The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
The Souls of Black Folk title page.jpg
Title page of second edition
AuthorW. E. B. Du Bois
CountryUnited States
SubjectRace and ethnicity in the United States
PublisherA. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago
Publication date

The Souls of Black Folk is a 1903 work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology, and a cornerstone of African-American literature.

The book contains several essays on race, some of which the magazine Atlantic Monthly had previously published. To develop this work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African American in American society. Outside of its notable relevance in African-American history, The Souls of Black Folk also holds an important place in social science as one of the early works in the field of sociology.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois used the term "double consciousness", perhaps taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson ("The Transcendentalist" and "Fate"), applying it to the idea that black people must have two fields of vision at all times. They must be conscious of how they view themselves, as well as being conscious of how the world views them.


Each chapter in The Souls of Black Folk begins with a pair of epigraphs: text from a poem, usually by a European poet, and the musical score of a spiritual, which Du Bois describes in his foreword ("The Forethought") as "some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past".[1] Columbia University English and comparative literature professor Brent Hayes Edwards writes:

It is crucial to recognize that Du Bois ... chooses not to include the lyrics to the spirituals, which often serve to underline the arguments of the chapters: Booker T. Washington's idealism is echoed in the otherworldly salvation hoped for in "A Great Camp-Meeting in the Promised Land", for example; likewise the determined call for education in "Of the Training of Black Men" is matched by the strident words of "March On".[2]

Edwards adds that Du Bois may have withheld the lyrics to mark a barrier for the reader, to suggest that black culture—life "within the veil"—remains inaccessible to white people.[2]

In "The Forethought", Du Bois states:

"Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls." He concludes with the words: "...need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?"[3]

"Of Our Spiritual Strivings"

Chapter I, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings", lays out an overview of Du Bois's thesis. He says that the blacks of the South need the right to vote, the right to a good education, and to be treated with equality and justice. Here, he also coined "double-consciousness", defined as a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."[4]

"One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The History of the American Negro is the history of this strive-this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."[3]:5

The first chapter also introduces Du Bois's famous metaphor of the veil. According to Du Bois, this veil is worn by all African-Americans because their view of the world and its potential economic, political, and social opportunities are so vastly different from those of white people. The veil is a visual manifestation of the color line, a problem Du Bois worked his whole life to remedy. Du Bois sublimates the function of the veil when he refers to it as a gift of second sight for African Americans, thus simultaneously characterizing the veil as both a blessing and a curse.[5]

"In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself,-darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission."[3]:9

"Of the Dawn of Freedom"

The second chapter, "Of the Dawn of Freedom", covers the period of history from 1861 to 1872 and the Freedmen's Bureau. Du Bois also introduces the problem of the color-line.

"The Problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.[3]:13

Du Bois describes the Freedmen's Bureau as "one of the most singular and interesting of the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of race and social condition." He says that the bureau was "one of the great landmarks of political and social progress." After a year's work, Du Bois states that "it relieved a vast amount of physical suffering; it transported seven thousand fugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best of all, it inaugurated the crusade of the New England school-ma'am."[3]:14, 21–22

"The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South."[3]:28

He gives credit to the creation of Fisk University, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, and Hampton University and acknowledges the "apostles of human culture" Edmund Asa Ware, Samuel C. Armstrong, and Erastus Cravath. He worried that the demise of the Freedman's Savings Bank, which resulted in huge losses for many freedmen of any savings, resulted in freedmen losing "all the faith in savings".[3]:28–29, 32

Finally, he argues that "if we cannot peacefully reconstruct the South with white votes, we certainly can with black votes."[3]:33

"...the granting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could grant a wronged race, and the only method of compelling the South to accept the results of the war. Thus Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud."[3]:33

"Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others"

Chapters III and VI deal with education and progress. Here Du Bois argues against Booker T. Washington's idea of focusing solely on industrial education for black men.[6] He advocates the addition of a classical education to establish leaders and educators in the black community.

Du Bois refers to the Atlanta Compromise as the "most notable of Mr. Washington's career," and "the old attitude of adjustment and submission." Du Bois claims that Washington wants black people to give up three things: political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education. He fears that, if black people "concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South," this will lead to 1) The disenfranchisement of the Negro, 2) The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro, and 3) The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro." By Washington focusing on "common-school and industrial training," he "depreciates institutions of higher learning," where "teachers, professional men, and leaders" are trained.[3]:37, 43–46

"But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them."[3]:50

Note: By the time Du Bois published his book, most of the former Confederate states had completed disenfranchisement of blacks, led by Mississippi in 1890, by constitutional amendments and other laws raising barriers to voter registration, primarily through poll taxes, residency and recordkeeping requirements, subjective literacy tests and other devices. Virginia passed similar laws in 1908. By excluding blacks from political life, southern legislatures were able to pass Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory methods.

"Of the Meaning of Progress"

In the fourth chapter, "Of the Meaning of Progress", Du Bois explores his experiences first, when he was teaching in Tennessee. Secondly he returned after 10 years and found the town where he had worked had suffered many unpleasant changes.[7] He says: "My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly."[3]:59

"I was a Fisk student then, and all Fisk me thought that Tennessee-beyond the Veil- was theirs alone, and in vacation time they sallied forth in lusty bands to meet the county school-commissioners."[3]:51

Yet, he states, after meeting with the commissioner, "but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I-alone."[3]:53

"I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity."[3]:57

"Of the Wings of Atalanta"

The fifth chapter is a meditation on the necessity of widespread higher education in the South.

Du Bois compares Atlanta, the City of a Hundred Hills, to Atalanta, and warns against the "greed of gold," or "interpreting the world in dollars." The "Black World beyond the Veil", should not succumb "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness," to the ideal of wealth attainment in public schools.[3]:66–63

"...beyond the Veil are smaller but like problems of ideals, of leaders and the led, of serfdom, of poverty, of order and subordination, and, through all, the Veil of Race."[3]:66–67

He admonishes readers to "Teach workers to work, and Teach thinkers to think." "The need of the South is knowledge and culture," he says:[3]:71–72

"And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,—not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold."[3]:72

"Of the Training of Black Men"

Du Bois discusses how "to solve the problem of training men for life," especially as it relates to the Negro, who "hang between them and a light a veil so thick, that they shall not even think of breaking through." Du Bois cites the progress of Southern education, consisting of army schools, mission schools, and schools of the Freedman's Bureau, from the end of the Civil War until 1876. Then complete school systems were established including Normal schools and colleges, followed by the industrial revolution in the South from 1885 to 1895, and its industrial schools. Yet, he asks, "Is Not life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?"[3]:75–79

Du Bois asserts: " that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning," is the right of the black as well as the white. He goes on to state, "If the Negro was to learn, he must teach himself," and cites the 30,000 black teachers created in one generation who "wiped out the illiteracy of the majority of the black people of the land, and they made Tuskegee possible."[3]:79–89

Additionally, 2500 Negroes had received a bachelor's degree, of whom 53% became teachers or leaders of educational systems, 17% became clergymen, 17% mainly physicians, 6% merchants, farmers and artisans; and 4% in government service. From 1875 to 1880, there were 22 Negro graduates from Northern colleges and 143 from Southern Negro colleges. From 1895 to 1900, Northern colleges graduated 100 Negros and over 500 graduated from Southern Negro colleges. Du Bois concludes by stating that the "...inevitable problems of civilization the Negro must meet and solve largely for himself."[3]:79–89

"The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and co-operation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men."[3]:89–90

"Of the Black Belt"

Du Bois calls Albany, Georgia, in Dougherty County, the "heart of the Black Belt." He says: "Here are the remnants of the vast plantations."[3]:93–94, 96

"How curious a land is this,- how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, and big with future promise!"[3]:100

Yet, he notes, it is not far from "where Sam Hose was crucified" [in a lynching], "to-day the centre of the Negro problem,-the centre of those nine million men who are America's dark heritage from slavery and the slave-trade." He continues: "Careless ignorance and laziness here, fierce hate and vindictiveness there,—these are the extremes of the Negro problem which we met that day, and we scarce knew which we preferred."[3]:92, 106

"Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece"

Speaking of the cotton fields from "Carolina to Texas", Du Bois claims an analogy between the "ancient and modern "Quest of the Golden Fleece in the Black Sea." Continuing his discussion of Dougherty County, he explains that of the 1500 Negro families around Albany in 1898, many families have 8–10 individuals in one- or two-room homes. These families are plagued with "easy marriage and easy separation," a vestige of slavery, which the Negro church has done much to prevent "a broken household." He claims that most of the black population is "poor and ignorant," more than 80 percent, though "fairly honest and well meaning." "Two-thirds of them cannot read or write," and 80 percent of the men, women and children are farmers.[3]:111–118

Economically, the Negro has become a slave of debt, says Du Bois. He describes the economic classes: the "submerged tenth" of croppers, 40 percent are metayers or "tenant on shares" with a chattel mortgage, 39 percent are semi-metayers and wage-laborers, while 5 percent are money-renters, and 6 percent freeholders. Finally, du Bois states that only 6 percent "have succeeded in emerging into peasant proprietorship", leading to a "migration to town", the "buying of small homesteads near town".[3]:123, 128, 132

"Of the Sons of Master and Man"

This chapter discusses "race-contact", specifically as it relates to physical proximity, economic and political relations, intellectual contact, social contact, and religious enterprise. As for physical proximity, Du Bois states there is an obvious "physical color-line" in Southern communities separating whites from Negroes, and a Black Belt in larger areas of the country. He says that here is a need for "Negro leaders of character and intelligence" to help guide Negro communities along the path out of the current economic situation. The power of the ballot is necessary, he asserts, as "in every state the best arbiters of their own welfare are the persons directly affected." He says that "the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves," and Negroes viewed its "courts as a means of reenslaving the blacks." Regarding social contact, Du Bois states "there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with thoughts and feelings of the other." He concludes that "the future of the South depends on the ability of the representatives of these opposing views to see and appreciate and sympathize with each other's position."[3]:134–135, 140–141, 144–145, 152

"Of the Faith of the Fathers"

In Chapter X, Du Bois describes the rise of the black church and examines the history and contemporary state of religion and spiritualism among African Americans.

After recounting his first exposure to the Southern Negro revival, Du Bois notes three things that characterize this religion: the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy—the Frenzy or Shouting being "when the Spirit of the Lord passed by, and, seizing the devotee, made him mad with supernatural joy." Du Bois says that the Negro church is the social center of Negro life. Predominately Methodists or Baptists after Emancipation, when Emancipation finally, came Du Bois states, it seemed to the freedman a literal "Coming of the Lord".[3]:154–157, 164

"Of the Passing of the First-Born"

The final chapters of the book are devoted to narratives of individuals. In Chapter XI, "Of the Passing of the First-Born", Du Bois recounts the birth of his first child, a son, and his untimely death as an infant.

Du Bois comments, "Why was his hair tinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life." He says, "I saw his breath beat quicker and quicker, pause, and then his little soul leapt like a star that travels in the night and left a world of darkness in its train.[3]:170, 172

Du Bois ends with, "Sleep, then, child,—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet-above the Veil."[3]:175

"Of Alexander Crummell"

In this chapter, Du Bois recounts a short biography of Alexander Crummell, an early black priest in the Episcopal Church.

Du Bois starts with, "This is the history of a human heart." He notes that Crummell faced three temptations: those of Hate, Despair, and Doubt," while crossing two vales, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death."[3]:176

Du Bois ends with, "And now that he is gone, I sweep the Veil away and cry, Lo! the soul to whose dear memory I bring this little tribute."[3]:185

"Of the Coming of John"

The penultimate chapter, "Of the Coming of John", is fictional. Du Bois tells about John, an African American from Altamaha, Georgia, who is sent to a good school. When he returns to his place, he discovers that "[l]ittle had they understood of what he said, for he spoke an unknown tongue" (Du Bois 170). John's return to the South has made him a foreigner in his own home. After he attempts to teach a class for the local children, John is compared to a different John, the son of wealthy Judge Henderson. John Henderson has become bored after his own return from college. He begins to sexually assault Jennie, the sister of black John, when the young white man sees her outside his home. John kills white John and bids his mother goodbye. In the final part of the story, there is an implication that he is about to be lynched by a gathering mob, and John "softly hum[s] the 'Song of the Bride'" in German. (Du Bois 176).

"The Sorrow Songs"

Chapter XIV, "The Sorrow Songs", is about Negro music. He refers to the short musical passages at the beginning of each of the other chapters. Du Bois mentions that the music was so powerful and meaningful that, regardless of the people's appearance and teaching, "their hearts were human and their singing stirred men with a mighty power."[3]:205 Du Bois concludes the chapter by bringing up inequality, race and discrimination. He says, "Your country? How came it yours?..we were here".[8]

Du Bois heralds the "melody of the slave songs", or the Negro spirituals, as the "articulate message of the slave to the world." They are the music, he contends, not of the joyous black slave, as a good many whites had misread them, but "of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways."[9] For Du Bois, the sorrow songs represented a black folk culture—with its origins in slavery—unadulterated by the civilizing impulses of a northern black church, increasingly obsessed with respectability and with Western aesthetic criteria.[10] Rather than vestiges of a backward time that should be purged from black repertoires and isolated from what Alain Locke called the "modernization of the negro" (coincident, for Locke, with urbanization), negro spirituals are—for Du Bois—where the souls of black folk past and present are found.

Du Bois passionately advocated for the preservation of the spiritual, along with Antonín Dvořák and contemporary black aestheticians, including Harry Burleigh, Robert Nathaniel Dett, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston.[11] It is in the retrieval of black cultural folkways—particularly "The Sorrow Songs"—that one of the major complications of Du Bois's project and, later, the Harlem Renaissance (where Hurston and Locke[12] debut their own retrievals) surfaces. For Du Bois's contention that the sorrow songs contain a notative excess, and untranscribable element Yolanda Pierce identifies as the "soul" of the sorrow songs.[13] The mappings of sound and signs that make up the languages of white Western culture would prove insufficient to many black literary critics of the 1920s and beyond, and the debates over the abilities to retrieve and preserve black folkways find their roots in Du Bois's treatment of the sorrow songs and in his call for their rescue.