The Souls of Black Folk

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The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
The Souls of Black Folk title page.jpg
Title page of second edition
Author W. E. B. Du Bois
Country United States
Language English
Subject Race and ethnicity in the United States
Genre Essays
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 the magazine Atlantic Monthly had previously published. To develop this 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.


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 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]

"Of Our Spiritual Strivings"[edit]

Chapter I, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings", lays out an overview of Du Bois's thesis for the book. It 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", which he 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."[3]

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.[4]

"Of the Dawn of Freedom"[edit]

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

"Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others"[edit]

Chapters III and VI deal with education and progress. It is here that Du Bois argues against Booker T. Washington's idea of focusing solely on industrial education for black men.[5] He also advocates the addition of a classical education to establish leaders and educators in the black community.

"Of the Meaning of Progress"[edit]

In the fourth chapter, "Of the Meaning of Progress", Du Bois dwells upon a time when he was teaching in Tennessee and then, after leaving, goes back 10 years later to a town that suffered many unpleasant changes.[6]

"Of the Wings of Atalanta"[edit]

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

"Of the Training of Black Men"[edit]

"Of the Black Belt"[edit]

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

"Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece"[edit]

"Of the Sons of Master and Man"[edit]

"Of the Faith of the Fathers"[edit]

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.

"Of the Passing of the First-Born"[edit]

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.

"Of Alexander Crummell"[edit]

"Of the Coming of John"[edit]

The penultimate chapter, "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). The first John's return to the South has made him a foreigner in his own home. After attempting to teach a class for the local children that is deemed critical of Johns's life is compared to that of a different John, the son of the wealthy Judge Henderson. John Henderson has become bored after his own return from college and begins to sexually assault the black John's sister Jennie when he sees her outside his home. John kills the white John and then bids his mother goodbye. In the final part of the story, with the implication that he is about to be lynched by a gathering mob, he "softly hum[s] the 'Song of the Bride'" in German, (Du Bois 176).

"The Sorrow Songs"[edit]

Chapter XIV, "The Sorrow Songs", is about Negro music and makes reference 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, regardless of the people's appearance and teaching, their hearts were just as human emotions and their singing represented their power.[clarification needed] Du Bois concludes the chapter by bringing up inequality, race and discrimination. "Your country? How came it yours?..we were here".[7]

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."[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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[11] 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.[12] 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 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.

Critical reception[edit]

In Living Black History, Du Bois's 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.[13]

At the time of its publication, the Nashville Banner warned of The Souls of Black Folk, "This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only incite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind."[14] The New York Times said, "A review of [the work of the Freedmen's Bureau] from the negro point of view, even the Northern negro's point of view, must have its value to any unprejudiced student—still more, perhaps, for the prejudiced who is yet willing to be a student."[15]

In his introduction to the 1961 edition, writer Saunders Redding observed, "The boycott of the buses in Montgomery had many roots . . . but none more important than this little book of essays published more than half a century ago."[14]

Literary reception[edit]

As Yale professor Hazel Carby points out, it was impossible for black writers before the abolition of slavery in 1865 "even to imagine the option of returning to the South once black humanity and freedom had been gained in the North" and it was rarely found in later literature as well.[16] While the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs move towards the North and freedom, Du Bois reverses "the direction of the archetypal journey of these original narratives" and focuses on the Black Belt of the South.[16] Although the text "consistently shifts between a predominantly white and a predominantly black world" in line with Du Bois's concept of double consciousness, "its overall narrative impulse gradually moves the focus from a white terrain to an autonomous black one."[17]

Carby traces the ways in which Du Bois gendered his narrative of black folk, but also how Du Bois's conceptual framework is gendered as well. In The Souls of Black Folk, according to Carby, it seems that Du Bois is most concerned with how race and nation intersect, and how such an intersection is based on particular masculine notions of progress. According to Carby, Du Bois "exposes and exploits the tension that exists between the internal egalitarianism of the nation and the relations of domination and subordination embodied in a racially encoded social hierarchy." So Du Bois makes a conceptual argument that racialization is actually compatible with the nation in so far as it creates unified races. However, this unified race is only possible through the gendered narrative that he constructs throughout Souls, which renders black male intellectuals (himself) as the (only possible) leader(s) of the unified race. Carby explains that "in order to retain his credentials for leadership, Du Bois had to situate himself as both an exceptional and a representative individual.... The terms and conditions of his exceptionalism, Du Bois argues, have their source in his formation as a gendered intellectual."[18]

According to Carby, Du Bois was concerned with "the reproduction of Race Men". In other words, "the figure of the intellectual and race leader is born of and engendered by other males."[19] Such a reading of Du Bois calls attention to "queer meanings" that, according to Charles Nero, are inherent in Souls. Nero, who employs Anne Herrmann's definition of queer, conceptualizes queerness as the "recognition on the part of others that one is not like others, a subject out of order, not in sequence, not working." Foundational to Nero's argument is the understanding that men have the authority to exchange women among one another in order to form a "homosocial contract". Nero analyzes Du Bois's discussion on the Teutonic and Submissive Man to conclude that such a contract would lead to a "round and full development" to produce a "great civilization". However, Nero is concerned with violence and the "rigid policing of sexual identity categories at the turn of the century" which ultimately made such a homosocial, biracial contract impossible.

Nero marks "Of the Coming of John" as a central chapter that demonstrates his queer reading of Souls. Nero argues that John Jones's absence of masculinity is a sign of his queerness and that the killing of his "double" represents Du Bois's disillusionment that there can exist a biracial and homosocial society.[20]

Cultural and religious criticism[edit]

Given Du Bois's transdisciplinary training and pivotal point of historicizing much of what we can say about black religion and culture, it is no surprise that many in black religious and cultural studies have used Du Bois's concept of "double-consciousness" or other concepts from Souls in their interpretations of black culture and religion. Cheryl Sanders, a professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, in her scholarly work lists a who's who of Du Bois progeny, including Paul Gilroy, C. Eric Lincoln, Lawrence Mamiya, Peter Paris, Emilie Townes and Cornel West, who take up themes or concepts found in Souls for their own work in religious and theological studies or cultural criticism.[21] Additionally, Victor Anderson, a philosophical theologian and cultural critic at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the author of Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism, links concepts from Souls to much of the work in black religious studies.

In Beyond Ontological Blackness, Anderson seeks to critique a trope of "black heroic genius" articulated within the logics of ontological blackness as a philosophy of racial consciousness.[22] At the center of this conception is Du Bois. "W. E. B. Du Bois's double-consciousness depiction of black existence has come to epitomize the existential determinants of black self-consciousness. These alienated forms of black consciousness have been categorically defined in African-American cultural studies as: The Negro Problem, The Color Line, Black Experience, Black Power, The Veil of Blackness, Black Radicalism, and most recently, The Black Sacred Cosmos."[22] Anderson's critique of black heroic genius and a move towards black cultural fulfillment is an attempt to move beyond the categories deployed by Du Bois in Souls.

Likewise, Sanders, who in interpreting black black holiness-Pentecostalism specifically, also critiques Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness. In Sanders's work, Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture, Sanders deploys a dialectical understanding of exile, which she characterizes in black holiness-Pentecostal terms as "Being in the world, but not of it."[23] At the same time, Sanders wishes to contrast this from the double-consciousness dialect of Du Bois, at least as she understands it. For Sanders, "exilic dialectics" is "hoped to represent a progressive step beyond the 'double-consciousness' described by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, which persists as the dominant paradigm in African American religious and cultural thought."[24]

Describing double-consciousness as "either-or" and exilic consciousness as between "both-and", Sanders contrasts that those who live in exile "can find equilibrium and fulfillment between extremes, whereas adherents to the latter either demand resolution or suffer greatly in the tension, as is the case with Du Bois's description of the agony of 'double-consciousness,' as 'two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.'"[21]

Textual changes[edit]

In 1953, The Souls of Black Folk was published in a special "Fiftieth Anniversary Jubilee Edition". In his introduction, Du Bois wrote that in the 50 years since its publication, he occasionally had the inclination to revise the book but ultimately decided to leave it as it was, "as a monument to what I thought and felt in 1903". While he stuck by his decision, he wrote, in the new edition he had made "less than a half-dozen alterations in word or phrase and then not to change my thoughts as previously set down but to avoid any possible misunderstanding today of what I meant to say yesterday."[25] In 1973, historian Herbert Aptheker identified seven changes. Historian and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a team of readers performed a line-by-line comparison of the two editions during the 1980s and identified two more changes. All the changes are minor; the longest was to change "nephews and poor whites and the Jews" to "poor relations and foreign immigrants". In six of the nine changes, Du Bois changed references to Jews to refer to immigrants or foreigners. Two of the other changes also involved references to Jews.[26]

Du Bois wrote to Aptheker in February 1953 about concerns he had with his references to Jews in the book:

I have had a chance to read [The Souls of Black Folk] in part for the first time in years. I find in chapters VII, VII and IX, five incidental references to Jews. I recall that years ago, Jacob Schiff wrote me criticising these references and that I denied any thought of race or religious prejudice and promised to go over the passages in future editions. These editions succeeded each other without any consultation with me, and evidently the matter slipped out of my mind.
As I re-read these words today, I see that harm might come if they were allowed to stand as they are. First of all, I am not at all sure that the foreign exploiters to whom I referred ... were in fact Jews.... But even if they were, what I was condemning was the exploitation and not the race nor religion. And I did not, when writing, realize that by stressing the name of the group instead of what some members of the [group] may have done, I was unjustly maligning a people in exactly the same way my folk were then and are now falsely accused.
In view of this and because of the even greater danger of injustice now than then, I want in the event of re-publication [to] change those passages.[27]

In a March 1953 letter to Blue Heron Press, Du Bois asked that the following paragraph be added to the end of "Of the Black Belt":

In the foregoing chapter, "Jews" have been mentioned five times, and the late Jacob Schiff once complained that this gave an impression of anti-Semitism. This at the time I stoutly denied; but as I read the passages again in the light of subsequent history, I see how I laid myself open to this possible misapprehension. What, of course, I meant to condemn was the exploitation of black labor and that it was in this country and at that time in part a matter of immigrant Jews, was incidental and not essential. My inner sympathy with the Jewish people was expressed better in the last paragraph of page 152. But this illustrates how easily one slips into unconscious condemnation of a whole group.[28]

The publisher did not add the paragraph, perhaps because Du Bois changed the text instead.[29]


  1. ^ Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Introduction". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xx. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  2. ^ a b Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Introduction". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxi. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  3. ^ Chap. I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings at
  4. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. p. 197. 
  5. ^ "Educational Theory of Booker T. Washington". 
  6. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. pp. 49–57. ISBN 9780758331403. 
  7. ^ "XIV. The Sorrow Songs. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk". Retrieved 2016-09-27. 
  8. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. pp. 116, 117. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ Pierce, Yolanda. "The Soul of Du Bois's Black Folk". The North Star. Princeton University. Retrieved March 22, 2013. 
  13. ^ Manning Marable, Living Black History, p.96
  14. ^ a b "Books Noted". Negro Digest: 52. June 1964. 
  15. ^ "The Negro Question". The New York Times. April 25, 1903. Retrieved February 16, 2017. 
  16. ^ a b Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 16.
  17. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 17.
  18. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 30–31.
  19. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 25–26.
  20. ^ Charles Nero, "Queering the Souls of Black Folk," Public Cultures 17, no. 2 (2005)
  21. ^ a b Sanders, Cheryl J. (1999). Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture. London: Oxford. p. 125. ISBN 978-0195131017. 
  22. ^ a b Anderson, Victor (1995). Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism. New York: Continuum. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0826408655. 
  23. ^ Sanders, Cheryl J. (1999). Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture. London: Oxford. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0195131017. 
  24. ^ Sanders, Cheryl J. (1999). Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture. London: Oxford. p. 124. ISBN 978-0195131017. 
  25. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (2007) [1953]. "Fifty Years After". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  26. ^ Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Note on the Text". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxv. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  27. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (February 27, 1953). "The Souls of Black Folk" (Letter). Letter to Herbert Aptheker. , cited in Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Note on the Text". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxvi. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  28. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (March 16, 1953). "The Souls of Black Folk" (Letter). Letter to Blue Heron Press. , cited in Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Note on the Text". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxvi. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 
  29. ^ Edwards, Brent Hayes (2007). "Note on the Text". The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxvi. ISBN 978-0-19-280678-9. 

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]