During the decade of the 60s, when I first read the book, it seemed to be an open message to white America about the Negro: an appeal, as it were, that "the Negro was on the march," and that his main instrument of entering the American mainstream (his only secure dream) was his spiritual cadence and his deep and abiding faith in religion, and equally deep faith in the meaning of the American revolution, and in the American dream and its misapplied ideals. A warning was issued in the "parable of the Coming of John": a reckoning of this fractured meaning and it's implied promises inevitably had to occur.
When I read it during the 70s, it seemed more like an interior dialogue between "Blacks," about "being constantly on the struggle against racism." It was especially a dialogue between the "uneducated and unsophisticated" on the one hand, and "the educated and sophisticated" (the "so-called "talented tenth"), on the other. But also it was a dialogue between the conservative forces of "compromise" that wanted to win by "turning the other cheek," and the more progressive and revolutionary forces who wanted to do so "by any means necessary." Yes, Martin and Malcolm were summoned up through DuBois' words in the same debate that had occurred two generations before between DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The words, but not the structure of the arguments, had changed. They were issued with the same degree of passion, and with the same unfortunate results: more promises, but powerful little "real progress," and then the murders of both Martin and Malcolm.
Then when I read it in the 80s the meaning took on an entirely different character for me. I had watched DuBois' struggle at close range, as I had that of other black intellectuals and heroes, like Paul Roberson, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Miles Davis, etc. They all followed a pattern: the black heroes were either forced out of the country, or left voluntarily as Roberson, DuBois, Cleaver and Stokely eventually did, or were jailed, deemed to be social outcasts, or killed. Except perhaps for Harry Belafonte, those remaining were co-opted and otherwise neutered: It became clearer and clearer that the "Souls of Black Folk" were not about black people after all, but, in relief, was just a mirror of the "dark troubled souls of white people."
DuBois' little book now began to make sense and to take on a much larger meaning: His references to Freud, to Marx, his most famous line "the problem of the color line," and of course his parable: "The Coming of John" all seemed to snap into perfect alignment with the actual underlying reality of American society: The Souls of Black Folks was no longer just about blacks, but in relief, in its subtext, was also about the tenacity and persistence of "white hatred, white fear, and white resistance", about the fear in the white heart: In the end, the problem of race, "the problem of the color line" was not about blacks at all, but was about white fear and resistance to the very thing they claim to cherish most: "true freedom and equality."
In the 90s this frightening new meaning of the "Souls of Black Folk" (as a metaphor for white fear and resistance) was being "filled-in" and confirmed: For instance, even though the language of race and racism had begun to change, (it now had a positive patina grafted on to it) but as was the case eight decades before, little else had changed. The resisters had circled their psychological wagons. Morally they had been beaten back and forced into a defensive crouch if not back into the closet altogether, but they were far from going away: Through a new vocabulary of coded language, and the false civility of "political correctness," and "tokenism," a misappropriation of Dr. King's life and death, a feint back to rightwing religious ideology, by exaggerating non-existent racial progress, and through a whole repertoire of other reactionary stratagems, they were scrambling to make a determined comeback, a final desperate attempt to retain the old meanings and protect the old realities.
Now at the turn of the new millennium, even as it appears that our "first Black (half white) President" might replace our most incompetent (all white) president, "The Souls of Black Folks," are again just a reflection of and a projection of, what is hidden in the white heart. Now it is hidden under the elusive and empty notion of "multiculturalism." In today's racial narrative, DuBois' black souls are: the "troubled inner city," with its statistics of horror, with its "at risk low-achieving children," its "high crime rates," "the troubled public schools," the "welfare mothers," the "gansta rappers" and the "social meltdown" more generally.
The souls of Black Folk have been fragments and shredded down to nothing. In the mean while, its reflection, its doppelganger: the America's reactionary white forces, with their hatred and fear normalized in plain sight, are again on the march, winning as usual by fiat: They have succeeded in changing the scenery of the "American Potemkin Village" on "front street" so that there, America looks very much like racial progress would look if America ever decided to have any. But everything else in the background that is, on the back streets--the context, the pretext, and the subtext of American racism--remains exactly the same as it did in 1903.