W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk is multidimensional text that resists classification because it contains a history of post-Civil War race relations, sociological and economical analyses, a discussion of black education, a comparative study of European American and African American cultures, a short story about a character named John Jones, and a commentary on the transformative power of “sorrow songs,” or Negro spirituals, which for Du Bois are expressions of soul at the heart of African American culture. Du Bois is highly esteemed for his great sociological and historical texts, beginning with The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States, 1638-1870 (1896); however, he also wrote poetry, five novels, an autobiography, and several volumes of essays. Of all of the works in Du Bois’s oeuvre, The Souls of Black Folk has reached the widest audience.
Critical analyses of The Souls of Black Folk usually emphasize the most famous chapter, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” to discuss Du Bois’s critique of Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory policies. Often the work is discussed as a sociological analysis of the problem of the color line or the line between “American” and “Negro” cultures. However, this discussion will emphasize how Du Bois presents the very personal story of his experiences on both sides of the “Veil” between himself and European Americans while deploying diverse literary techniques—rhetorical tropes, confession, autobiography, allegory, allusion, imagery, and musical motifs—to convey a spiritual and racial understanding of folk culture. As Du Bois states in “The Forethought,” his text addresses black spirituality and meditates on “the two worlds within and without the Veil” and on the “deeper recesses” of black souls. Du Bois discusses black spirituality and religion and the expression of the African American soul, especially through folk or spiritual music. It is important to note, however, that Du Bois, a humanist, comments on black churches and religious leadership only briefly in The Souls of Black Folk and that the Marxist turn in his later works reveals a growing indifference to black religion and religious discourses.
In the first chapter, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois begins with an autobiographical account of his experience of the Veil as a young student in New England. He describes the Veil that exists between himself and his fellow students, who were white, saying he “held all beyond [the Veil] in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” This concept of transcendence develops as Du Bois’s intellect grows and he reflects on his own inner, psychic life and his race. Du Bois developed the concept of double-consciousness to explain the “twoness” of African American striving. He asserts that African Americans are born with a Veil that does not afford them their true self-consciousness. They can see themselves only “through the revelation of the other [white] world,” which results in what Du Bois calls a “twoness,” or unreconciled strivings both to be black and to be an American. Ultimately, Du Bois wants to reconcile this double-consciousness so that an African American can be “both a Negro and an American” and a “co-worker in the Kingdom of culture.” This desire emphasizes the Platonic ideals of truth, beauty, and the good over materialism in the New South, which was industrializing. Du Bois felt that higher education was central for spiritual reconciliation and that enfranchisement for African Americans could be achieved if the Talented Tenth, the black intellectual elite, would enlighten the black masses while celebrating and producing African American scholarship and art.
The Souls of Black Folk is a seminal work about the roots of modern African American life. The book anticipates many of the central questions of the twentieth century and makes the reader aware that current problems have their roots in the failed effort to bring equality and justice to African Americans after the Civil War. Africans and African Americans who encountered the book felt uplifted by the assertion of the organic reality of a black culture. While African Americans were the predominant readers who savored this work, The Souls of Black Folk was also well received by some white American scholars. William James was impressed by it and sent a copy to his brother Henry, who considered it the only book of distinction from the South in some time.
Emerging at a time when the rights of African Americans were being heavily eroded and, in some cases, eradicated, Du Bois’s work was also an essay in faith and hope. J. Saunders Redding, an African American critic, deemed The Souls of Black Folk more “history-making than historical.” The armoring of black peoples with a sense of themselves provided a foundation for the rise of independent African states and the emergence of the Civil Rights movement. Generations of African Americans who sought leadership roles in the United States were buoyed by the message in The Souls of Black Folk and by the rousing call to arms that Du Bois issued in the work. Each succeeding generation has had to cut its intellectual teeth on the substance and questions raised by this work. In African American studies programs across the country, The Souls of Black Folk is still used with great success to provide a sense of the roots of the African American struggle for freedom and dignity.
The Souls of Black Folk is a manifesto of the new class of educated African Americans. With degrees from Harvard University and the University of Berlin, Du Bois had the best education Europe and America could offer. That he was able to master this world and yet retain affection for the untutored masses gave an example to other educated African Americans of how to handle the problem of the “Veil” that divided the worlds of whites and African Americans. The metaphor of the “Veil” unifies the disparate themes Du Bois explores in these essays; showing how to survive with the knowledge of this duality is one of the significant contributions of The Souls of Black Folk.
Each chapter is prefaced by a quotation from a famous writer, sometimes in the language of the original, and below each quotation is a bar of music from a spiritual (Du Bois called such music “Sorrow Songs”). Du Bois’s alma mater, Fisk University, was famous for making the world aware of these songs by having its choir tour Europe and the United States singing what had been the expression of slaves; the inclusion of even a bar of this music in a written form was thus an assertion of cultural consciousness. The ability of the new African American intelligentsia to use the oral tradition of slavery in a written form alongside the writings of Europeans and Americans was also new.
While he acknowledges the significance of the African American folk tradition, Du Bois also develops the theme of encouraging African Americans’ aspirations to greater intellectual achievement. Rather than accepting the prevailing belief of African Americans’ mental inferiority to whites, Du Bois saw his own life as a refutation of that fallacy and emphasized the importance of encouraging African Americans to work to attain educational parity and civil equality with whites. In the essay entitled “Of the Training of Black Men,” he develops his concept of the “Talented Tenth”—that portion of African American society capable “by character and talent” to be trained as teachers, clergymen, and business professionals, and who would, as a result of higher education, become community leaders dedicated to the improvement of their race. Self-improvement alone was not enough; cultivation of these leaders was of paramount importance, according to Du Bois, becausewhile it is a great truth to say that the Negro must strive and strive mightily to help himself, it is equally true that unless his striving be not simply seconded, but rather aroused and encouraged, by the initiative of the richer and wiser environing group, he cannot hope for great success.
Although he lived in the South during the rollback of civil rights for African Americans and through the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, Du Bois thought that information would cause change. He wrote for highbrow northern magazines and academic journals and thought that if he could influence the few who ran the country, life would become better for the former slaves. He considered the cause of prejudice to be ignorance on the part of whites. If they only knew, he averred, things would change. Du Bois was a believer in rationalism, and he clearly underestimated the power of emotion and class. In his final autobiography, published in 1968, he admitted that he had underappreciated the role of class in society. Despite this admission, his faith in rationalism remained unshaken—nowhere in his writings is there any significant consideration of the power of the nonrational.
What one finds in The Souls of Black Folk is the overriding sense that African Americans had a history worth knowing. Although the book was aimed at a popular audience, it was also aimed at educated African Americans. In a sense, Du Bois showed what one could do with education. He demonstrated that it could be another weapon in the struggle of African Americans for racial equality. People whose ancestors had been used for their labor, their brawn, now could see a proud African American mind on display.