The Souls of Black Folk Analysis
by W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk book cover
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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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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 ....

(The entire section is 2,325 words.)