The Somber Tone of The Souls of Black Folk
Written at the opening of the twentieth century, after the relative failure of federal Reconstruction efforts and during accelerating national tensions regarding race relations, The Souls of Black Folk is a complex work of philosophy, history, sociology, political theology, and literary creativity. Structurally linked by a few recurrent metaphors (soul, veil, double-consciousness), the book consists of fourteen distinct essays that together present W. E. B. Du Bois’s analysis of conditions in the United States. Du Bois pays special attention to the challenges facing black and white citizens in their interrelations but also poses a sharp critique of the spiritual and economic directions of the United States as a whole. Race figures as a central concern in the work, with particular attention to the perspectives and knowledge emerging from African American experience. The Souls of Black Folk is rhetorically directed on one level to white readers but is also positioned in the dialogue toward “self-definition” among black intellectuals at the opening of the twentieth century. It is also a central twentieth century text of American political philosophy and social criticism. The Souls of Black Folk has been included by philosophers in the tradition of American pragmatism, especially given Du Bois’s focus on ideas and meaning within historical or social contexts, as well as his advocacy of political action based on reason and social analysis.
Each essay in The Souls of Black Folk is introduced by a quotation from European literary tradition, with the author named, followed by an unlabeled musical notation, which readers later learn is a few bars from a song of the African American spiritual tradition. Most critics have assumed that this visual epigraphic pattern was meant by Du Bois to emphasize the close relationships between white and black culture. However, other commentators have suggested that the visual pairing suggests just the opposite: the separation between the two cultural traditions and the relative unknown status of African American cultural expression. This contrast in interpretations points to a strong internal philosophical tension in The Souls of Black Folk between Du Bois’s “rational optimism” about the possibility of human progress and his more pessimistic analysis of American culture and race relations.
Toward the end of the book, the essays in The Souls of Black Folk shift in form and focus. In two of the later essays, Du Bois tempers his earlier philosophical optimism: In “Of the Passing of the First Born,” an account of the tragic death of his young son, Du Bois, the grieving father, asks if it is not, on some profoundly troubling level, better that his son died early rather than bear the racial injustice of the country into which he had been born. In “Of the Coming of John,” Du Bois clearly questions the reformative power of education and seems to imply, through complex themes dealing with religion, sexuality, and political power, that psychological and historical patterns of American racism will lead the country to spiritual death and physical destruction.
The tragic and pessimistic tone of these two chapters is eased, but only partially, by the final chapter, “The Sorrow Songs.” Here, Du Bois somberly celebrates the strength of slave song and African American spirituals. He calls this tradition “the sole American music” and “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” Although much of the music he draws upon here originates in the tradition of the black church, Du Bois’s focus is more broadly metaphoric, pointing again toward spirituality as a philosophical category of shared humanity rather than a specifically Christian concept. The political theology and philosophy of The Souls of Black Folk is especially striking in the humanistic emphasis of Du Bois’s “prophetic” call in “The Afterthought.” His closing political challenge is addressed to the nation as he reasserts the power of reason as the starting point for social action: “Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed.” The God to whom these lines is directed is, tellingly, “the Reader”: Du Bois to the end keeps his eyes on history and the thought and actions of human beings.