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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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In the "Forethought" to The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois appeals to the "patience" of the reader as he embarks upon what is essentially a journey into the Black experience in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Du Bois is uncompromising in his statement that the "color-line" is the problem that will define twentieth-century race relations: he also identifies, right from the beginning, the concept of the "Veil" that conceals the Black experience from white understanding, just as it prevents Black Americans from accessing the opportunity and freedom that lie beyond. The Souls of Black Folk, then, is a book about racism, but more than that, it is an attempt to lift the metaphorical veil that divides Black from white in order to properly explain the experience of racism to those who have never had to live with it. Du Bois believes strongly in the instrumental importance of education in minimizing divisions between the races: this book is an attempt on his part to use his own education in order to bridge a divide that has long been thought unbridgeable.

The Souls of Black Folk is a seminal work in the genre of American literature on both race and on society. The triple ideas that underpin Du Bois's characterization of the Black experience—that of the color line, the veil, and the state of "double consciousness" in which Black Americans live—all informed subsequent theory on this subject as the twentieth century progressed. Du Bois does not present Black Americans as a monolith, taking care to shine a light upon Black people from all corners of society, but he does explain patiently and from multiple angles how all Black people, whether rich or poor, Northern or Southern, suffer the impact of racism. Black Americans, from birth, are cursed with the difficulty of meshing their Black identity with their American identity without losing either. In explaining this, Du Bois simultaneously accepts that it is indeed difficult to see how Black society can be fully assimilated into white society; the drive toward assimilation within society is twinned with that toward assimilation within the Black American self. But Du Bois also notes that, for as long as that segregation exists, Black people suffer not only at the hands of racist white people, but also at the hands of well-meaning whites, as well as other Black people who have internalized racist ideas. It is only by becoming one society and by understanding each other, Du Bois suggests, that any of these problems will ever be solved.

Du Bois's chief focus in his book is upon showcasing those lives that American history has traditionally disregarded. It is for this reason that Du Bois highlights the experiences of such men as Alexander Crummell, whom he juxtaposes against the better-known Booker T. Washington, forcing the reader to confront the challenges posed to a just society by Washington's segregationist approach. But Du Bois also escorts his white reader into parts of America they may never have thought about, introducing them to figures such as Josie, the Black girl who yearned to leave Tennessee for school and never managed to, and indeed to his own son, whose early death felt almost a blessing as well as a curse, because it offered an escape from racism. By showing his own emotional pain in this chapter, Du Bois truly underscores how deeply racism cuts for a Black person. In this chapter, as in the short story of John Jones, Du Bois alludes to the idea that, to a Black person at the time of writing, death sometimes feels the only escape from racism. He appeals here to the emotions of the reader in the hopes that they, too, albeit on the other side of the veil, might grasp how truly difficult it is to live under such a cloud.

To the modern reader, some elements of Du Bois's writing are mildly uncomfortable; it is evident that, as he gently invites the white reader to join him in the "Jim Crow car" on his journey through the Black experience, Du Bois is mindful of white sensibilities and sometimes seeks to calm racist white fears. For example, although he does not state outright that some whites are opposed to Black education not because they think Black men incapable of learning, but because they fear the potential power of educated Blacks, he does assure his reader that most educated Black men are not "agitators." In calming this fear, Du Bois to an extent is doing what he criticizes Washington for doing: appealing to the racist white mind in order to advance his point. However, Du Bois's book, at the time of its publication, was a phenomenal step in the direction of Black progress. Although of course he could not cover miles in a single bound, the personal appeal of his writing, combined with its educated, almost anthropological investigations of Black societies and cultures, did much to further the cause of Black progress in the United States. Du Bois not only lifts the "Veil" for the reader, he also points out that it exists, and how damaging it is, in a way that promotes the sympathy and understanding he believed to be crucial for the advancement of his cause.

Historical Context

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All of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk were written around the turn of the century, a pivotal time in United States history in regard to race relations. In response to the end of the war, the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments had been passed in 1868 and 1870 to recognize black Americans as U.S. citizens and to provide them with equal protection under the law. Despite these amendments, by the turn of the century segregation was still intact, particularly in the South. Although the Southern states had received assistance during the Reconstruction period, the region was still feeling the effects of the Civil War by the end of the nineteenth century, and race relations reflected hostility on the part of whites for blacks. Limitations were placed on black employment opportunities and property ownership, interracial marriage was illegal in every state, and all public facilities, including schools, restaurants, hospitals, and public transportation, were divided by race. At its most terrifying extreme, violation of the unspoken code of segregation resulted in murder; between the years of 1884 and 1900, two thousand blacks were killed by lynch mobs in the United States.

During this time, there were some organized attempts at legal challenge to segregation. For example, in 1896 a group of African-American and white citizens challenged the constitutionality of separate railroad cars for blacks and whites in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. The constitutionality of segregated cars was upheld, but the case marked the beginning of organized response to Jim Crow conditions. National trends tended toward policies limiting the rights of black people; in 1898 the Supreme Court, in the case of Williams v. Mississippi, approved a system of poll taxes and literacy testing as requirements for voters in an effort to keep African Americans away from the polls. At the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington, the principal of the Tuskegee Institute for black education in Tuskegee, Alabama, was the most popular and powerful African-American man in the United States, at least among whites. In 1895, he delivered his famous compromise speech in which he advocated that black people accept low social status, forego political power, and pursue vocational education rather than higher education. Around the same time, Du Bois was coming into the public eye as a sociologist, activist, and spokesperson advocating equal rights and higher education for African Americans. The Industrial Revolution was underway in America, drawing more blacks to urban centers and exploiting them, resulting in poverty and ghettos; Du Bois was at work to prove that such conditions for blacks were symptomatic of the system rather than inherent to the group. He and other more militant African Americans publicly opposed Washington, and as individuals, they represented the philosophical division over race relations. In the next several years, Du Bois’ work would result in the organization of the NAACP, an organization that would change the face of race relations in the United States forever.

Du Bois begins his work by stating his objective in no uncertain terms; his goal is to represent what it is like to be black in America at the beginning of the twentieth century because he is convinced that race is the central problem of the century to come. He states this in his forethought and follows with a loose thematic grouping of the essays to follow.

The first three chapters in The Souls of Black Folk address historical and political issues. He begins ‘‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’’ with a provocative question underlying all other questions posed to him: ‘‘How does it feel to be a problem?’’ The essay addresses this fundamental question in a discussion of the contradictions inherent in the process of ‘‘striving.” Here Du Bois discusses efforts made toward winning the ballot and literacy and outlines the topics to follow in what amounts to an extended prologue. ‘‘Of the Dawn of Freedom'' is a straightforward history of the ways the U.S. government attempted to deal with the ‘‘problem” of African Americans just before, during, and after the Civil War over the years 1861 through 1872. The essay amounts to an even-handed analysis of the policies of the Freedmen's Bureau, including both strengths and shortcomings, and the ways that its unfinished work laid an outline for the social and race problems to follow. ‘‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” is an attack on the policies of the famous educator and speaker, who at the time of the essay was Du Bois' philosophical opponent and rival. In the course of his essay, Du Bois suggests that Washington's work reflects his indoctrination in the most superficial of American value-systems, commercialism and materialism, and that his work is self-motivated. He goes on to analyze the historical precedents of Washington's policies of submission and technical education, and addresses in detail the shortcomings and inevitable results of those policies.

In the next six chapters, Du Bois moves from the general to the specific, in his own words taking the reader ‘‘within the veil.’’ In these chapters, he offers stories from his life experience in the South, presents portraits of actual people, and infuses them with his sociological understanding of them. He offers anecdotes about teaching school during his time as a student at Fisk College, details the conditions of workers in cotton mills, and describes the transformation of Atlanta and her outskirts from pastoral idyll to industrial wasteland. He narrates a drive through the black belt of Georgia and scrutinizes the legacy of slavery in the relationship between the races in the South in ‘‘Of the Sons of Master and Man.’’ These stories expose the hardships of poor, uneducated black people and solicit compassion on the part of the reader. Du Bois' testimonial tales and picturesque depictions of the Southern countryside are balanced by his analyses of the development of black education and his argument that intellectual training can only benefit the entire culture of the South.

The last five chapters entail African-American spirituality, both in analytic discussion and personal anecdote. In ‘‘The Faith of Our Fathers,’’ Du Bois discusses the history and influence, power, and self-contradiction of religion for black Americans. He describes his own grief process over the death of his son in ‘‘Of the Passing of the First Born.’’ In ‘‘Of Alexander Crummel,’’ he gives a biographical sketch of one man's efforts to uplift his people. ‘‘Of the Coming of John’’ is a short parable detailing the terrible potential outcome of the ‘‘veil.” Finally, ‘‘Of the Sorrow Songs’’ discusses the history, power, and purpose of the music preceding each of the chapters.

Dualism and the Veil

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In ‘‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings,’’ Du Bois makes reference to the experience of ‘‘double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others.’’ This concept of dual identity appears throughout the text in nearly every essay and is central to the author's goal in making the African-American condition understood. Du Bois contends that African Americans experience a split in self-concept because they are regarded with ‘‘contempt and pity” by the majority of their fellow Americans. As both ‘‘Negro” and American, black people are organized into public and private identities, neither regarded as whole by mainstream, white America. This theme extends into the contradictory nature of American policies toward black people during the time the work was written. For example, as an African American in New England, Du Bois was able to attend Harvard University and was afforded many of the privileges of any citizen, but when he lived in the South, he was subject to Jim Crow laws. The United States is comprised of both the North and South, but race policy for the nation is split.

The ‘‘Veil”
Du Bois first mentions the ‘‘veil” in his forethought and extends the metaphor throughout the text. The ‘‘veil” is a metaphoric film between black people and white America that obscures the true identity of black people. Du Bois attributes the confused dual identity of his people to the ‘‘veil,” which makes it impossible for blacks to see themselves in entirety as well. According to Arnold Rampersad, author of The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, however, the ‘‘veil” also ‘‘unites Black men. They are drawn together for reasons sprung, ‘above all, from the sight of the ‘‘veil” that hung between us and Opportunity.’’’ Du Bois extrapolates on his metaphor with extensive use of visual imagery, or the impairment thereof. Darkness, light, brightness, shadow, and haze appear throughout the text. In effect, according to Du Bois, difficulty in perception is fundamental to being African American.

Literary Style

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The collection consists of fourteen chapters, an introduction, and an afterward. With one exception, each of the chapters (an essay or story) opens with a quotation of verse from a famous source in the Western literary canon followed by lines of music from African-American oral tradition. The result is a frame for each essay, both from the recognized cultural establishment and from the unrecognized, yet widely-known tradition of slave songs and spirituals. The effect is an impression of support, both from within the black community and from without, and puts the two formats on par with one another. The first essay, ‘‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings,’’ begins with verse depicting ceaseless yearning, and the final piece, ‘‘The Song of Sorrows,’’ ends in song cheering the weary traveler with hope, effectively enclosing all of the essays in brackets of song describing the poles of black experience. These in turn are bracketed by the introduction, which makes an appeal to the reader to read with charity and patience for the author's cause, and ends with the After-Thought, a similar appeal in stylized, poetic form.

Point of View
Most of the work in The Souls of Black Folk takes the form of essay, written in third-person prose. The tone is didactic, marked by formality and the long, classical sentence structure characteristic of nineteenth-century prose. The lyricism of the prose and flexibility of form throughout the text suggest the influence of Romanticism a period ending loosely around the end of the nineteenth century, blended with the rationalism of Du Bois' data, experience, and analysis. Arnold Rampersad, in The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, notes that ‘‘devices of the traditional pastoral elegy are present in modified but distinct form,’’ such as the depiction of withering roses in his essay about the death of his infant son. Occasionally, Du Bois uses the second person, particularly in the introduction when he states his objectives, urging the reader in how and why he should read the text. His tone in these instances is an appeal and is emphatic about the truth and importance of his work. ‘‘Of the Coming of John’’ is distinct from the other essays in that it is a parable; also poetry, both by Du Bois and by other authors, appears in the text.

Du Bois’ primary use of symbolism revolves around vision. The ‘‘veil’’ is his main metaphor for the distance and misconception between black and white Americans, and is responsible for the way African Americans see themselves as dualistic and distorted. Darkness generally symbolizes ignorance and despair, such as in the opening to ‘‘The Sorrow Songs’’; enslaved black people in the past are termed ‘‘they that walked in darkness.’’ Similar use of imagery concerning impaired vision includes haze, dimness, dusk, shadow, and mist.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1900: At least two thousand blacks are lynched or burned to death in the fifteen years prior to the turn of the century. White murderers go unpunished.

    Today: Racially motivated hate crimes are a rarity, but still exist, as in the case of James Byrd, Jr. In 1998, three white men drag Byrd behind their car, resulting in Byrd's death. The men who committed the crime are convicted and sentenced to death.

  • 1896: In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of racially segregated railroad cars.

    1955: In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that racial segregation of schools is unconstitutional. Despite the ruling, education remains largely segregated in the South.

    Today: Despite disparities in some schools based on socioeconomic factors, no schools in the United States are segregated.

  • 1903: In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois advocates equal opportunity and treatment for whites and blacks, including equal standards for competency.

    1972: The Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 expands Title VII protections to schools, extending affirmative action policies to colleges and universities in the interest of aiding minorities.

    1995: Governor Pete Wilson and the University of California vote to end affirmative action in both hiring and admissions statewide.

Media Adaptations

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  • The Souls of Black Folk is available in the form of an e-book, available from Microsoft Reader.
  • The Souls of Black Folk is also available on four audiocassettes from Walter Covell.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Library of America, 1986, pp. 3-191.

Ferris, William H. "The Souls of Black Folk: The Book in Its Era.’’ In Critical Essays on W. E. B. Du Bois, edited by William L. Andrews. G. K. Hall & Co., 1985, pp. 125-27.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Bantam, 1989, pp. xiv-xvii.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Harvard University Press, 1976, pp. 72—88.

Review in New York Times, April 25, 1903.

Further Reading
Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. DuBois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Stanford University Press, 1959. Broderick, writing during Du Bois' lifetime, discusses Du Bois' life and achievements.

Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925. Random House, 1976. Gutman provides the definitive sociological and historical work on African-American life during and immediately after slavery.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Harvard University Press, 1976. Rampersand provides a thorough discussion of Du Bois' stylistic approach to writing.

Tuttle, William M. Great Lives Observed: W. E. B. Du Bois. Prentice-Hall, 1973. This is a collection of articles and essays concerning Du Bois' work in the context of his life.

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