“City and rural population. 1890,” from W. E. B. Du Bois’s ‘The Georgia Negro: A Study’ (1900)

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk and Beyond

Instructor: Nara Roberta Silva
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

When W.E.B. Du Bois declared that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” in The Souls of Black Folk, it was not some miraculous prophecy or intuition. Having already authored the foundational text of American sociology, The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois synthesized his social scientific training in Germany, including with renowned social theorist Max Weber, nascent American empirical methods, and Du Bois’ own research on Black experience into this insight. Du Bois was a pioneer of American sociology and of  modern data visualization techniques, which remain  influential to this day. However, The Souls of Black Folk—often regarded as a quintessential work of Black and American letters—is much more than a summary of this work. It is a stunning literary and theoretical text, comprised of rhapsodic, detailed essays on post-Reconstruction sharecroppers’ socioeconomic conditions and recuperations of Black history, on controversies in education and philosophical investigations, and even reflections on music and more. What Du Bois calls “sorrow songs” (Black spirituals, work songs, early forms of the Blues) are juxtaposed with contemporary European poetry and composition, from Lord Byron to Richard Wagner. Aristotle, Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam, Honoré Balzac, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Marcus Aurelius. Du Bois asks readers to consider Black thought, creation, and experience as equal to canonical works and their neglect as central to failed social progress. Souls contains early critiques of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism that would coalesce in a scathing polemic against the “new religion of whiteness” in Du Bois’ 1920 follow-up essay “The Souls of White Folk.” All of Souls’ seemingly disparate elements orbit the question, as easily asked today as at the turn of the century: “how does it feel to be a problem?”

In this course, we’ll read The Souls of Black Folk as well as other related selections from W.E.B. Du Bois and current secondary scholarship. Students will contextualize the book’s construction and reflect on its legacy. How does Souls relate to Du Bois’ previous studies and his political activism in this period, ranging from work in the NAACP, pan-African movements, educational reform, the Socialist Party, and struggles against imperialism and colonialism? How does Du Bois understand what he calls the “veil” of race-hatred? What is the “double consciousness” that he sees produced through the paradoxical experience of seeing oneself through White eyes?  Why does Souls argue against moderate measures – like the educational programs of Booker T. Washington? What are the strengths and limitations of Souls’ program for nurturing a “Talented Tenth”—a radical Black vanguard or elite—to revolutionize the social position of Black people and potentially society as a whole? How did these ideas inform, change, and transform in the short period between the two “Souls” texts?  In addition to other excerpts from Du Bois, readings will feature interventions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., David Levering Lewis, Aldon Morris, Earl Wright II, Manning Marable, Paul Gilroy, Keith Byerman, Dolan Hubbard, Jonathan Scott Holloway, and others. What does “the color line” mean today—both in the United States and in the world? And how does it still feel to be a problem?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 18 — November 08, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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