The Souls of Black Folk Form and Content
by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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The Souls of Black Folk is a collection of essays that focus upon the post-Reconstruction reality of African Americans in the South, where local white rule and Ku Klux Klan terrorism had erased a decade-long effort to bring democracy to all Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, a northern-born graduate of Harvard University, sought to make a scientific analysis of the problems besetting African Americans as a necessary first step in the resolution of the American racial dilemma. Du Bois envisioned a series of scientific studies of African Americans that would provide reliable data for policy makers to end discrimination and injustice; he believed that the lack of scientific information on the African American was the root of the race problem in the United States. In addition to performing these scientific studies, Du Bois sought to reach intelligent white readers by writing articles in prestigious magazines of the day such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Dial. Du Bois collected nine such published pieces, revised them, and added five new essays to make up the contents of The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois had already published The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896) and The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), a pioneering work in the field of urban sociology. As the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, he was a leading intellectual in the United States.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at the beginning of Reconstruction, Du Bois was the son of a Civil War veteran who had fought with the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, a black unit (led by white officers) that had garnered praise for its valor. This was one of the factors that gave Du Bois a sense of racial pride. He represented the “new” African Americans born in the freedom of Reconstruction and imbued with a sense of destiny; Du Bois hoped to set a new course for African Americans. Although reared in the free atmosphere of abolitionist Massachusetts, he had not many African American contacts. This situation was remedied when he attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the institutions founded during Reconstruction to educate the children of freed slaves. After finishing his studies at Fisk and going on to receive another bachelor’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard, Du Bois went to Ohio to teach at Wilberforce University, the African Methodist Episcopal Church flagship institution for young African Americans. From Wilberforce University, he moved to the Deep South to teach at Atlanta University in Georgia.

In Atlanta, Du Bois came into contact with the experiment in vocational education of African Americans being conducted in the neighboring state of Alabama, where Booker T. Washington reigned at the Tuskegee Institute. In “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” the most famous essay in The Souls of Black Folk , Du Bois spells out his differences with Washington, then the most powerful African American political and educational leader in the United States. Supported by northern business magnates and stressing the need of the newly freed African Americans to prove their loyalty to the South by repudiating the political and social gains of Reconstruction, Washington represented a powerful threat to the emergence of the “new” African Americans whom Du Bois championed. Washington asserted that he represented the mass of untutored peasants who needed to learn about hygiene, citizenship, and agricultural technology rather than about foreign languages, political economy, and sociology. Washington emphasized the practical aspects of living in the South, maintaining that the survival of African Americans depended on their ability to demonstrate their fealty to values held dear by white Southerners. African Americans must demonstrate, Washington declared at a meeting of southern white businessmen, that they could function alongside whites like the fingers of a hand,...

(The entire section is 1,211 words.)