The Souls of Black Folk Summary
The Souls of Black Folk is a 1903 essay collection by American writer, activist, and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois.
- Du Bois introduces the concept of the color line and describes the illusory nature of the freedom granted to Black Americans by Emancipation.
- Though Du Bois, like Booker T. Washington, believes education is crucial, he argues against Washington’s acceptance of segregation.
- Through descriptions of life in the rural South, Black American religion, and racism’s impact on individual Black lives, Du Bois educates readers about what it is to be Black in America at the turn of the twentieth century.
Last Updated November 3, 2023.
In the introduction, or "Forethought," to his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois introduces the concept of the "Veil" that divides the two halves of American society. This "color-line" between Black and white represents, Du Bois says, the central problem for America in the twentieth century. In this Forethought, he sets out his purpose in writing this book, a collection of essays and philosophies that serve to open the eyes of white Americans to the way it feels to be Black in America. Du Bois points out that he himself is a Black American, and so the theories he sets out—of an almost intolerable duality, of the difficulty of having to always view oneself through others' eyes—represent not only the way Black Americans experience life, but also how he himself experiences it. In his book, Du Bois explains how the "race problem" came to exist in the United States, the progress that has been made to date, and the very many obstacles that stand in the way of further progress.
Du Bois emphasizes the fact that although Emancipation was for many years the goal toward which Black Americans strove, the freedom it represented was, in many ways, only illusory. He describes the situation in the United States in the years after the Civil War, focusing on the failures of the Freedmen's Bureau and the ill effects of Reconstruction on former ensalved people. Du Bois suggests that the government did not offer sufficient support to the Freedmen’s Bureau in order to shore it up against the huge opposition it faced in the South. However, the Bureau did succeed in founding many schools for Black Americans, which Du Bois, who prioritizes education as the most important factor in elevating Black Americans to a level of equality with whites, believes to be its greatest lasting legacy.
In a chapter about Booker T. Washington, Du Bois explores this idea further. While Washington was indeed focused on education as a driver of progress, Du Bois's conclusion is that, as a spokesperson for Black people, Washington was a hindrance rather than a help to overall progress because of his refusal to argue against segregation. By accepting segregation, Washington demonstrated, in Du Bois's eyes, an acceptance that Black people must remain inferior to whites, enslaved people by any other name. Where Black people immediately after the Civil War tried to exercise their will at the ballot box, the policy of segregation to which Washington conceded allowed the government to draw breath and relax, feeling that Black people were once again content to be lesser beings. This led to the loss of the vote, and to the loss of funding for Black education, and subsequently hampered the progress to which education is fundamental.
As a former Tennessee schoolteacher, Du Bois believes that there is value in education for its own sake and that Black Americans should be taught to yearn for knowledge in order to improve themselves and their minds—not simply so that they can earn more money, although he understands the desire for material betterment. Du Bois criticizes Atlanta, Georgia—at that time a growing city booming with Black newcomers—as a place in which wealth is prioritized above all other goals so that Black Americans strive for an education only in order to improve their job prospects. Du Bois here introduces the idea of the "Talented Tenth," the upper ten percent of Black Americans in terms of intellect. He suggests that a proper balance should be struck, with the majority of Black Americans being educated to the same standards as the majority...
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of white people, but with these especially talented Black people being taught at the college level, just as very clever white people would be. These brilliant Black Americans, now better educated, would then be able to relate better to white educators and serve as liaisons, as well as improve the standard of education for other Black people.
Du Bois goes on to describe Dougherty County, Georgia, as a place completely opposed to the thriving Atlanta cityscape. He describes the ways in which Black Americans still live in the South in a manner not dissimilar to the way they lived under slavery, with the economy resting heavily upon cotton farming. In Dougherty County, Black Americans are still working as tenant farmers under a system that is enslavement by any other name. What keeps these Black Americans' spirits up is their religion, which differs significantly from that of white Christians because of its African influences and its emphasis on song and communal joy. Du Bois explains how central religion must be to any true understanding of Black American existence, with spirituals and other religious songs that have helped to sustain the morals and spirits of Black people during the years of enslavement.
Du Bois concludes his exploration by zeroing in on the impact of racial prejudice not only upon society as a whole but upon particular Black people, noting that while he was devastated at the loss of his own child, he does feel relieved at some level that his son will never have to face existence in a world that would never fully accept him. All Black Americans struggle with the impossibility of being both American and Black: this is an issue that tormented Alexander Crummel, who wanted to become an Episcopal priest, and also the would-be Black student, John, who strove for years to gain an education but then found that he could no longer relate to the society in which he was born. For Black Americans, there is always racism coming not only from external pressures but from inside themselves. Those who strive to better themselves often find that they are rejected by the people they were born among while also never being considered "good enough" for white society. This is a significant obstacle that needs to be overcome, in the opinion of Du Bois, before the "color-line" can be erased.
Many sections in Du Bois's book begin with excerpts from Black spirituals, songs that were developed on plantations and that express the sorrow and strife of being Black in America. At the end of the book, Du Bois discusses these songs and how fundamental they are to any understanding of Black Americans, a group who have been subject to unique difficulties as they have sought to resolve their two warring identities.