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.


Chapter I 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."[1]

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.[2]

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

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.[3] He also advocates the addition of a classical education to establish leaders and educators in the black community.

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.[4]

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.

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 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).

Chapter XIV: "Of the Sorrow Songs" is about Negro music and makes reference to the short musical passages at the beginning of each of the other chapters. He mentions that the music was so powerful an d meaningful, regardless of the peoples appearance and teaching, their hearts were just as human emotions and their singing represented their power. DuBois concludes the chapter by bringing up inequality, race and discrimination. "Your country? How came it yours?..we were here".[5]

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, other poets included Friedrich Schiller, Omar Khayyám, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Lord Byron. 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.[6]

The Sorrow Songs[edit]

In Chapter XIV, "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."[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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."[13]

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."[13]

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.[14] 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.[14] 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.”[15]

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."[16]

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.”[17] 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.[18]


  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. ^ "Educational Theory of Booker T. Washington". 
  4. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. pp. 49–57. ISBN 9780758331403. 
  5. ^ "XIV. The Sorrow Songs. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk". Retrieved 2016-09-27. 
  6. ^ W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987; 538.
  7. ^ Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic. pp. 116, 117. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  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. 161. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Pierce, Yolanda. "The Soul of Du Bois's Black Folk". The North Star. Princeton University. Retrieved March 22, 2013. 
  12. ^ Manning Marable, Living Black History, p.96
  13. ^ a b "Books Noted". Negro Digest: 52. June 1964. 
  14. ^ a b Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 16.
  15. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 17.
  16. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 30–31.
  17. ^ Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 25–26.
  18. ^ Charles Nero, "Queering the Souls of Black Folk," Public Cultures 17, no. 2 (2005)

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]