The Souls of Black Folk is a passionate and eloquent autobiography. It tells the life story of an individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, and of a group, African Americans. In the process of telling his personal autobiography, Du Bois shows how he is shaped by his community’s story. Du Bois inhabits a world in which a color line divides all life into two parts. One part is privileged and white, and it exploits the other part that is constrained and black.
As an author reflecting on his life, Du Bois could not separate himself from “what was then called the Negro problem.” Even his consciousness is divided into two parts, becoming a double consciousness. He calls the experience generated by the color line “the Veil.” As a man living behind the Veil, part of his being is hidden. One part of his consciousness belongs to the human race, and the other consciousness is shrouded behind the Veil. Du Bois allows his readers to look behind the Veil, to share his pain and humiliation and to celebrate a world populated by heroes and by joy. The souls of black folk are the flame of hope and life in a world where hatred diminishes and kills the body and the spirit.
The triumph of African American culture is revealed through the songs of sorrow that introduce each chapter. In the hymns, both suffering from enslavement and surviving through hope are conveyed simultaneously. Although the book is often based on facts, the spirituals connect the information to the heart and the soul. The result is a moving story of a race and a man. Spiritual striving shapes the lives of African Americans who search for freedom and fulfillment.
The second chapter begins with one of the most famous lines in this book: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” These prophetic words tell the story of American slaves and their descendants who continue to search for freedom in America and throughout the world. The international dimensions of the color line are rooted in the economy and in the politics of a worldwide struggle.
One way to address these issues is to work for gradual change. This position was held by Booker T. Washington, the most powerful African American leader in the United States when Du Bois wrote this book. Although Du Bois respected Washington’s rise from slavery, Du Bois was opposed to any position that accepted the limitations of African Americans’ rights. Washington represented adjustment and submission to an intolerable injustice. The training of the most talented members of the community was central to changing the community, but Washington stressed manual and vocational training at the expense of the gifted. Du Bois’s unflinching criticism of Washington created a public debate about how to fight against discrimination and the reason for engaging in the struggle.
Du Bois tells his personal story of entering Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1884. He experiences the Jim Crow world of the South and teaches children who are limited by its cruelty. Their life behind the Veil makes a mockery of the idea of progress and constrains his life as a schoolteacher. Du Bois moves out of the elementary school and on to higher education.
Before leaving the South, he takes the reader on a journey through the black belt. Georgia is the heart of this region where African Americans live behind a color line. Jim Crow railway cars physically and socially segregate black and white passengers. The railroads enforce this segregation throughout the South. Plantations dot the landscape, echoing the slavery that maintained them and continued their legacy years after emancipation was proclaimed but not realized. Churches, however, sustain the souls of black folk, who are isolated behind the Veil.
Du Bois discusses the continuation of the plantation system through tenant farming. The struggle for freedom from economic and from political slavery is like the quest for the golden fleece, a journey of epic proportions. Even off the land, segregation is enforced in housing, the economy, politics, and social customs. The vote creates the possibility to fight back, but political corruption subverts this power. Crime and poor public education further weaken the community and sap the strength needed to resist. Sympathy and cooperation, not charity, are necessary to improve the situation.
Faith in God, the community, family, and one another sustains African Americans. Du Bois reveals how the “faith of our fathers” is a communal heritage. The souls of black folk contain a deep religious feeling, a powerful heart nourished by dynamic vigor. The sorrow songs that introduce each chapter are part of the community and its continuing faith. Music, song, and lyrics combine to make a heritage from the past that lives in the present.
The death of Du Bois’s first (and only) son, Burghardt, occurs because medical caretakers refuse to aid the dying African American infant. Despair and rage at the Veil cause Du Bois to be darkly and perversely glad that his son escaped its ravages. His baby is beyond the Veil in the valley of death. His keening cry against the evil that murdered his baby is a heart-wrenching paean to lost hope and love.
People are able, nevertheless, to triumph behind the Veil, and the African American leader is the key to ending the despair and the suffering behind the color line. Alexander Crummell, a friend and mentor of Du Bois, is such a hero. He survives the temptations to hate, to despair, and to doubt the goodness of life. After Crummell is denied entry into the ministry because of the color line, he continues to serve others as a witness to the spirit. He fights against the wickedness of the color line and triumphs through his love and generosity until his death after a life of righteousness.
Ordinary people also have the ability to be extraordinary. Their path may be hard to find and filled with stumbling blocks caused by the Veil, but the triumph of the soul is a cause for joy and for celebration even in the midst of darkness. This book is a literary masterpiece because it articulates the cost of hatred and celebrates the power to resist it. Although it was never out of print since its publication in 1903, it assumed an especially important role in the 1960’s. It then became a rallying voice and inspiration for the American civil rights struggle. Du Bois’s life story is the story of a people: It reaches the soul of all its readers while revealing the souls of black folks. Du Bois forges a new autobiographical form in this book, revealing the contours of his life as rooted in black culture. His essay on Booker T. Washington turns his personal struggle with the man and what he stood for into a national political statement about the nature of civil rights. Du Bois calls for an active demand for social justice that will compromise with nothing less than full equality. Similarly, his grief at his baby son’s death becomes a eulogy for all the African American children slaughtered by white people’s hatred.
This technique of telling his life story while he tells the story of a people was used by Du Bois during the rest of his long and productive life. Thus, other Du Bois autobiographies tell of friends, struggles, and humiliations over the next sixty years; they do not reach the heights of this first one. The Souls of Black Folk is unique in its passion and eloquence. His phrases soar with anguish and anger, reflecting his pain and that of others. His language captures the imagination so dramatically that Du Bois’s book reaches out to all people who resist hatred. It offers hope for the triumph of the spirit and the possibility of social justice. Du Bois rose above the Veil.