The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk Summary

The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is a work in African-American literature, that to this day is lauded as one of the most important parts of African-American and sociological history. In this collection of essays, Du Bois coins two terms that have developed into theoretical fields of study: “double consciousness” and “the Veil." “Double consciousness" is the belief that the African-American in the United States live with two conflicting identities that cannot be entirely merged together. First and most important to the black experience is the black identity. The second most important thing is the American identity, an identity into which the black man was born only because of the historical remnants of slavery. Working along with the idea of double consciousness is the veil, which describes that African-Americans’ lived experience happens behind a veil. While they are able to understand what life is like for people outside of and within their group, it is difficult for white people to fully understand the black experience. The Souls of Black Folk provides the reader with a glimpse into life behind the veil.

In order to full explain the experience of living behind the veil, Du Bois provides the reader with anecdotes and situations that the black man experiences throughout the period of reconstruction. In the first essay, the reader learns about his experience within the veil, and of his realization of the discrimination he would face because of his skin color. In the second essay, Du Bois contends that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. This provides a basis for the rest of his essays, where he further analyzes the stratification and marginalization processes that exist due to the existence of this invisible line. In the third essay, he describes Booker T. Washington's rise to prominence in America, and how his success, while symbolic for African-Americans, was also detrimental. Instead of realizing that the oppression of the Negro was what led to his lack of education, Washington argues that the Negro needed to focus more on education in order to achieve ultimate success.

Du Bois takes a turn in his fourth essay, "Of the Meaning of Progress," when he begins to describe his experience as a schoolteacher in the Southern United States. After leaving his position as a teacher, the town in which he taught was overcome with "progress" (Du Bois, Page 55), or the process of industrialization. Industrialization soon becomes an obsession with wealth, as Du Bois realizes in the essay "Of the Wings of Atalanta.” The Southern people, who had previously tended towards simplicity, now had a desire for wealth and materialism, all due to the process of industrialization. The changes that came with industrialization meant that the United States needed to provide a more skilled work force. In "Of the Training of the Black Man," the author demonstrates how the black man had many skills that would be helpful for this industrialization, but that due how submissive the Negro had been under slavery, there would need to be new training programs that would provide this education to the Negro people.

The latter part of his collection of essays is a look into the development of the African-American society in the South. Through religion and education, the African-American is able to achieve a relative level of success in America. However, the veil with which he lives makes it difficult for him to ever fully achieve this. After examining the collective black experience, Du Bois provides individual black experiences to allow the reader to fully understand the plight of the Negro.

The most exemplary part of the work is Du Bois' personal account of the passing of his son. In "Of the Passing of the First-Born", Du Bois chronicles his journey from pure happiness into despair and disappointment when his son dies in infancy. Although he would never be afflicted by the evils of the veil, he was afflicted by tragedy, which, Du Bois argued, hurt even more. “Of Alexander Crummell" tells the story of a black man who decides that he will fight for his people, through education and religion. While he ultimately fails to garner the respect and success he originally wanted, he fought until death to gain equality. In "Of the Coming of John", he tells the story of a young black man who decides to get an education. While he receives this education and is therefore successful, the existence of racism destroys him. Finally, Du Bois ends this book with a collection of Negro Spirituals, which provide a glimpse into the tragedy of the past, and the hope that he has for the future.