LAWRENCE — For a number of years, every freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has received a copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.” This year they will receive a copy of a new edition with an introduction by Shawn Leigh Alexander, University of Kansas professor of African & African-American studies.
UMass-Amherst holds Du Bois’ papers, so it’s dedicated to maintaining his legacy as one of the most important American intellectuals of the 20th century. The university’s Department of Afro-American Studies is named for Du Bois, who was a Massachusetts native. His widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois, taught there, and Alexander is a graduate of the department and author of the 2015 biography “W.E.B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist” (Rowman & Littlefield).
So, Alexander was deeply honored when his alma mater’s press and libraries approached him to write the intro and select documents from the Du Bois collection for their new edition of “Souls,” as the book is known to aficionados, which was published in 2018 in honor of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth. It’s to be the first of a series of UMass Press reprints of Du Bois’ collected works.
“I’m excited to see them handed out at the library, which is also named for W.E.B. Du Bois,” Alexander said recently.
Alexander said in the brief space allotted to his introduction, he tried to make a few points:
- As important as the concept of “double consciousness” – outlined in the first chapter, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” – is, Du Bois’ philosophy and overall arguments in the book are so much more than the popular phrase.
- While Du Bois challenged Booker T. Washington’s prescriptions for empowering the African-American community, it was about more than just industrial versus higher education.
- Du Bois was making the point that #BlackLivesMatter over a century before it became a hashtag. It’s not the only point of his writings, but it is a central one.
“They wanted the introduction to put the book in historical context and tie it to the modern-day reader in whatever way you could,” Alexander said. “I have always seen ‘Souls’ as demanding recognition of one’s humanity, and I saw that as a common link to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s one of his core principles. He’s demanding recognition. He’s not begging or pleading.”
Alexander said he hopes his introduction sounds a cautionary note about the centrality of “double-consciousness” to Du Bois’ thought. Alexander writes that, after “Souls,” Du Bois “never again used the term double-consciousness” in his writings. The term’s ongoing popularity, Alexander said, sometimes leads to its misapplication to any conflict felt by an African-American. For example, Alexander said, he was struck once again by a reviewer of KU colleague Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee’s film “BlacKkKlansman,” who claimed that the lead character, a black undercover cop who infiltrates the KKK, was the embodiment of Du Bois’ double-consciousness.
Likewise, the caricature of Du Bois as the ivory-tower intellectual opponent of Washington’s emphasis on uplift through vocational education is too simplistic, Alexander said.
“I try to show that their conflict is real, but that it was not only centered around education,” he said, “and more importantly that they continued to collaborate and challenge each other through the rest of Washington’s life.”
Alexander has a special connection, too, to Nelson Stevens, the individual whose art was used for the cover illustration of the new edition of “Souls.” Stevens, now retired, was a professor of art in the Du Bois department when Alexander was a student there, and several Stevens drawings adorn the walls of Alexander’s KU office today. Stevens drew the portrait of Du Bois in the early 1970s, and it appeared on the cover of the spring 1973 edition of the Massachusetts Review, a scholarly journal published at the university. The library there tracked it down and adapted it for the new cover.
“I didn’t want to use the typical photo of Du Bois that has been used many times already, and then I remembered this sketch by Nelson,” Alexander said. “It makes a nice symmetry with Nelson’s career and connection to the department.”
Photo: Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.