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Preface to the Jubilee Edition of The Black Souls of Black Folk (1953)

The Blue Heron Press Jubilee edition of The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1953. In 1949 Du Bois had purchased the plates to the book, which was then out of print. At that time, during the anticommunist hysteria, it was extremely difficult to keep in print or to publish works that raised fundamental questions about U.S. society. In 1952, best-selling novelist Howard Fast had his latest novel Spartacus turned down by his usual publisher and by every other he turned to—presumably, because of his association with the Communist Party as well as the incendiary nature of his novel, which was about a revolt against slavery, albeit in antiquity. Fast’s only choice was to publish the book himself. Devising his own imprint, Blue Heron Press, he solicited orders by direct mail and finally had enough so that he could print 50,000 copies. This self-published book became a best-seller, and with the proceeds Fast reissued a number of his earlier historical novels.

While this was going on Shirley Graham Du Bois was trying to arrange for a fiftieth anniversary edition of Souls, but could not find a publisher among the established publishing houses. Fast agreed to republish the book under the Blue Heron imprint. In addition to a handful of changes in the text, the Blue Heron edition contained a new, explicitly radical preface by the author, which we are reprinting here in MR for the second time—having reprinted it ten years ago for the ninetieth anniversary of Souls. Of the editions of the book now in print that we were able to consult, none include this preface. As we observed ten years ago, “perhaps this is not so strange, considering the final paragraphs” of that preface.

The Editors

Late in the nineteenth century, there developed in Chicago a movement to build a literary and publishing center in the Midwest. The Brownes, father and son, editors for A. C. McClurg & Company, began looking about for young and unknown authors. I had just published my first two books: a history of the Suppression of the African Slave Trade to America, which appeared as the first volume of the new Harvard Historical Studies in 1896. My Philadelphia Negro was published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1899. I had also written a few essays which had been accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, the Dial and some other periodicals.

The McClurg editors wrote me about 1900, asking if I did not have material for a book which they could consider. I was at the time just embarking at Atlanta University on what I hoped to make my work; it was to be a broad and exhaustive study of the Negro Problem in the United States. I outlined this project to the editors, but they naturally wanted something more limited and aimed at a popular audience. I therefore undertook to assemble some of my published and unpublished essays, adding a few new ones.

They liked the proposed book and offered publication. I hesitated because I was sure that with more time and thought I could do a better job; in so many respects this was incomplete and unsatisfactory. But finally I plucked up courage and sent the manuscript off, and fifty years ago, The Souls of Black Folk appeared. It was well received and for the next generation it ran in a number of editions.

Several times I planned to revise the book and bring it abreast of my own thought and to answer criticism. But I hesitated and finally decided to leave the book as first printed, as a monument to what I thought and felt in 1903. I hoped in other books to set down changes of fact and reaction.

In the present edition I have clung to this decision, and my thoughts appear again as then written. I have made less than a half-dozen alterations in word or phrase and then not to change my thought as previously set down but to avoid any possible misunderstanding today of what I meant to say yesterday.

As I re-read these messages of more than half a century ago, I sense two matters which are not so much omission on my part as indications of what I then did not know or did not realize: one is the influence of Freud and his co-workers in their study of psychology; the other is the tremendous impact on the modern world of Karl Marx.

As a student of James, Santayana, and Royce, I was not unprepared for the revolution in psychology which the twentieth century has brought; but The Souls of Black Folk does not adequately allow for unconscious thought and the cake of custom in the growth and influence of race prejudice.

My college training did not altogether omit Karl Marx. He was mentioned at Harvard and taken into account in Berlin. It was not omission but lack of proper emphasis or comprehension among my teachers of the revolution in thought and action which Marx meant. So perhaps I might end this retrospect simply by saying: I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.

2003, Volume 55, Issue 06 (November)
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