Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) addresses a white readership about what it means and how it feels to be a person of color in twentieth-century America. Indeed, the “ever unasked question” Du Bois references in the opening of his text is “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois makes it very clear that issues of race and racism in America will continue to exist as long as white people continue to believe that these issues do not affect them. Du Bois describes the feeling of being black as akin to being “shut out from their [white people’s] world by a vast veil.”
One of the most canonical ideas that emerges in Du Bois’s work is the idea of double consciousness:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—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. This 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.
Here, Du Bois articulates the sort of “identity crisis” that black Americans in the twentieth century feel: straddling their blackness and their Americanness, they are divided into this “double” person who longs to be a single authentic self that honors both parts of him. The paradoxes of the African American individual result in a marked difference between perception of self and society’s perception of that self.
Du Bois also uses The Souls of Black Folk to respond to the ideas of Booker T. Washington, another prominent voice in the African American community. Washington believes that vocational, educational, and financial progress are most important for people of color at this time and that political power, civil rights, and aspirations to higher education must take a “back seat” to the survival and betterment of the black race. Washington thinks the black race is trying to ascend its status in America too quickly and that a slow evolution from oppression to success is the best way for African Americans to eventually achieve the civil rights a white American enjoys. Du Bois very much disagrees with Washington’s thinking. While Washington advocates for “evolution,” Du Bois is more interested in “revolution” and argues that there are three main things that African Americans must have immediately: the right to vote, civic equality, and “the education of youth according to ability.” Du Bois says that a “firm adherence to higher ideals keeps these ideals within the realm of possibility.” In other words, he thinks Washington’s goals are too short-sighted and materialistic and that people of color must seize the...
rights they are due, as stated by the US Constitution, in order to continue to better the treatment and position of African Americans in America.
Du Bois also worries about capitalism and materialism supplanting our “standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life.” He hopes that by educating people of color, exceptional thinkers will continue to emerge and solve problems on behalf of and advocate for African Americans. Du Bois explores the intersection between capitalism and racism and believes it is this “color line” that continues to put money in the pockets of white people while keeping people of color poor. He cites racism as the thing that can most crush and destroy a person, and he hopes that African American culture (its music, its religion, its art, etc.) can continue to express the black person’s experience so that it is not lost in American history.