Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Souls of Black Folk is the passionate and eloquent story of an individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, and a group, African Americans. Du Bois could not forget that his world was divided by a color line. Du Bois calls the experience generated by the color line the veil and allows his readers to walk with him within the veil. He does this with songs of sorrow that introduce each chapter.
The second chapter begins with the famous lines: “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. One way to address these issues is to work for gradual change, as advocated by Booker T. Washington. Du Bois’ criticism of Washington created a public debate about how to fight discrimination.
Du Bois then tells of entering Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He experiences the Jim Crow world of the South and teaches children who must endure its cruelty. Du Bois soon moves from the elementary school to higher education, but before leaving the South, he travels through it. Jim Crow railway cars physically and socially segregate black and white passengers. Plantations dot the landscape, recalling the slavery that maintained them and continue their legacy through tenant farming.
Du Bois reveals how the “faith of our fathers” is a communal heritage. Music and lyrics create a heritage from the past that lives in the present. Du Bois’...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Souls of Black Folk Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk is multidimensional text that resists classification because it contains a history of post-Civil War race relations, sociological and economical analyses, a discussion of black education, a comparative study of European American and African American cultures, a short story about a character named John Jones, and a commentary on the transformative power of “sorrow songs,” or Negro spirituals, which for Du Bois are expressions of soul at the heart of African American culture. Du Bois is highly esteemed for his great sociological and historical texts, beginning with The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States, 1638-1870 (1896); however, he also wrote poetry, five novels, an autobiography, and several volumes of essays. Of all of the works in Du Bois’s oeuvre, The Souls of Black Folk has reached the widest audience.
Critical analyses of The Souls of Black Folk usually emphasize the most famous chapter, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” to discuss Du Bois’s critique of Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory policies. Often the work is discussed as a sociological analysis of the problem of the color line or the line between “American” and “Negro” cultures. However, this discussion will emphasize how Du Bois presents the very personal story of his experiences on both sides of the “Veil” between himself and European Americans...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1316 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis
W. E. B. DuBois: The narrator, a scholar of black identity in post-Civil War America.
Booker T. Washington: A leader who advised blacks to cede social equality in exchange for access to economic power.
President Abraham Lincoln: United States president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
Frederick Douglass: An advisor to Lincoln and a leader of the abolitionist movement to end slavery.
Atalanta: The mythological maiden whose downfall DuBois links to material temptation.
W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk launches in the late 1800s with an...
(The entire section is 3124 words.)
Chapters 7-10: Summary and Analysis
DuBois turns his attention to the turn of the twentieth century. He tries to measure blacks’ progress since emancipation and questions the infrastructure available for their progress. DuBois acknowledges that the nation has three competing attitudes about the progress of blacks. First, there is the ideal view of an equal world where democracy is universal and people of all races and persuasions cooperate for a higher, human good. Then there is the view that men were not created equal, and the black man is subordinate to the white man. Finally, and stemming from this second notion, is a viewpoint that many blacks have internalized, which suggests that society’s historic inequality was deserved, and...
(The entire section is 2624 words.)
Chapters 11-15: Summary and Analysis
Son: DuBois’ infant son who dies not long after birth.
Alexander Crummell: A black priest denied worthy work for racial reasons.
John Jones: A black student ill-prepared for school but who is ultimately successful.
John (white John): A privileged and spoiled white peer of John Jones.
DuBois turns from an exploration of the freed slave’s external conditions and to the free black man’s spiritual struggles in the final chapters of The Souls of Black Folk. He begins with a personal story of spiritual struggle, recounting the time when his wife gave birth to a baby boy. DuBois dreamt that he could contain...
(The entire section is 1287 words.)