The Souls of Black Folk

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
The Souls of Black Folk title page.jpg
The title page of the second edition
Author W.E.Burghardt Du Bois
Country United States
Language English
Publisher A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago
Publication date

The Souls of Black Folk is a classic 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 literary history.

The book, published in 1903, contains several essays on race, some of which had been previously published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. To develop this groundbreaking work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African-American in the 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.


Chapter I lays out an overview of Du Bois's thesis for the book. It says that the blacks of the South need to enjoy the right to vote, to a good education, and to be treated with equality and justice. It also defines a term he coined --double consciousness: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this 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."[1]

The first chapter also introduces Du Bois' 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 is so vastly different from that 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.[2]

The second chapter, "The Dawn of Freedom" covers the history of the Freedmen's Bureau during reconstruction.

Chapters III through VI deal with education. It is here that Du Bois argues against Booker T. Washington's idea of focusing solely on industrial education for black men. He also advocates the addition of a classical education to establish leaders and educators in the black community.

Chapters VII through X are sociological studies of the black community. Du Bois investigates the influence that segregation and discrimination have had on the black people. He argues that much of the negative stereotypes of blacks as lazy, violent, and simple-minded are results of the treatment from white people.

In "Chapter X: Of the Faith of the Fathers", Du Bois describes the rise of the Black church, and examines the history and contemporary state of religion and spiritualism among African-Americans.

The final chapters of the book are devoted to narratives of individuals. "Chapter XI: Of the Passing of the First-Born" tells the story of Du Bois's own son and his untimely death. In the next chapter, the life of Alexander Crummell is a short biography of a black priest in the Episcopal Church.

The penultimate chapter of The Souls of Black Folk --"Of the Coming of John"—is a work of fiction. It is the story of John from Altamaha, Georgia, sent off to a well-off school only to return to his place, where "[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, and he is forced to die while "softly humming the 'Song of the Bride'" in German (Du Bois 176).

The last chapter is about Negro music and makes reference to the short musical passages at the beginning of each of the other chapters.

Sorrow Songs[edit]

In chapter 14, "Of the Sorrow Songs", 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."[3] 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.[4] 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, from Burleigh and Dett to Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston.[5] It is in the retrieval of black cultural folkways-particularly the Sorrow Songs-that one of the major complications of Du Bois project and, later, the Harlem Renaissance (where Hurston and Locke[6] debut their own retrievals) surfaces. For Du Bois' contention that the sorrow songs contain a notative excess, and untranscribable element Yolanda Pierce identifies as the "soul" of the sorrow songs.[7] The mappings of sound and signs that make up the languages of the white Western culture would prove insufficient to many black literary critics of the 1920s and beyond, and the debates over the ability to retrieve, or preserve, black folk-ways find its roots in Du Bois' treatment of the sorrow songs and his call for their rescue.

Critical reception[edit]

In Living Black History, Du Bois biographer Manning Marable observes:

Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. "Souls" justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how 'race' is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as 'whiteness studies' a century later.[8]

Each chapter in The Souls of Black Folk begins with a lyric epigraph, complete with a musical score of the melody. Along with traditional spirituals and African-American poetry, white European and American poets such as Schiller, Fitzgerald, Whittier and Byron are also represented. These lyrics deal with sorrow, suffering, hope, and liberation.

Du Bois says of these slave songs:

I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.[9]


  1. ^ Chap. I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings at
  2. ^ Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. p. 197. 
  3. ^ Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. pp. 116, 117. 
  4. ^ Baldwin, Davarian L. (2007). Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 160. 
  5. ^ Baldwin, Davarian L. (2007). Chicago's New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 161. 
  6. ^ Sundquist, Eric J. (1993). To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 468–470. 
  7. ^ Pierce, Yolanda. "The Soul of Du Bois' Black Folk". The North Star. Princeton University. Retrieved March 22, 2013. 
  8. ^ Manning Marable, Living Black History, p.96
  9. ^ W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987; 538.

Additional reading[edit]

  • Aberjhani (ed.), The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: Citadel Press/Kensington Books, 2013.
  • Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver (eds.), The Souls of Black Folk: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999.
  • Donald B. Gibson, "Introduction" to The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
  • Randall Kenan, "Introduction" to The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New American Library/Signet, 1995.
  • Stephanie J. Shaw, W.E.B. Du Bois and "The Souls of Black Folk." Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

External links[edit]