The Souls of Black Folk Themes

Themes

Religion

Du Bois asks numerous questions that lead him to ponder the development of black religion and the black church as it grew out of pagan African rituals and voodoo. He does not add to the existing arguments and scholarship of his time but does assert that Negro spirituals were created in America but can be traced back to African forests. This points to an African home for these songs and a diaspora but does not necessarily Africanize black American culture. Similarly, he likens the black preacher to the African priest or medicine man, tracing black religion back to pagan belief systems in Africa.

Like the black preachers he admires in his chapters “Of the Faith of Our Fathers” and “Of Alexander Crummell,” Du Bois has a complex status as a leader. His identification with the preacher as well as the priest or medicine man allows him to see himself as a physician and conjurer of African culture and as an artist or bardic priest capable of preaching a social gospel and expressing the sentiments of an oppressed and disenfranchised people. Du Bois felt the role of the black preacher was to facilitate a spiritual rebirth and reconciliation that would unite African Americans while helping them achieve self-assertion. He described the black preacher as “a leader, a politician, and orator, a ’boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist.”

Du Bois describes the segregated South as “the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, and Right—is marked ’For White People Only.’” While biblical allusions and imagery are scattered throughout The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois most effectively deploys the traditional black identification with the children of Israel and their search for a promised land in his description of an effort to articulate the desire for freedom and spiritual reconciliation, which would allow blacks to transcend the Veil through sacrifice and intellectual pursuits rather than through passive submission to white supremacy or physical death. Ultimately, he feels that achieving transcendence requires work and effort that will produce, protect, and value black culture and art.

Grounding his notion of black folk culture in the sorrow songs forces Du Bois to consider black spirituality and belief systems as he appropriates religious texts, figures, and music. One might argue, as Theophus Smith does in Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (1994), that Du Bois stepped within the Veil of black America and used biblical allusions and imagery to conjure African culture in The Souls of Black Folk. A bar of music from a spiritual introduces each chapter in The Souls of Black Folk and celebrates the voices of the slaves, the folk who founded black American culture. Most critics agree that Du Bois meant for black culture to gain recognition through the appreciation of the “sorrow songs,” but he also used the spirituals as epigraphs to place black music and art at the heart of black history. For Du Bois, the sorrow songs are transformative because they are capable of emotionally transcending the very sorrow that inspired them. Their mood and purpose may be religious exaltation, but they are also a medium for expressing a desire for transcendence and enfranchisement. The songs sing of freedom in this world as well as the next as they consciously hold onto sorrow and transcend it by transforming the negative.

The Color Line, the Veil, and Double-Consciousness

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 no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness. . . . One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

The philosophical stakes here are clear, in terms of a quality of “being” (ontology) and “knowing” (epistemology) unique to, and grounded in, African American experience. This contextual philosophy provides an undercurrent to the detailed account of African American history that follows. By exploring the sociological and political complexities of black history, Du Bois builds his argument that the “souls of black folk” are ultimately the souls of the nation, and the progress of the United States as a whole is inherently linked to the progress of African Americans. Du Bois, in essays such as “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” “Of the Meaning of Progress,” “Of the Black Belt,” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece,” details federal efforts, largely failed, at national Reconstruction after the Civil War. He analyzes the Freedmen’s Bureau, educational reform in Southern black communities, and the dangers and seductiveness of purely “material” gains made at the expense of intellectual and spiritual progress. He argues simultaneously for the importance of university liberal arts education for qualified African American students and for the dignity inherent in manual labor. Even when his focus is to provide historical detail, his writings contain an ever-present challenge to all readers to confront racism, violence, and inhumanity wherever they are revealed in American life.

Accommodationism

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.”

Civil Rights

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 economic politics. The book established him as a philosopher and social critic, just as his earlier books had established him as a scholar. The Souls of Black Folk provoked animated debate among African Americans and challenged white readers to abandon the mental and political habits of white supremacy.

Subsequent influence of The Souls of Black Folk has been profound, both as a cornerstone text of black studies and African American literature, and as an exemplary work of early twentieth century American pragmatism. Du Bois can be read along with William James and John Dewey, important figures of American pragmatism. A wide range of writers continue to apply Du Bois’s “problem of the color-line” as an analytical framework, albeit a historically shifting one, as they grapple with American race relations. Psychological and philosophical categories from The Souls of Black Folk, such as the “veil” and “double-consciousness,” have proved of continued interest to literary artists, social critics, and philosophers. The book set a precedent for philosophical focus on the “subjectivity” of the African American experience and for contextual analysis of African American history.

Du Bois’s philosophical shift from “blackness as problem” to “blackness as source of knowledge” is a shift in epistemology that was politically provocative in the United States of 1903 and has continued to challenge American and pan-African thinkers ever since.