The Souls of Black Folk Themes

The main themes in The Souls of Black Folk are education, the duality of the Black American experience, and the nature of freedom.

  • Education: Du Bois believes that education is the best way for Black people to achieve progress and essential for erasing the color line that divides American society.
  • The duality of the Black American experience: To be both Black and American, Du Bois writes, is to experience a constant conflict between two irreconcilable identities.
  • The nature of freedom: Du Bois argues that the “Veil” between Black and white Americans continues to prevent Black people from becoming truly free.

Themes

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Last Updated on March 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

Education

Du Bois is an educator, and it is his central belief that education is the best route open to Black people who wish to improve their lot in America. He is particularly focused on the idea that Black Americans, like white Americans, should be encouraged to focus on the...

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Education

Du Bois is an educator, and it is his central belief that education is the best route open to Black people who wish to improve their lot in America. He is particularly focused on the idea that Black Americans, like white Americans, should be encouraged to focus on the type of education that makes the most sense for them: it is not right to stream all Black people into industrial schools when there are some, the "Talented Tenth," who are incredibly intellectual and should be allowed access to a college-level education that would, in turn, enable them to break down barriers with white society. At the same time, Du Bois argues that it would be foolhardy to try to funnel all Black Americans into college-level education: although as many Black people as white people have the capacity to access this sort of education, many Black people, just like many white people, are poorly suited to it.

Du Bois does engage, however, with the fact that education can be a troubling experience for Black people, even while it is an ennobling one. The fictional story of John Jones underlines the fact that, for many Black people, education simply enables them to see the truth of the veil drawn between them and white society. The more educated they are, the more aware they feel that they can never cross that boundary. The story of John Jones is particularly troubling on this front, because it suggests that there is actually no escape for an educated Black man other than death.

Ultimately, however, Du Bois hopes that continuous education can put an end to the color line that divides society. He hopes not only that education will help Black people to communicate better with whites, but also that it will enable white people to recognize the extent of their racism and understand how to treat Black people as human beings rather than as former chattel and a "problem."

The Duality of the Black American Experience

Du Bois returns repeatedly in this book to the idea of the Black American experience as an inherently conflicted one: to be Black and, at the same time, American is to struggle with two identities that are continually at war with one another, an internal conflict Du Bois terms "double-consciousness." While to be American is to expect freedom and liberation, to be Black in America is to recognize that freedom is in many ways an illusion. Black Americans do not want to, and should not have to, abandon or conceal their heritage in order to succeed, and yet they are often expected to do so—and yet still encounter difficulties, because even when they abandon their Black heritage and customs, white society will not accept them.

Du Bois notes that the problem of exclusion is one that dogs Black people no matter what they do. The "color-line" keeps Black people from accessing the same opportunities their white friends and neighbors have; at the same time, when Black people do educate themselves, they often feel ostracized from their own communities. Black people develop their own social structures, often based around the church, in order to create a parallel community because they are excluded from white life. However, by doing this, they can be enticed to participate in a segregated approach to society that does not enable Black people's rights to progress, not least because it prevents the sort of mixing between the racial groups that would allow them to understand each other better.

Du Bois's ultimate conclusion seems to be that Black people in America are damned no matter which way they turn. While he hopes there will eventually be an answer that will help the Black and American parts of their identities to work harmoniously together, he does not know what this solution might be.

The Nature of Freedom

Du Bois's overarching concern in this book is, of course, racism and the state of race relations in America at the time of writing. He believes the world to be divided by a "color-line" or "Veil" that hangs between Black and white people, and he is keen to emphasize that, because of the legacy of slavery in the United States, this veil continues to prevent Black Americans from achieving true freedom, no matter what echelon of society they inhabit. In Du Bois's view, the Emancipation Proclamation offered only an illusion of freedom, which in some ways could be said to have hampered the progress of Black rights. For some white people, the fact that Black people had been "freed" made them feel that Black people no longer had anything to complain about—and fail to recognize that the situation in which many Southern Blacks, in particular, then found themselves was simply a different form of indentured servitude. Meanwhile, other Black people, satisfied that they were now free, set themselves to the task of accruing as much material wealth as they possibly could and did not consider the ways in which this actually distanced them from their own communities without furthering integration with rich whites.

Du Bois, controversially, suggests in this book that the approach of Booker T. Washington, the famous Black educator, actually worked against the cause of true freedom. Washington became extremely popular among Blacks and whites alike, but Du Bois notes that many of the Black arguments against him and his segregationist ideals were silenced, while many whites liked Washington because he was seemingly willing to accept the idea of Blacks as a "secondary" race to whites. While Du Bois does not suggest that all Black people should go to college, or should seek to eradicate their Blackness and become the same as white people, he does imply that Washington's encouragement of industrial schools and his willingness to accept segregation simply furthered a status quo that was only a pretence of freedom, while the "Veil" in fact continued to divide society. Blacks were free from the fear of being sold into slavery but not free from prejudice, even from within their own communities and their own minds, as long as America believed in the inferiority of Black people.

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