W.E.B. Du Bois was many things: pioneering social scientist, historian, activist, social critic, writer—and, most of all, a heck of a lot smarter than me.
I have decided that it is Du Bois’s broadness and versatility which made The Souls of Black Folk so exhausting for me. His writing style is poetic, in that every sentence carries with it multiple shades of meaning. His social advocacy is rendered in prose dense with Biblical echoes and classical allusions; his vignettes push forwards with the emotional weight of a sermon, but are couched in the learned style of a professor; his arguments are never dry, never sterile, but always proffered with full consciousness of their significance to the lives of real people.
What I find especially impressive about Du Bois is his self-assurance. In some older American authors—such as Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and even the philosopher William James—I find a strange, self-conscious embarrassment of their Americanness. It is as if these authors were painfully aware that they were aping European art-forms, and struggling to find a native voice. There is none of this in Du Bois. His prose, his arguments, his concerns, and his manner are all firmly American, without a tinge of doubt, shame, or apology. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I feel the same way about another American author, Frederick Douglass, who speaks with the same eloquent self-assuredness.
It is a great irony, then, that Du Bois, who felt a “double consciousness”—a clash between his identity as an American and a “Negro”—somehow managed to escape that other double-consciousness that has plagued America’s great white authors: being a European and an American. The conflict between wishing to continue, and to claim as ours, the heritage of the Old World—the awkward knowledge that we have no Shakespeare, no Goethe, and no Dante—coupled with our desire to break off on a new path.
Meanwhile, Du Bois writes in a voice that is distinctly his own. And, more importantly, distinctly American. So let us relish the poetic justice that our most genuine voice emanated from a people who were systematically trampled underfoot.