Summary of The Souls of Black Folk

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The Souls of Black Folk book summary

Literary Classic

  • Sociology
  • Realism

What It’s About

W.E.B. Du Bois was a unique figure in his day. He was a well-traveled writer and thinker with a superb education, culminating with the first-ever doctorate a black American earned at Harvard. From his early life, he devoted himself to addressing the challenges of black people in America. In 1903, he combined several magazine articles and a short story into this anthology. At times serious and at other times lyrical, he strove to educate audiences about the special experience of black people in America and their contributions to American culture and life. More than a century later, it is fascinating how prescient Du Bois was in his analysis and how many of his observations, troublingly, still ring true today. [Editor’s note: Du Bois wrote in 1903, using the vocabulary of his time.]

Take-Aways

  • The Souls of Black Folk is among the most influential works on the African-American experience ever written.
  • This collection, consisting of 14 primarily non-fiction essays, portrays the life of black people in the United States after Emancipation. Topics include their hopes and striving, their songs and religion, but also abject poverty, debt bondage, disenfranchisement and violent racism.
  • W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to provide a glimpse into life behind the “Veil,” a thick, invisible layer separating black people from white people.
  • Published in 1903, the book’s title was programmatic: Some white Americans in that era thought of black people as less than human.
  • Eight years earlier, Booker T. Washington had argued for economic independence rather than social equality as the primary goal for black people.
  • In 1899, Du Bois was in Atlanta when a black farmhand, who was unjustly accused of rape, was brutally lynched nearby. A month later, when Du Bois was unable to find a black doctor, his two-year-old son died.
  • After those experiences, he decided that there was no point in detached, scholarly work on the subject of race.
  • Instead, he wrote in a very personal, at times polemical, but mostly very lyrical style.
  • Henry James and Martin Luther King Jr. admired Du Bois, and his book became a manifesto for the civil rights movement.
  • “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”
 

Summary

“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

Being black in America meant being a problem: It was called the “Negro problem,” and no one could turn a blind eye to it. Black people were destined to have a double consciousness, perpetually looking at themselves through the eyes of others. They are Americans, and they are black – two identities at odds with one another, separated by the inescapable “Veil.” Crippled by a centuries-old legacy of slavery, ignorance, poverty and humiliation, black Americans were thrust into the supposed promised land of freedom without a cent, a home, land, skills or savings.

“Of the Dawn of Freedom”

This is not what was intended. In 1865, just two years after Emancipation, the federal government founded the Freedmen’s Bureau. Its mission would have been daunting in the best of times, let alone in the post-Civil War period of economic hardship and racial bigotry: What to do with millions of internal refugees, suddenly in need of food, shelter, clothing and jobs? So the Bureau went to work, fighting off mass starvation, building hospitals, establishing courts and last, but not least, trying to provide land to ex-slaves on abandoned properties in the South.

While the Bureau succeeded in some endeavors, chiefly in education, it failed in most. Peonage and forced labor, though forbidden by law, were effectively becoming the law of the land. Then, seven years into its existence, the Bureau was abolished. One argument was that in 1870 the 15th amendment had given black people the right to vote. Yet in practice, not a single Southern legislature was willing to admit blacks to the polls. So sorely needed and potentially beneficial work was abandoned before it could really begin.

“Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”

Booker T. Washington ascended at a time when the nation had grown sick and tired of the race problem. His ideas to further industrial education, reconcile with Southern whites, and remain silent on civil and political rights, struck the right chord. Washington’s position was known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” The South welcomed those ideas enthusiastically, the North willingly and other black people grudgingly. Still, the Atlanta Compromise did more harm than good: Black people became disenfranchised. They were assigned a status of civil inferiority and kept back from pursuing higher education.

Mr. Washington’s conservative approach did not make much sense. You cannot become a thrifty artisan or property owner without the protection of the law and the right to vote. You cannot provide quality common school and industrial training without developing capable teachers and community leaders. Reconciliation is a laudable thing. But as long as it rested on the effective perpetuation of slavery and the expectation that black people would voluntarily abandon their constitutional rights, it was harmful to the moral fiber of the nation and an impediment to its development.

“Of the Meaning of Progress”

As a young man, while studying at Fisk University in Tennessee, W.E.B. Du Bois set out one summer to teach black folks in the countryside. One day, as he walked along hot and dusty roads, he met 20-year-old Josie, a slight, plain girl who told him that her village had been visited by a teacher only once since the war and that the community was eager to learn. So for two summers, the author taught about 30 students of all ages. Attendance was patchy. Often the students had to work or their parents doubted the merits of book learning. Yet some students desperately tried to grasp for opportunities beyond the Veil. Most of their efforts were in vain.

“How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfulls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? … Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.”

On a trip to the area 10 years later, the author visited some of his old friends. He discovered that Josie was dead. She had given up her dreams after her two younger brothers got into trouble and ran away, and her sister had an illegitimate child. The most enterprising farmer in the area was still in debt and would probably die in debt. But the old cabin in which the author once taught had been replaced by a more traditional schoolhouse. Yet, some window panes were broken, and the seats still had no backs.

“Of the Wings of Atalanta”

If the city of Atlanta wasn’t named after the mythical Greek maiden Atalanta, it should have been. According to that tale, Atalanta’s greed for gold led her to break her vow of virginity and then brought a curse on her and her lover. The Atalanta of the myth couldn’t resist bending down for the golden apples on the ground. In the early 1900s, Atlanta seemed to view material wealth as the only cure for its many social ills, including the remains of slavery, poor educational institutions, and dysfunctional politics and legal systems. Blacks were told if they bent down for those apples, all their problems would be solved. But not everyone heeded that advice.

At Atlanta University, [the historically black university now known as Clark Atlanta University], the sons of freedmen were trained in classics, not trades. They sought knowledge, truth and ideals, not breadwinning schemes. The South needed a complete and varied system of education, higher and lower, academic and professional, to form the basis for a more cultured and civilized society. The universities of the future would have to be the wings of Atalanta, bearing her beyond the tempting golden fruits.

“Of the Training of Black Men”

In the early 1900s, people in the South lived in two separate worlds, more so than ever existed before the war. This system made group training and learning impossible, and so black people had no choice but to train themselves and their teachers. Plenty of evidence showed that, given the opportunity, academically outstanding black men rose to the occasion. About 2,000 black men graduated from black colleges founded before and since the Civil War. Another 400 earned undergraduate degrees from Northern colleges such as Harvard and Yale. White people need teachers, ministers, lawyers and doctors. And so did black people. If you refused the black community the right to gain knowledge, they could not deliver themselves from prejudice and injustice.

“Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece”

The “Black Belt” of Georgia was the “Cotton Kingdom,” and here the black community reigned supreme – at least as far as numbers were concerned. In 1890, about 10,000 black people lived in Dougherty County, the heart of the Black Belt, compared to 2,000 white inhabitants. Most of the former landlords had cleared out, leaving their decaying mansions to agents who collected rent for them. Almost all the black families lived in the same or similarly dilapidated, one- and two-room cabins that they dwelled in before the war. Many had broken families, a heritage from slavery, when slaveholders could break up families and move people around, encouraging them to take new partners and give birth repeatedly.

“It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts.”

On paper, the freedmen’s legal status changed. In practice, they were shackled by debt. Only 6% of black people in Dougherty County worked on their own land. Merchants supplied most of the remaining tenants on credit against their crops. Under that practice, the merchants advanced food, clothing, tools, seeds and the use of a mule, to be paid back with cotton after the harvest. Thus, the farmer could not diversify his crops or ever get ahead financially.

In the back country of the Gulf states, systems of forced labor without wages still prevailed in the early 1900s. Migration-agent laws kept agricultural laborers from freely choosing their employers. Some Southern whites blamed the black person’s condition on a perceived lack of motivation. An honest economist would have pointed out that impoverished farmers had little incentive to strive, since they could earn nothing for their labor.

“Of the Sons”

It would be fair to say that in the competition of race, the vicious and greedy have always triumphed over the virtuous and innocent. This had to change. One curious effect of the color-line was that the white and black populations almost never lived in proximity anymore. In the past, those slaves who were assigned to work in the house – as opposed to in the fields – were often more cultured and were typically in closer contact with white people. After the Civil War, poor Southern laborers, white and black, fell into the hands of organized capital: Shrewd newcomers and thrifty Yankees capitalized on the laborers’ lack of knowledge. Meanwhile, the general corruption in politics convinced most black people that politics was a dirty business after all, causing them to give up on it entirely. As a result, efforts to disenfranchise the black community escalated in the early 1900s.

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

To be sure, crime rose significantly after Emancipation. Yet the response was wholly inadequate. The perpetuation of a police system, originally established to control slaves, resulted in a double justice system that exonerated whites and made being black a crime. Rather than looking at the criminal justice system as a means of protection, black people saw it as yet another club of oppression. Racial prejudice was certainly not the only cause of the black community’s condition. Nor is that condition the main cause of racial prejudice. One simply aggravated the other.

“Of the Faith of the Fathers”

Black people in America were unique in their religious passion and fervor. To the uninitiated, the passion expressed at a Southern black revival could be bewildering. The service stems from the tradition of African religions, where a Holy Spirit manifests itself by seizing its devotee spiritually and physically. Contemporary black preachers traced their origins back to the African priests and shamans who served as healers, interpreters and judges for the blacks on West Indian plantations. On American soil, such practices and beliefs were blended primarily with Baptist and Methodist creeds. Slaveholders quickly realized that the Christian doctrine of passive submission suited their needs just fine.

“In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” (Booker T. Washington)

The black churches’ influence on religious life in the United States cannot be underestimated. In fact, many poor white Southern churches evoke black religious practices. A black church was often the only social and economic center of its community – on average, there was one church for every 60 black families in the nation.

“Of the Passing of the First-Born”

After his first son was born, Du Bois took the infant and his wife to live with him in Atlanta. The little boy had olive skin, brown-blue eyes and a golden tint in his hair. It made his father uneasy because golden hair was an evil omen in his life. The author and his wife were crazy with love and full of hope for their little boy, and the child seemed to charm the whole world around him. Then he fell ill. His father could not find a black doctor and white doctors refused him. He lay wasting away for 10 days. The morning of his burial, while the funeral procession moved through the neighborhood, some white people looked at them and mouthed the worst of racial slurs. The father wondered why it had to be his boy. Why not himself? That young life knew no color-line, and maybe he would have lived to see what life would be like above the Veil. 

“Of Alexander Crummell”

In his rich and eventful life, Alexander Crummell, an African-American minister and academic, rose above three temptations: hate, despair and doubt. After graduating from high school, he went to the New Hampshire town of Canaan to attend an integrated college established by abolitionists. But local farmers, furious at that idea, hitched 90 oxen teams to the building and dragged it off its foundations into the swamp. Crummell conquered his hate. Then he was denied admission to the seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York because of his race. He overcame his despair, studied on and was eventually ordained a priest in Massachusetts.

Faced with low church attendance in his little parish, he began to question the ability of black people to rise above their miserable condition. But he got past his doubts, went to Philadelphia and asked for a larger parish. The bishop told him that he would let him into his diocese only on the condition that no black church or priest was represented there. Crummell refused. He traveled to England, graduated from Cambridge, moved to West Africa and finally returned to the United States to give back to his community.

“The Sorrow Songs”

The traditional black folk songs, the Sorrow Songs, are the most beautiful reflection of life America has given to humankind. More than anything, they are an oppressed people’s message to the world, belying the notion that the enslaved person was content. The gospel lyrics speak of toil and exile, separation and sorrow, as well as hope and longing for a better afterlife. The time has come for the nation to recognize the contribution of its black citizens, treat them as equals and give them the respect they deserve.

Short Story: “Of the Coming of John”

[Du Bois’s anthology includes this one fictitious short story.] John Jones was from Altamaha, a sleepy town in southeastern Georgia. His family sent him to a college up North. The local whites disapproved, but his own folks were proud. They waited and hoped for a miracle when John came home. Meanwhile, the local judge and his family also looked forward to their own son, named John Henderson, coming home from Princeton. As children, the white John and the black John had spent many hours playing together.

At first John Jones had a hard time at school. Learning didn’t come easily to him. But he pulled himself together, studied hard and graduated. During a visit to New York, he was drawn into a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. The music and the whole atmosphere left him awestruck. However, the usher soon asked him to leave. Why? John Henderson, the judge’s son, who happened to be sitting next to him, had taken offense at his presence and orchestrated his removal from the scene.

After this humiliating incident, John Jones decided to return home. Yet his homecoming was a failure. After seven years away, he felt out of place, disgusted with the dilapidated shanties. Still, he went to Judge Henderson to ask permission to open a school. Reluctantly, the white man consented – on the condition that John Jones and his people continued to recognize their lower status in the community. Otherwise, they would be lynched.

A month later, John, the judge’s son came home. He scoffed at the idea of staying in the godforsaken town, needling his father with his arrogance. When the judge heard what happened in New York at the concert – that John Jones had the temerity to attend an opera – the judge stormed the new black school and ordered it closed. On his way home, the embittered teacher witnessed the judge’s son trying to rape his sister Jennie Jones. Jones struck the rapist dead with a log. Then he went to say farewell to his mother, returned to the site of the killing and waited for the lynch mob to arrive.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The Souls of Black Folk combines a unique mix of styles, voices and rhythms, including sober number crunching, impressionistic travel writing and messianic preaching. The book is a collection of 14 separate essays (including one fictitious short story), examining the legacy of Emancipation, black leadership, agriculture, religion and song, as well as the position of black people in American society at the turn of the century. As a learned scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois never pretends to be scientifically objective. He is an advocate, a proud African-American and an activist who wants to set the record straight.

The author takes you on a harrowing journey through the underdeveloped, racist South. He brings you into segregated towns, talking to disillusioned people along the way. His language is poetic and metaphorical. Du Bois seems to follow a particular beat, employing a number of rhetorical devices such as contrasting pairs, parallelism and repetition, thereby creating a blueprint for many powerful speeches of the Civil Rights Era some 50 years later. He introduces each chapter by pairing the lines from a white poet with the musical score of a black spiritual, continuing the tune in writing.

Interpretation

  • The book’s title is programmatic and provocative in nature. At the time, some people argued whether black people had souls. The author counters this with evidence of the black community’s humanity – showing them as competent and capable, when given a chance, or undereducated and disengaged when presented with the wrong incentives.
  • To describe black people’s condition, he coins the term double consciousness: the difficult effort to be proud of being black and trying to assimilate into white society at the same time. The endeavor is thwarted by the “Veil of Race,” a metaphor for the thick layer between African-Americans and opportunity. In Du Bois’s era, the Veil was very tangible to black people and invisible to the white people.
  • Du Bois does not deny the oppressed state of the black population in the South, which he regarded as a legacy of slavery and continued bigotry. Yet he envisioned that educated black leaders would emerge to lift the community out of that state.
  • For Du Bois, a highly educated New Englander and an outsider within his own community, the question of black identity was crucial. Inspired by academia and the classic philosophers, and facing a bleak reality on the ground, he pushed back as leader of his community, hearkening both to the romantic idea of a uniquely black spirit and to the quest for a more egalitarian nation built on fairness and equal treatment.

Historical Background

Separate and Unequal

African-Americans found themselves in the crosscurrents of several trends at the start of the 20th century. The post-Civil War policy of Reconstruction had ended 25 years earlier. Political control of the American South, where 90% of blacks lived, had fallen entirely into the hands of white politicians. The process of legal segregation and bars to voting, nicknamed Jim Crow, was being codified, and every year brought further restrictions. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court effectively authorized Jim Crow by granting that “separate but equal” treatment was legal. In 1901, the last remaining black legislator in the United States Congress retired when suppression of black voters in his home district in North Carolina made his reelection impossible.

At the same time, the Agricultural College Act of 1890 provided funds for establishing colleges for black Americans. With new opportunities and access to higher education, African-American voices became more prominent in the discussion of race. In an 1895 speech, educator and reformer Booker T. Washington argued that economic improvement should take priority over struggles for political rights. Faced with the defeats engendered by Jim Crow, many black community leaders supported this strategy. But others felt that it was tantamount to accepting permanent second-class citizenship. This made Mr. Washington controversial in this time.

However, his influence with prominent white patrons and politicians did bring considerable support for educational institutions and entrepreneurship within black communities and helped foster a small, but growing, black upper class. Despite this progress, frequent lynchings and even organized attacks on the black community such as the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 – where dozens died and thousands fled their homes as a white mob removed a democratically elected black-majority city government – left many wondering how secure even small economic advances could be without political equality. 

Development

On April 23, 1899, just outside Atlanta, a white mob brutally lynched the black farmhand Sam Hose. In a dispute over pay, Hose had thrown an axe at his white employer in self-defense. After the racist press spread lies about Hose raping the dying man’s wife, the lynch mob arrived in trains from the city, joining 2,000 locals in severing Hose’s ears, fingers and genitals, and then burning him alive. Du Bois was on his way to a meeting with a newspaper editor hoping to expose the lies about this case, when he heard that it was already too late: Hose’s knuckles were on sale in a nearby grocery store. The public calamity was followed by a private one just a few weeks later: Du Bois’s two-year-old son Burghardt died of diphtheria. Du Bois hadn’t been able to locate a black doctor in Atlanta, and white doctors refused to treat black people.

At that point, he gave up on the scholarly idea that laying down the facts and appealing to reason was the thing to do. “Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist” while black people were “lynched, murdered and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort I was doing.”

He began to publish more literary essays in the Atlantic Monthly, World’s Work and Dial, while continuing to write for scholarly publications, lending those essays an unprecedented lyrical voice. In 1902, the Chicago publisher A. C. McClurg & Co. asked him about collecting some essays into a book. Du Bois resisted the idea initially, claiming that “books of essays almost always fall so flat.” But eventually he agreed. The Souls of Black Folk was published in the spring of 1903.

Reviews and Legacy

The Souls of Black Folk became an immediate bestseller. Critics and the public were either exalted, shocked or irate, but no one was left unmoved. One of the most prominent figures in English-language literature, author Henry James, praised it as “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction for many a year,” and called its author one of the “most accomplished of members” of his race. On the other side of the spectrum, a Tennessee newspaper warned: “This book is dangerous to allow the black community to read, for it will only excite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind.” Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute even tried to suppress it, but in vain. Black people pored over the pages, feeling proud, empowered and vindicated. Even The New York Times, in a guarded and mildly condescending review, admitted that it could be of value “to any unprejudiced student – still more, perhaps, for the prejudiced who is yet willing to be a student.”

It is hard to say how many converts the book managed to make among prejudiced whites. But it did mobilize those people – black and white – who opposed Booker T. Washington’s accommodating approach toward Jim Crow segregation and who were willing to fight against it. It became a manifesto for the Pan-Africanist movement, which Du Bois helped to found, and for the Civil Rights Movement. As J. Saunders Redding noted in 1961: “The boycott of the buses had many roots… but none more important than this little book of essays published more than half a century ago.” Martin Luther King Jr. honored Du Bois as a singular man of genius and empathy who dismantled white bigots’ lies about blacks and exposed their historic contribution to American society at large.

About the Author

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, into one of only 30 black families in town. He graduated as valedictorian of his integrated high school class and won a scholarship to attend Fisk University in Nashville. While there, from 1885 to 1888, he taught in rural Tennessee during summers, witnessing the squalid poverty and systemic racism of the South. Highly gifted and ambitious, he then embarked on a stellar scholarly career: BA from Harvard, fellowship to study in Berlin for two years, and, in 1895, he became the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.In 1897, he joined the faculty of historically black Atlanta University to establish a sociology program. Two years later, he published The Philadelphia Negro, the first case study of African-Americans ever conducted. In 1903, his most famous work The Souls of Black Folk was released to great acclaim. Amid a climate of growing racial tensions, he and other black Civil Rights activists founded the Niagara Movement to promote full racial equality. The movement merged with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Du Bois moved to New York to become the editor of the organization’s monthly magazine The Crisis. His relationship with other activists was tumultuous, with him leaving and returning to the NAACP several times over the next decades. Active in a multitude of causes, including Pan-Africanism and world peace, he also sympathized with Marxist ideas, claiming that communism might be better suited for dealing with racial inequality than capitalism. In 1951, at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts, Du Bois was accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He was acquitted, but denied a passport for seven years. In 1961, at President Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation, he moved to Ghana and assumed Ghanaian citizenship, after the United States refused to renew his passport. He died in Accra on August 27, 1963, aged 95.


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