The Souls of Black Folk Themes
The main themes in The Souls of Black Folk are the color-line, civil rights, and accomodationism.
- The color-line: Racism divides whites and blacks along a color-line, and black people are often prevented from reaching their full potential by societal racism.
- Civil rights: Du Bois looks at how the plantation system and the legacy of slavery have oppressed African Americans and turned them into second-class citizens.
- Accomodationism: Du Bois argues against Washington's concept of accomodationism and expresses the hope that society will undergo a radical change with regards to race. Du Bois advocates for education, vocational training, and faith to bring about that change.
Du Bois asks numerous questions that lead him to ponder the development of black religion and the black church as it grew out of pagan African rituals and voodoo. He does not add to the existing arguments and scholarship of his time but does assert that Negro spirituals were created in America but can be traced back to African forests. This points to an African home for these songs and a diaspora but does not necessarily Africanize black American culture. Similarly, he likens the black preacher to the African priest or medicine man, tracing black religion back to pagan belief systems in Africa.
Like the black preachers he admires in his chapters “Of the Faith of Our Fathers” and “Of Alexander Crummell,” Du Bois has a complex status as a leader. His identification with the preacher as well as the priest or medicine man allows him to see himself as a physician and conjurer of African culture and as an artist or bardic priest capable of preaching a social gospel and expressing the sentiments of an oppressed and disenfranchised people. Du Bois felt the role of the black preacher was to facilitate a spiritual rebirth and reconciliation that would unite African Americans while helping them achieve self-assertion. He described the black preacher as “a leader, a politician, and orator, a ’boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist.”
Du Bois describes the segregated South as “the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, and Right—is marked ’For White People Only.’” While biblical allusions and imagery are scattered throughout The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois most effectively deploys the traditional black identification with the children of Israel and their search for a promised land in his description of an effort to articulate the desire for freedom and spiritual reconciliation, which would allow blacks to transcend the Veil through sacrifice and intellectual pursuits rather than through passive submission to white supremacy or physical death. Ultimately, he feels that achieving transcendence requires work and effort that will produce, protect, and value black culture and art.
Grounding his notion of black folk culture in the sorrow songs forces Du Bois to consider black spirituality and belief systems as he appropriates religious texts, figures, and music. One might argue, as Theophus Smith does in Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (1994), that Du Bois stepped within the Veil of black America and used biblical allusions and imagery to conjure African culture in The Souls of Black Folk. A bar of music from a spiritual introduces each chapter in The Souls of Black Folk and celebrates the voices of the slaves, the folk who founded black American culture. Most critics agree that Du Bois meant for black culture to gain recognition through the appreciation of the “sorrow songs,” but he also used the spirituals as epigraphs to place black music and art at the heart of black history. For Du Bois, the sorrow songs are transformative because they are capable of emotionally transcending the very sorrow that inspired them. Their mood and purpose may be religious exaltation, but they are also a medium for expressing a desire for transcendence and enfranchisement. The...
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