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The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, The Souls of Black Folk and Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept by William E. B. Du Bois; edited by Nathan Huggins (The Library of America: $27.50; 1,334 pp.)

January 25, 1987| Rudolph P. Byrd | Byrd teaches American and Afro-American literature at Carleton College. and

In 1882, while only a sophomore at Great Barrington High School, William E. B. Du Bois purchased Thomas Macaulay's "History of England." Although the cost of this five-volume set was, as Du Bois recalls, "far beyond my ability to pay," he "wanted it fiercely." The owner of Great Barrington's only bookstore (there were not many in this part of Massachusetts) arranged for the young Du Bois to purchase the books on installments. With money earned from running errands for neighbors, Du Bois paid 25 cents each week until Christmas when, as he recalls, "I took my precious purchase home." In this early incident from Du Bois' long life, we see very plainly the expression of a system of values embodied in the word with which Du Bois' name is synonymous: scholarship. In the life of this scholar who became the first Afro-American to earn a doctor of philosophy from Harvard University, the frequently diverging paths of scholarship and social activism converge.

The Library of America's long-awaited volume of Du Bois' writing provides inspiring proof of a New England boy's unwavering commitment to social ideals and to the life of the mind. With the editorial assistance of the able Nathan Huggins, professor of history and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, the Library of America has published in a single volume "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870," "The Souls of Black Folk," "Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept" and many of Du Bois' most important speeches and articles.

As a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade" is Du Bois' first book. Beginning with the Colonial period and ending with the Civil War, Du Bois argues that the African slave-trade flourished, in spite of laws prohibiting its spread, because Americans valued profit more than morality. In his carefully researched notes that are the appendix to this volume, Huggins reminds us that the "Suppression of the African Slave-Trade" was published in 1896 as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies. According to Huggins, there were only two other printings of this work in Du Bois' lifetime. The first was in 1904, and the second, containing an apologia in which Du Bois bemoans his ignorance of Marx and Freud during the writing of his first book, was in 1954. Betraying the historian's predilection for original texts, as editor of this volume Huggins has selected the 1896 version of Du Bois' doctoral dissertation, but has placed wisely the apologia in his notes.

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this 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. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." These history-making words are taken from "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," the first of 14 essays that together are "The Souls of Black Folk." In his notes, Huggins writes that with the exception of "Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" and "The Sorrow Songs," the essays in this landmark work were published initially in such journals as The Atlantic Monthly and The Dial.

Du Bois' three-part meditation on the history, circumstances and spirituality of Afro-Americans is now an American classic. The much-deserved praise that "The Souls of Black Folk" received from Du Bois' contemporaries is an early portent of the work's abiding relevance. Henry James described this life-giving garland of essays as "the only Southern book of distinction published in many years." Echoing James' admiration, Benjamin Brawley wrote that in Du Bois' prose he felt the "passion of a mighty heart."

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