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