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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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According to The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, were economic, political, or social factors the most crippling to African Americans trying to achieve equality?

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The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, was published in 1903, partly to express Du Bois’s disagreements with the views of another prominent figure of the African-American community, Booker T. Washington.  Washington emphasized the need for black people to acquire practical skills if they hoped to achieve advancement. Du Bois, in contrast, emphasized that blacks should be encouraged to receive the widest kinds of education possible.

Du Bois’s book does not mount a sustained argument; rather, it consists of separate essays on a variety of topics. The opening chapter, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” focuses on the social causes and effects of racial discrimination. According to Du Bois, many African Americans developed what he called a “double consciousness” – a tendency to see themselves as they were seen by whites. The main emphasis of this chapter, then, is both social and psychological.

In Chapter 2 (“Of the Dawn of Freedom”), the focus is more historical and political. This chapter also discusses the economic disadvantages blacks faced after the Civil War. Chapter 3 confronts Washington directly, arguing that Washington was excessively concerned with economic progress as the expense of other kinds, including political progress through participation in voting and elections.

Chapter 4 (“Of the Meaning of Progress”) is mainly sociological in emphasis, while Chapter 5 celebrates the potential of black colleges, which he saw not primarily as vocational schools but as places ideally devoted to the liberal arts, at least for those talented enough and interested enough to show such devotion. Du Bois believed that each person should be educated not uniformly but in the ways that his or her talents and interests dictated:

. . . to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern [mistake] of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite.

Chapter 6 (“Of the Training of Black Men”) once again expresses skepticism about mere vocational education, while Chapter 7 (“Of the Black Belt”) is mostly historical and sociological in emphasis. Chapter 8 (“Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece”) stresses the problems that result from an economic dependence on cotton as a crop. Chapter 9 (“Of the Sons of Master and Man”) argues for the importance of a commitment to moral progress, while Chapter 10 (Of the Faith of the Fathers”) deals with the role of religion in black society.

Chapter 11 (“Of the Passing of the First-Born”) deals with the death of Du Bois’s son; Chapter 12 (“Of Alexander Crummel”) celebrates Crummel as an intellectual and moral role model;  and Chapter 13 (“Of the Coming of John”) is a short story about two boys whose lives diverge the re-converge. Finally, Chapter 14 celebrates Negro folk songs.

In short, this book by Du Bois seems much more sociological than economic or political in focus, although economics and politics are by no means ignored. Economics seems second in importance. Politics seems to receive less discussion than the other two topics.

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