction by Du Bois for the Jubilee edition)
3. Comments on "The Souls of Black Folk"
by Shirley Graham (Du Bois) [1907-1977]

The Forethought

HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

I pray you, then. receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.

I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive. First, in two chapters I have tried to show what Emancipation meant to them, and what was its aftermath. In a third chapter I have pointed out the slow rise of personal leadership, and criticised candidly the leader who bears the chief burden of his race to-day. Then, in two other chapters I have sketched in swift outline the two worlds within and without the Veil, and thus have come to the central problem of training men for life. Venturing now into deeper detail, I have in two chapters studied the struggles of the massed millions of the black peasantry, and in another have sought to make clear the present relations of the sons of master and man.

Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, - the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls. All this I have ended with a tale twice told but seldom written, and a chapter of song. Some of these thoughts of mine have seen the light before in other guise. For kindly consenting to their republication here, in altered and extended form, I must thank the publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, The World's Work, The Dial, The New World, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Before each chapter, as now printed, stands a bar of the Sorrow Songs, - some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past. And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?

W. E. B. Du B.


Fifty Years After

Late in the nineteenth century, there developed in Chicago a movement to build a literary and publishing center in the Midwest. The Brownes, father and son, editors for A. C. McClurg & Company, began looking about for young and unknown authors. I had just published my first two books: a history of the Suppression of the African Slave Trade to America, which appeared as the first volume of the new Harvard Historical Studies in 1896. My Philadelphia Negro was published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1899. I had also written a few essays which had been accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, the Dial and some other periodicals.

The McClurg editors wrote me about 1900, asking if I did not have material for a book which they could consider. I was at the time just embarking at Atlanta University on what I hoped to make my work; it was to be a broad and exhaustive study of the Negro Problem in the United States. I outlined this project to the editors, but they naturally wanted something more limited and aimed at a popular audience. I therefore undertook to assemble some of my published and unpublished essays, adding a few new ones.

They liked the proposed book and offered publication. I hesitated because I was sure that with more time and thought I could do a better job; in so many respects this was incomplete and unsatisfactory. But finally I plucked up courage and sent the manuscript off, and fifty years ago, The Souls of Black Folk appeared. It was well received and for the next generation it ran in a number of editions.

Several times I planned to revise the book and bring it abreast of my own thought and to answer criticism. But I hesitated and finally decided to leave the book as first printed, as a monument to what I thought and felt in 1903. I hoped in other books to set down changes of fact and reaction.

In the present edition I have clung to this decision, and my thoughts appear again as then written. I have made less than a half-dozen alterations in word or phrase and then not to change my thought as previously set down but to avoid any possible misunderstanding today of what I meant to say yesterday.

As I re-read these messages of more than half a century ago, I sense two matters which are not so much omission on my part as indications of what I then did not know or did not realize: one is the influence of Freud and his co-workers in their study of psychology; the other is the tremendous impact on the modern world of Karl Marx.

As a student of James, Santayana, and Royce, I was not unprepared for the revolution in psychology which the twentieth century has brought; but The Souls of Black Folk does not adequately allow for unconscious thought and the cake of custom in the growth and influence of race prejudice.

My college training did not altogether omit Karl Marx. He was mentioned at Harvard and taken into account in Berlin. It was not omission but lack of proper emphasis or comprehension among my teachers of the revolution in thought and action which Marx meant. So perhaps I might end this retrospect simply by saying: I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.



IN APRIL 1903, a slender book published by A. C. McClurg & Company entitled THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK captured and held attention wherever in the world English was read. This was true in spite of the fact that the volume was written "by one of a race intellectually despised and unaccounted," at a time when no American or English publication ever wrote the word Negro with a capital N.

The dawn of the Twentieth Century did little to dispel the thick gloom pressing down upon American Negroes. Where black folk were concerned, sullen apathy lay over all the land. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation, promise of the Reconstruction had come and gone. Terror, hunger, restrictions and humiliation dogged the black man's steps. Enterprising Americans were sick to death of "race problems."

Then an unsuspecting public was confronted with THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. Astonishment – grudging admiration – bewilderment were evoked north, south, east and west. "The title of this book is a stroke of genius!" appeared in one of the first notices. Many reviewers followed by praising the book in extravagant terms. Shocked "authorities" on "the race problem" admitted the book's "poetic style" but questioned its scientific value; others violently attacked it.But nowhere was THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK ignored. Georgia's Atlanta Constitution printed three columns on book and author. The review closed with: "It should be recalled that it is the thought of a negro of northern education who has lived among his brethren of the south, yet who cannot fully feel the meaning of some things which these brethren know by instinct-and which the southern-bred white knows by a similar instinct – certain things which are by both accepted as facts." A newspaper in Tennessee warned that, "This book is dangerous for the negro to read, for it will only excite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind."

Out of the wide and bitter discussions waged in press, pulpits and among educators, grew a still existing legend: the legend of a Booker T. Washington - W. E. B. Du Bois feud.

At the beginning, Negroes did not enter the fray. They were filled with pride. One of their own had set the great, white world in motion! Peons of praise and sounds of turmoil both fell upon their ears like sweet music. When young Negroes managed to get hold of THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK they pored over its pages, their eyes shining. Their lips grew tight as they read, their minds expanded and their muscles swelled. Then they turned eagerly to one another. For them the New Century had just begun!

That spring of 1903 a reviewer in the New York Commercial Advertiser wrote:

"At a time when racial prejudice has suddenly taken on an aggravated form, when almost every day witnesses a new outburst in some unexpected quarter, a volume of this sort, written by a negro with unwavering faith in the inherent possibilities of his race, cannot be otherwise than wholesome and inspiring." THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK ran through twenty-four editions in the United States, with several concurrent publications abroad. Black men building the Panama Canal read the book and took it home with them to Jamaica or the Barbadoes; dark folks in the Deep South laid the book aside and, looking out over straggling cotton fields, said firmly, "This is my land!" Two generations of Negroes passed the book around until it was tattered and worn. Meanwhile World Wars broke, depressions came, and the voice of the people became a great wind blowing across the lands.

When Henry James published his comprehensive study, THE AMERICAN SCENE (Scribner's Edition, 1946.), he asked: How can everything so have gone that the only "Southern" book of any distinction published for many a year is THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by that most accomplished of members of the Negro race, Mr. W. E. B. Du Bois?

Fifty years have passed since this book first appeared. The cycle turns slowly. Now it is seen that the sphere is much enlarged. Today the whole world is being called to account to its dark peoples. It is therefore right and timely that once more "when almost every day witnesses a new outburst in some unexpected quarter," we print THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK written by a Negro "with unwavering faith in the inherent possibilities of his race."