The Souls of Black Folk

Critical reception

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.[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, other poets included Friedrich Schiller, Omar Khayyám, John Greenleaf Whittier, and George Gordon 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.”[12]

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."[13]

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.”[14] 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.[15]

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