My edition of The Souls of Black Folks has an introduction to the text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A fine introduction which situates the text in its historical context. Reading the introduction, though, I can see why Du Bois’ text hasn’t made it as a standard part of the philosophy classroom.
Du Bois’ mentors in philosophy at Harvard were William James and George Santayana. Gates writes, “Du Bois’ first love was philosophy. But, because employment opportunities were limited for black philosophers, he decided on graduate study in history.” What would academic philosophy in America have looked like if Du Bois had stayed in it? A fascinating thought. Ironically, while Gates makes clear Du Bois’s philosophical education, in the introduction he hardly makes it clear what could be the philosophical import of the text.
Gates emphasizes two dimensions of the text. First, that it is a literary and aesthetic masterpiece: “Long after the social issues with which Du Bois wrestled so intensely and so passionately have become chapters in the chronicle of African-American history, students and their professions continue to turn to The Souls to experience the power of its lyricism, the “poetry” of its prose.”
One thing I want to do on this blog is think out loud about texts which I think are central to pluralism. Often these will be texts I haven’t read, or read carefully, before. So I am not an expert on these texts and what I say about them is not in any way exhaustive. If any reader find errors in what I way, I am grateful to have it pointed out in the comments. I write about these texts simply because I am drawn to them in my own thinking, and because they seem to me incredibly philosophically fertile. In what ways fertile exactly, and how that relates to pluralism, is what I try to understand as I read the texts.
The first text is W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and in this post I focus on Chapter 1 of the book.
In thinking of Du Bois’ book, even before picking it up, one question presents itself: “Is this philosophy? In particular, is it universally applicable to all human beings?” The title itself seems to announce its limitations: The Souls of Black Folk. So is this book mainly about, or for, blacks? What can, say, an Indian-American such an myself gain about his life and his philosophical interests by reading it? Does the book translate beyond African-Americans to all people in the way philosophy purports to?