Form and Content (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 924 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Written at the opening of the twentieth century, after the relative failure of federal Reconstruction efforts and during accelerating national tensions regarding race relations, The Souls of Black Folk is a complex work of philosophy, history, sociology, political theology, and literary creativity. Structurally linked by a few recurrent metaphors (soul, veil, double-consciousness), the book consists of fourteen distinct essays that together present W. E. B. Du Bois’s analysis of conditions in the United States. Du Bois pays special attention to the challenges facing black and white citizens in their interrelations but also poses a sharp critique of the spiritual and economic directions of the United States as a whole. Race figures as a central concern in the work, with particular attention to the perspectives and knowledge emerging from African American experience. The Souls of Black Folk is rhetorically directed on one level to white readers but is also positioned in the dialogue toward “self-definition” among black intellectuals at the opening of the twentieth century. It is also a central twentieth century text of American political philosophy and social criticism. The Souls of Black Folk has been included by philosophers in the tradition of American pragmatism, especially given Du Bois’s focus on ideas and meaning within historical or social contexts, as well as his advocacy of political action based on reason and social analysis.
Each essay in The Souls of Black Folk is introduced by a quotation from European literary tradition, with the author named, followed by an unlabeled musical notation, which readers later learn is a few bars from a song of the African American spiritual tradition. Most critics have assumed that this visual epigraphic pattern was meant by Du Bois to emphasize the close relationships between white and black culture. However, other commentators have suggested that the visual pairing suggests just the opposite: the separation between the two cultural traditions and the relative unknown status of African American cultural expression. This contrast in interpretations points to a strong internal philosophical tension in The Souls of Black Folk between Du Bois’s “rational optimism” about the possibility of human progress and his more pessimistic analysis of American culture and race relations.
Color Line, Veil, and Double-Consciousness (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In “The Forethought,” Du Bois offers his now famous diagnosis: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” In the opening essay, entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” he challenges white perceptions that black experience itself is the “problem,” and he asserts that the path to transcending that perception (for whites and blacks) is through a fuller exploration of the spiritual depth of black experience and “the souls of black folk.” This spiritual metaphor functions as an explicit political theology: Du Bois asserts cross-racial spiritual identity and shared humanity during a period in which racial categories emphasized separation, and many white Americans were committed to an explicit ideology of white supremacy.
Du Bois introduces the two other central metaphors of the book in this opening chapter: he reveals “the veil” and describes African American “double-consciousness.” The veil, a visual and symbolic wall of separation, returns again and again in The Souls of Black Folk to emphasize racial boundaries (social and psychological) and black “invisibility” in U.S. history. Double-consciousness is a psychological, political, and philosophical category of black experience for Du Bois, and the following quotation illustrates the ontological and epistemological implications of this key concept:The Negro is a sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
A Rejection of Accommodationism (World Philosophers and Their Works)
In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” Du Bois directly confronts what he considers “accommodationist” (to whites) politics in the black community and argues vehemently against the gradualist strategies advanced by African American Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In this essay, Du Bois is revealed as a social critic fully engaged with democratic political philosophy, working within the crosscurrents of political dialogue among African Americans as well as in relation to broader American debates over civil rights, race relations, suffrage, and public education. The essay examines the tension among the emerging black leadership of the post-Reconstruction period and deals with questions as to how African Americans should deal with the tensions between immediate and gradual change and how to achieve the goals of economic progress and civil rights. Du Bois examined how to effectively conduct black-defined political initiatives given the counterforces of white-defined social and political agendas. Du Bois was clearly at odds with Washington on all these issues, but the essay calls for open debate among African American intellectuals and advocates that action be based on careful analysis of specific social and historical conditions. In this essay, Du Bois’s philosophical confidence in the power of reason is apparent, as is an underlying optimism about the progressive potential of Enlightenment and U.S. political tradition. He closes the essay by invoking the Declaration of Independence, positioning The Souls of Black Folk within familiar frameworks of Western philosophy, as does Du Bois’s frequent use of classical quotations and reference to Roman and Greek antiquity. Chapter 4, “Of the Wings of Atlanta,” is especially revealing of this complex fusion of Western classical tradition and African American history, with Du Bois arguing against the “deification of Bread” by invoking the power of the university as a source of reasoned “truth.”
A More Somber Tone (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Toward the end of the book, the essays in The Souls of Black Folk shift in form and focus. In two of the later essays, Du Bois tempers his earlier philosophical optimism: In “Of the Passing of the First Born,” an account of the tragic death of his young son, Du Bois, the grieving father, asks if it is not, on some profoundly troubling level, better that his son died early rather than bear the racial injustice of the country into which he had been born. In “Of the Coming of John,” Du Bois clearly questions the reformative power of education and seems to imply, through complex themes dealing with religion, sexuality, and political power, that psychological and historical patterns of American racism will lead the country to spiritual death and physical destruction.
The tragic and pessimistic tone of these two chapters is eased, but only partially, by the final chapter, “The Sorrow Songs.” Here, Du Bois somberly celebrates the strength of slave song and African American spirituals. He calls this tradition “the sole American music” and “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” Although much of the music he draws upon here originates in the tradition of the black church, Du Bois’s focus is more broadly metaphoric, pointing again toward spirituality as a philosophical category of shared humanity rather than a specifically Christian concept. The political theology and philosophy of The Souls of Black Folk is especially striking in the humanistic emphasis of Du Bois’s “prophetic” call in “The Afterthought.” His closing political challenge is addressed to the nation as he reasserts the power of reason as the starting point for social action: “Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed.” The God to whom these lines is directed is, tellingly, “the Reader”: Du Bois to the end keeps his eyes on history and the thought and actions of human beings.
Initial Moves Toward Civil Rights (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk soon before initiating the Niagara Movement (1905), a gathering in which African American intellectuals challenged accommodationist politics in the African American community and argued for their receiving immediate and full civil rights. Du Bois believed, and stated in The Souls of Black Folk, that the Talented Tenth, the best-educated African Americans, should lead the black community in pursuit of a better life. In 1909, Du Bois helped start the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a multiracial civil rights organization. In these projects, Du Bois tested the ideas of The Souls of Black Folk within the realities of U.S. racial and...
(The entire section is 333 words.)
Chapters 1-6: Questions and Answers
1. W. E. B. DuBois writes of the “double identity” and “double aims” of the Negro during the years following the Civil War. What does he mean by this?
2. The Freedmen’s Bureau, created in 1866 to govern and assist freed slaves, had a mixed record of success. In what arenas was the Bureau successful and unsuccessful?
3. Booker T. Washington was a skilled diplomat who bridged Negro and white agendas at a sensitive moment in history, yet DuBois argues that his “Atlanta Compromise” slowed rather than helped blacks’ progress. Define this compromise and why it hurt blacks, according to DuBois.
4. DuBois writes of the “little world” in...
(The entire section is 649 words.)
Chapters 7-10: Questions and Answers
1. DuBois asserts that historical events and blacks’ progress in developing elementary and college-level curriculum for blacks didn’t always dovetail conveniently. Where did black educational institutions stand at the time of the Industrial Revolution? How did they have to adjust to respond to the demands of the period?
2. DuBois describes the geography and climate of the “Black Belt” region of Georgia as stark and oppressive. How did plantation owners, overseers, emancipated slaves, and others fare on the land based on DuBois’ tour?
3. Black farmers DuBois visits in Dougherty County were perpetually in debt at the turn of the century. What are at least three...
(The entire section is 589 words.)
Chapters 11-15: Questions and Answers
1. In a book chronicling the “souls of black folk” that traces black history, why has DuBois included a short chapter about the birth and death of his son?
2. Who is Alexander Crummell, and why is DuBois impressed with him? What does Crummell’s story suggest about spirituality’s significance to DuBois?
3. How does John Jones come to symbolize the challenges and ultimate relevance of educating black students in the wake of the Civil War?
4. John Jones was asked if education made him unhappy, and he acknowledged that it had. How does this admission echo earlier comments DuBois made about the eye-opening quality of education for blacks?
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 284 words.)