Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

Start Free Trial

What is W. E. B. Du Bois' motivation for writing The Souls of Black Folk?

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk to describe the experience of being black in America and to encourage black Americans to aspire to higher goals than those espoused by Booker T.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Du Bois had several goals in writing The Souls of Black Folk. At the dawn of a new century, he wanted to explain to white audiences what the experience of being a black person in America felt like. He specifically wanted to explain the feeling of having a double consciousness: black people, he asserted, saw themselves both as they were and as white people saw them. Because of the dual vision they had to constantly shift between the two consciousnesses. He articulated, too, his concerns about the "color line" that separated the worldview of black people and white people.

Du Bois also wrote the book to push back against what he saw as the mistaken vision of prominent black leaders like Booker T. Washington. While he respected what people like Washington did to help the black community, he ultimately felt that their compromise with whites was destructive to the black community and would achieve nothing politically for black people. Washington, a former slave, believed black people should accept second class citizenship and limit their aspirations. He advocated for black people to receive vocational training in certain fields such as train porter work or cooking, while discouraging them from pursuing college educations. Washington also counseled blacks not to agitate to vote in the South but, instead, to work toward the kind of economic gains that would cause whites to accept them as equals in years to come.

Du Bois, the first black person in the United States to receive a PhD, wanted to show by writing his lyrical, impassioned, and erudite book that blacks could achieve far more than the limited aspirations Washington had in mind for them. He makes an eloquent case that accepting anything less than equal rights will ultimately erode and degrade the black soul. Instead, he wanted to inspire black people to reach for equality and aspire to the highest goals.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Souls of Black Folk has a wide-ranging and ambitious agenda, and W.E.B. Du Bois's success in fulfilling this agenda is one reason why the book remains so powerful in twenty-first century America.

In the introduction, Du Bois wrote that he "sought to sketch... the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive." In other words, he wrote the book to explain to white Americans what life was like "behind the veil," behind the racial divide that separated black people from white people. To do this, he delved into religion, music, and other aspects of African American culture. He explored the concept of black masculinity. He explored the differing approaches to improving lives of African Americans at the turn of the century in a famous critique of Booker T. Washington. He traced the history of their lives since emancipation, in the process articulating an argument that would later be fully explored in his landmark study Black Reconstruction.

Ultimately, he hoped that by enlightening readers about the worldview, culture, and challenges faced by African American men and women, he might help address what he called the most important problem facing American society at the turn of the century, the "problem of the color-line." By telling his own personal story as well as embarking on a sociological, historical, and anthropological examination of black America, he sought to create social, political, and economic change.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk to bring attention to race, culture, and the experience of being black in America nearly have a century after the Civil War. This work is addresses various aspects of African-American culture and it discusses the historical and current problematic relationships between black and white cultures. 

One of Du Bois' most studied concept is the "double-consciousness" which he proposes in The Souls of Black Folk as a dilemma of African-American identity. An African-American is faced with conforming to, or rebelling from, white notions of what an African-American identity should be; and he/she is faced with constructing a notion of African-American identity from a black perspective. Du Bois recognizes this dilemma and seeks to find a way for the black individual to assume an identity that is genuinely black and American, thus establishing a unity with other African-Americans and all Americans as a whole. 

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 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. 

These "warring ideals" are, in effect, two conflicting identities. This conflict is the individual embodiment, mentally, of the racial divide. Thus, Du Bois' suggests that racial strife is played out in society and in the African-American's individual consciousness. 

In discussing other aspects of African-American culture, Du Bois also analyzes American history and supposes what progress can and should be made in order to move towards a national reality of racial equality. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team