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W.E.B. Du Bois At 150


Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois, the great thinker and writer. To celebrate, his classic book "The Souls Of Black Folk" has been republished. It's a collection of essays on black life and race relations in America at the turn of the 20th century. NPR's Lynn Neary reports it is a work that is still relevant today.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: It was no accident that W. E. B. Du Bois called his book "The Souls Of Black Folk" says Ibram Kendi, author of "Stamped From The Beginning: A History Of Racist Ideas In America." Du Bois wasn't looking for a catchy title, he says. He was reacting to the reality of his times.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Racist Americans were making the case that black people did not have souls. And the beings that did not have souls were beasts.

NEARY: In his introduction to the new edition of "The Souls Of Black Folk," Kendi writes that Du Bois wanted the world to know the humanity of black folk. Some of the essays, like the one about his time as a teacher in the rural South, vividly depict what it was like to be black. Others addressed the ongoing debates of the time about the best way to improve black lives. Taken as a whole, says Kendi, the book reads like one long poem.

KENDI: It's deeply lyrical, but not just lyrical in the sense that he had sort of beautiful language. It's lyrical in the sense that he was able to really capture the complexities and multiplicities of life.

NEARY: A central metaphor in the book is the idea that there is a veil separating white and black America. Blacks can see through the veil, says Kendi, whites either can't or won't.

KENDI: In many ways, black people could see the opportunities through the veil that white people were privileged to have. White people could not see through the veil the opportunities that black people were denied.

NEARY: Many of the ideas that Du Bois outlined in the book still endure. Dana Williams, head of the English department at Howard University, has taught the book many times.

DANA WILLIAMS: It doesn't matter where a student is in his or her learning experience, there's always something in "The Souls Of Black Folk" that students can identify with.

NNYLA LAMPKIN: It was amazing to me to hear somebody from the past speaking the way that some of us think today.

NEARY: Nnyla Lampkin is a freshman at Howard. She and several other students gathered recently to discuss the book. One idea that seemed to resonate with the group was Du Bois' concept of double consciousness, which describes how difficult it was to be both black and American at a time when being American essentially meant being white. Freshman Hadiyah Cummings says this duality can still be a struggle.

HADIYAH CUMMINGS: It's definitely hard having to know that I love being black and I love what I represent and also knowing that if I want to get a job that I have to look a certain way or speak a certain way. And so having to fight this constant battle of choosing what side of me I'm going to show today and also just wanting to be able to just be unapologetically me and be accepted in both spaces is definitely hard to deal with.

NEARY: In "The Souls Of Black Folk," Du Bois outlines his ideas about the need for higher education for blacks. He lays the groundwork for a later essay, "The Talented Tenth," which is also included in this new edition. This is one of his best-known ideas, that the negro race, as he called it, would be saved by exceptional men. Though Du Bois later revised some of his thinking, this idea has been criticized as elitist. Howard senior Sadiya Malcolm doesn't see it that way.

SADIYA MALCOLM: To me, the proposition is not elitist. It's a responsibility. It's a task. It's about creating opportunities so that when my nieces or my little brothers and sisters are going to school, it looks possible. So they have somebody in their community to go to say, well, what's the college process like? It's about realizing collectively how we can contribute to our betterment as a people.

NEARY: At the start of each essay, Du Bois includes a bar of music.


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, nobody knows the trouble I've seen.

NEARY: These are the sorrow songs that Du Bois writes about in his final essay. These are the songs that emerged from slavery to become a gift to America, what Du Bois calls the singular spiritual heritage of the nation. It is the story of these songs that touched Asan Hawkins most deeply.

ASAN HAWKINS: I don't think any of us have escaped our childhoods without at least hearing one of these songs. And for him to weave them into each and every one of these chapters, he lit up our spirits. He gave us something that we could relate to throughout time. Each song spoke to somebody. Each chapter spoke to somebody.

NEARY: In his introduction, Ibram Kendi notes that when "The Souls Of Black Folk" was first released, a black newspaper in Ohio declared that it should be read by every person. Kendi believes that advice still holds today for anyone who wants to understand America and to see what is on the other side of that veil. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.