Introduction to The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folks is an autobiography and work of social criticism by prominent Black activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Published in 1903, the book is composed of a number of essays that Du Bois wrote about both his own life experiences and the experiences of Black Americans in general. Some of the essays are direct responses to or rebuttals of Du Bois’s fellow activist, Booker T. Washington. Washington tended to focus on appeasement and intellectual conformity as the paths to racial progress. By contrast, Du Bois insists that vocational training and educational opportunities are the means by which Black Americans can claim individual and communal power in the United States.

In addition to its discussion of contemporary issues, Du Bois’s work also introduced several concepts that continue to be relevant to ethnic studies. One such concept is the color line, defined as the social, cultural, and political line that separates Black and white Americans. The line has both tangible and intangible impacts on Black people, influencing everything from self-esteem to job opportunities. Another concept is that of double consciousness, which describes the fact that Black people must be aware of both their own sense of self, as well as how others will perceive them. This concept has since been applied more broadly to all marginalized and oppressed groups, and it is an important term in discussions of social justice.

A Brief Biography of W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) is primarily remembered today for two of his achievements: he was the first Black American to earn a PhD from Harvard (in 1895); and then, in 1903, he published The Souls of Black Folk. Part sociological study, part philosophical reflection on race, part moving and poetic autobiography, Souls introduced the idea of “double-consciousness,” which refers to the divided experience and vision of Black Americans. This concept, and others stemming from it, actively influence both popular and academic discussions of race in America today. Still taught regularly, The Souls of Black Folk is one of the most honest and profound discussions of race ever published.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. Du Bois uses a vivid image to depict the storm and stress of day-to-day life in the modern era. He describes this as the time of "Sturm and Drang," or storm and stress in German. In the...

Latest answer posted January 18, 2021, 11:06 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

The main idea animating The Souls of Black Folk is that Black people must fight back against racism and injustice if they are going to save themselves. It is a resounding and heartfelt attack on...

Latest answer posted January 18, 2021, 12:25 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

The problem of the color line is the unresolved problem of racism that tears apart US society. This problem involves the fact that Black people are judged and treated as inferior as a result of...

Latest answer posted January 18, 2021, 12:44 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

At the beginning of this text, Du Bois describes how, as a small child, he was at first completely unaware that he was any different from the other children he went to school with. It was decided...

Latest answer posted January 18, 2021, 12:54 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois uses the word problem frequently in this text to mean racism, which he calls the problem of the color line. Writing in 1900, though his words are as relevant 120 years later as they were...

Latest answer posted January 18, 2021, 1:12 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

The publication date of The Souls of Black Folk is significant. First, 1903 is exactly forty years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and yet, as Du Bois puts it, the freedman has not yet...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 11:53 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

At the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois discusses his early childhood and the first occasion on which he realized that the life of a Black person was different from the life...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 11:58 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

At the beginning of the book, Du Bois describes prejudice as an "unasked question" which exists at all times between him and the people he meets. Sometimes the question is not asked because people...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 12:04 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. Du Bois is writing specifically about the first decade after the Emancipation Proclamation when he describes the search for freedom as a "vain" pursuit for Black people. In saying this,...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 12:10 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

As Du Bois explains, for Black Americans, there is always a strong and pervasive sense of "twoness" which derives from the fact that the Black people in America are not native to the country and...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 12:18 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

An important metaphor in the text is that of the "color line." This metaphor, which did not originate with Du Bois, likens racism to a line that divides Black people and white people in the United...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 12:24 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. What makes Du Bois's book so effective is his mastery of rhetoric. Du Bois's point of view on freedom is that it is vitally and centrally important to Black life...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 1:25 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

According to Du Bois, the history of the Black man in America has always been one of "strife," largely driven by the impossible dream of merging the two halves of his being—the Black half and the...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 1:49 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

At an elementary level, “Of the Coming of John” is a short story in W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic work of literature The Souls of Black Folk. It is the only work of fiction in the collection; the rest...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 3:22 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

In Du Bois's view, the true importance of universities should be that the university seeks to help the student "know the end and aim" of life. The point of a university should not be simply to...

Latest answer posted January 20, 2021, 11:07 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois did not coin the phrase "the Talented Tenth," but he uses it here in the same sense in which he used it in his 1903 essay of the same name. The Talented Tenth is a phrase which refers to...

Latest answer posted January 20, 2021, 11:22 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois makes several references to the "headless host" throughout this book. He does not elaborate on what exactly he means, but his suggestion that Booker T. Washington was a "Joshua" called to...

Latest answer posted January 20, 2021, 11:57 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

One of the central ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois's text is the "doubleness" of being African American. Du Bois describes this doubleness as a great challenge: a Black American is both Black and an...

Latest answer posted January 20, 2021, 1:40 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

When W. E. B. Du Bois writes in this paragraph about the underlying principles of "the great republic," he is discussing the fact that the so-called "Negro Problem" poses a test and a challenge to...

Latest answer posted January 20, 2021, 12:37 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

The Souls of Black Folk

In this first chapter, Du Bois lays out the broad outlines of what he says he will discuss in detail in later chapters. His goal is to lay out the "striving in the souls of black folk" so that...

Latest answer posted January 19, 2021, 12:48 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer
Next

Summary