The Souls of Black Folk Essay on Form and Content

W. E. B. Du Bois

Form and Content

The Souls of Black Folk is a collection of essays that focus upon the post-Reconstruction reality of African Americans in the South, where local white rule and Ku Klux Klan terrorism had erased a decade-long effort to bring democracy to all Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, a northern-born graduate of Harvard University, sought to make a scientific analysis of the problems besetting African Americans as a necessary first step in the resolution of the American racial dilemma. Du Bois envisioned a series of scientific studies of African Americans that would provide reliable data for policy makers to end discrimination and injustice; he believed that the lack of scientific information on the African American was the root of the race problem in the United States. In addition to performing these scientific studies, Du Bois sought to reach intelligent white readers by writing articles in prestigious magazines of the day such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Dial. Du Bois collected nine such published pieces, revised them, and added five new essays to make up the contents of The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois had already published The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896) and The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), a pioneering work in the field of urban sociology. As the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, he was a leading intellectual in the United States.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at the beginning of Reconstruction, Du Bois was the son of a Civil War veteran who had fought with the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, a black unit (led by white officers) that had garnered praise for its valor. This was one of the factors that gave Du Bois a sense of racial pride. He represented the “new” African Americans born in the freedom of Reconstruction and imbued with a sense of destiny; Du Bois hoped to set a new course for African Americans. Although reared in the free atmosphere of abolitionist Massachusetts, he had not many African American contacts. This situation was remedied when he attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the institutions founded during Reconstruction to educate the children of freed slaves. After finishing his studies at Fisk and going on to receive another bachelor’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard, Du Bois went to Ohio to teach at Wilberforce University, the African Methodist Episcopal Church flagship institution for young African Americans. From Wilberforce University, he moved to the Deep South to teach at Atlanta University in Georgia.

In Atlanta, Du Bois came into contact with the experiment in vocational education of African Americans being conducted in the neighboring state of Alabama, where Booker T. Washington reigned at the Tuskegee Institute. In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” the most famous essay in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois spells out his differences with Washington, then the most powerful African American political and educational leader in the United States. Supported by northern business magnates and stressing the need of the newly freed African Americans to prove their loyalty to the South by repudiating the political and social gains of Reconstruction, Washington represented a powerful threat to the emergence of the “new” African Americans whom Du Bois championed. Washington asserted that he represented the mass of untutored peasants who needed to learn about hygiene, citizenship, and agricultural technology rather than about foreign languages, political economy, and sociology. Washington emphasized the practical aspects of living in the South, maintaining that the survival of African Americans depended on their ability to demonstrate their fealty to values held dear by white Southerners. African Americans must demonstrate, Washington declared at a meeting of southern white businessmen, that they could function alongside whites like the fingers of a hand, “separate but equal.”

Du Bois thought Washington’s power was being used for shortsighted and parlous ends. In his essay on Washington, Du Bois decries the surrender of hard-earned rights for which generations of African Americans had fought. In effect, Du Bois challenges Washington’s right to engineer a compromise involving the loss of the right to vote, the end of civic equality, and the surrender of intellectual development in favor of vocational training. Du Bois urges the thinking elite—the “Talented Tenth” of African American society—to oppose Washington at every turn on these questions.

Another of the most compelling essays in The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Meaning of Progress,” renders the experience of Du Bois as a schoolteacher in the rural South teaching poor and illiterate African Americans. Living in primitive conditions, Du Bois was able to learn experientially about the actual lives of the mass of African Americans residing in the South and to know how fragile were the conditions of freedom. The world of postslavery poverty is graphically depicted in the essay. Du Bois describes returning to the area ten years after he had left to find his star pupil dead and the hopes of the little community crushed by poverty.

The Souls of Black Folk contains a number of types of essays. Perhaps Du Bois’s essay on the death of his young son reaches an emotional apogee, but there is a dispassionate analysis of African American spirituals and folk tunes in his essay entitled “Of the Sorrow Songs.” An essay on Alexander Crummell, the respected African American educator and missionary leader, prefigures Du Bois’s later commitment to pan-Africanism. His sense of the importance of education for young African Americans was almost a crusade call.

Sources for Review

De Marco, Joseph P. The Social Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. A useful overview of Du Bois’s philosophy.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. New York: International Publishing, 1968. Du Bois’s classic life story, covering the many events of his long career. Essential reading for Du Bois scholars.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings. Edited by Nathan Huggins. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986. A useful compilation of Du Bois materials from 1890 to 1958. Contains The Souls of Black Folk.

Essien-Udom, E. U. Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America. New York: Dell Books, 1964. Focuses on Du Bois as a major advocate of pan-Africanism. Notes that he differed from other black activists of his time by calling for full political participation and racial unity as a response to racism.

Green, Dan S., and Edwin D. Driver, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: On Sociology and the Black Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Discusses Du Bois’s sociological contributions. Contains a brief biographical sketch and excerpts from his writings.

Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. A Gift of the Spirit: Reading “The Souls of Black Folk.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007. Psychological examination of The Souls of Black Folk, focusing on Du Bois’s personal and political struggles to achieve authentic recognition for himself and his fellow African Americans.

Young, Alford A., Jr., et al. The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Collection of essays by five Du Bois scholars evaluating both his work and his legacy.