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The Souls of Black Folk

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This landmark book is a founding work in the literature of black protest. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) played a key role in developing the strategy and program that dominated early 20th-century black protest in America. In this collection of essays, first published together in 1903, he eloquently affirms that it is beneath the dignity of a human being to beg for those rights that belong inherently to all mankind. He also charges that the strategy of accommodation to white supremacy advanced by Booker T. Washington, then the most influential black leader in America, would only serve to perpetuate black oppression.
Publication of The Souls of Black Folk was a dramatic event that helped to polarize black leaders into two groups: the more conservative followers of Washington and the more radical supporters of aggressive protest. Its influence cannot be overstated. It is essential reading for everyone interested in African-American history and the struggle for civil rights in America.

288 pages, Paperback

First published April 18, 1903

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About the author

W.E.B. Du Bois

459 books1,184 followers
In 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced 'doo-boyz') was born in Massachusetts. He attended Fisk College in Nashville, then earned his BA in 1890 and his MS in 1891 from Harvard. Du Bois studied at the University of Berlin, then earned his doctorate in history from Harvard in 1894. He taught economics and history at Atlanta University from 1897-1910. The Souls of Black Folk (1903) made his name, in which he urged black Americans to stand up for their educational and economic rights. Du Bois was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and edited the NAACP's official journal, "Crisis," from 1910 to 1934. Du Bois turned "Crisis" into the foremost black literary journal. The black nationalist expanded his interests to global concerns, and is called the "father of Pan-Africanism" for organizing international black congresses.

Although he used some religious metaphor and expressions in some of his books and writings, Du Bois called himself a freethinker. In "On Christianity," a posthumously published essay, Du Bois critiqued the black church: "The theology of the average colored church is basing itself far too much upon 'Hell and Damnation'—upon an attempt to scare people into being decent and threatening them with the terrors of death and punishment. We are still trained to believe a good deal that is simply childish in theology. The outward and visible punishment of every wrong deed that men do, the repeated declaration that anything can be gotten by anyone at any time by prayer." Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party and officially repudiated his U.S. citizenship at the end of his life, dying in his adopted country of Ghana. D. 1963.

More: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/t...




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Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.5k followers
June 29, 2020

While reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, I asked myself whether any other book offered such penetrating insight into the black experience in equally impressive prose. The first name that came to me was The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, and just as the two directions of black leadership in the tumultuous 60's and '70's were symbolized by Martin and Malcolm, the two directions at the turn of the last century—a period punctuated by lynchings and race riots—were embodied in Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington, born a slave in the South, urged blacks, at least for the present, to accept Jim Crow and disenfranchisement in return for safety and peace, while they concentrated on attending trade schools and developing--and demonstrating to white society--their integrity and character. (White society praised Washington; Theodore Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House.) W.E.B. Du Bois, born free in the North, insisted on the vote and full civil rights, and encouraged the development of black intellectuals, the “talented tenth," urging them to complete not only four years of college, but post-graduate degrees as well. (Du Bois was the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard).

In this collection of fourteen essays, his first great influential work, Du Bois begins by anatomizing racism and analyzing its consequences, most notably how racism—particularly “the color line”—places every black person beneath the “veil,” creating a special way of seeing—painful, but also illuminating—which comes from being set apart. In “The Dawn of Freedom,” he offers a perceptive view of reconstruction, and in “Of Booker T. Washington and Others” he coldly, devastatingly, holds up Washington's ideas for critical examination. Throughout the first quarter of the work, he excels in conveying sociological insights in a magisterial--almost biblical—fashion.

Beginning with “The Meaning of Progress,” where Du Bois' reminiscences about his days teaching in a one-room school-house, his style becomes gentler, more sentimental. His portaits of individual scholars and community elders are sharp but also deeply moving. Du Bois continues with his portraits in individual essays, each about a different part of the south or a particularly notable person, and by the end of his tour we have gained much insight into the “souls of black folk” in his day. The book ends with “The Sorrow Songs,” an examination of the nature of the Negro Spiritual, which is not only a fine example of sociology but a groundbreaking work of musicology too.

If you have not read it, you should, for this book is not only a milestone of African-American thought but also a classic of American Literature. Its wisdom and rhetorical power have shown more brightly with the years, as it sits there, on the shelf of essentials, welcoming the advent of Ta-Nahisi Coates.

Here follow two samples of Du Bois' prose, the first of realistic description, and second of transcendent rhetoric. The first is about a man Du Bois met in “The Black Belt,” where Cotton once was King:
I remember one big red-eyed black whom we met by the roadside. Forty-five years he had labored on this farm, beginning with nothing, and still having nothing. To be sure, he had given four children a common-school training, and perhaps if the new fence-law had not allowed unfenced crops in West Dougherty he might have raised a little stock and kept ahead. As it is, he is hopelessly in debt, disappointed, and embittered. He stopped us to inquire after the black boy in Albany, whom it was said a policeman had shot and killed for loud talking on the sidewalk. And then he said slowly: "Let a white man touch me, and he dies; I don't boast this,—I don't say it around loud, or before the children,—but I mean it. I've seen them whip my father and my old mother in them cotton-rows till the blood ran; by—" and we passed on.
The second is a question--relevant for all of us--about of the Negro Sprituals:
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
February 23, 2015
This is really not the book I thought it was going to be. I thought this would be a more-or-less dry book of sociology discussing the lives of black folk in the US – you know: a few statistics, a bit of outrage, a couple of quotes, some history, but all written in a detached academic style. It isn’t like that at all, although there are bits of it that are written exactly like that. Du Bois has been one of those people that I’ve been seeing about the place for some time now. There is an extensive discussion of his work in WJT Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race and in a few of the books on racism in the US I’ve read. But again, I really thought what he did was straight sociology. This book, I suspect his most famous, is really anything but straight sociology. It is strikingly well written. It uses a variety of forms – there’s even a short story – and, given the book is so short, you should probably just read it rather than my review.

What I was most interested in this book for to see what he had to say about ‘double consciousness’. I’m utterly fascinated by this idea and it is, I believe, one of the key ideas that people like Goffman have taken from du Bois. So, the genealogy runs from du Bois, through Goffman to people like Claude Steele and their work on the presentation of self, stigma and stereotype threat. Double consciousness is the idea that being black means having to have more than one soul. There is seeing yourself as ‘yourself’ and then always also having to see yourself as you are seen by those around you, those who have power. As du Bois says, what black folk long for is to be both black and American – to arrive at a kind of self-consciousness that does not require the denial of one in attaining the other. Something that writers like bell hooks run with.

The short story in this book – a story about two first sons, one black and one white, and their parallel, though strikingly different journeys through life, present a stark vision of the constraints placed on one life and the soulless destitution of the other. I found this story moving, but also a fascinating way to make the point about the nature and consequences of racism in the US – the extremes people will go to so as to keep people in their place and how hard it is, once you have seen the ‘truth’ to convince those around you of that ‘truth’ - this is, again, a reworking of Plato's allegory of the cave and with similar consequences both for those able to 'escape' the cave, those left behind in the cave and those forced to return to the cave. Speaking from a position outside of ‘normal’ understanding always means sounding like a madman. It is the price of the getting of wisdom. Du Bois does not make the getting of this wisdom sound easy nor does he present the 'benefits' of such acquisition as terribly positive - but he does make clear that there is no other path, that all other ways lead to servitude.

This book is rightly famous, but I can’t help thinking it must have really surprised people when it first came out (if only because it really surprised me all this time later) and must have been an insanely brave book to write. Not because (or not only because) of the content (du Bois got to pay and pay for his opinions, as is made all too clear in the introduction and timeline of his life), but it really would have taken guts to break so many rules associated with the ‘genre’ of academic writing as is done here. It all makes for a fascinating read.
Profile Image for B. P. Rinehart.
747 reviews254 followers
February 28, 2020
"I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
Because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother's children were angry with me;
They made me the keeper of the vineyards;
But mine own vineyard have I not kept.
" - Song of Solomon 1:5-6 KJV

Bright Sparkles in the Churchyard

These are the lyrical and musical epigraphs preceding chapter seven.

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." This is going to be a hard book to review well. That is because of how well rounded and layered this book is at examining African-American life. There is much in this book that has made it so special. This book is to modern sociology what The Interpretation of Dreams was for psychology. In this book W.E.B. Du Bois offered one of the most complete studies of African-American life, history, politics, and culture. No book has really been able to over-shadow its relevance and its timelessness. It was written by the first Black man to earn a Harvard University doctorate degree. The book was published in 1903, a generation removed from slavery in the United States, yet it is still relevant to my life (four generations removed from slavery) and the present day. 112 years has not seen a lot of time pass!

This book has been the foundation text that civil rights and Black advancement in America was built on. This book influenced so many people whose careers come out of it. From the Harlem Renaissance to the thesis of my favorite novel (Invisible Man) to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness all find roots in this book. Du Bois would, in the long years after 1903, change is stance on certain ideas presented in this book, most famously concerning his theory on The Talented Tenth, but he never had anything beyond spelling or proofreading corrections done in subsequent editions of this book since he wanted it to stand as a snapshot of how he saw the world in 1903.

Trying to list the ideas and multiple purposes this book is putting forward is maddening. It puts forward in idea that a special 10% of African-Americans would become this alpha-class that would lead the rest of the race (he abandoned that as his interest in socialism grew). The book also list the theory of Black people having "double-consciousness" which he defines as the "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. One ever feels his twoness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." He goes onto say that the history of Black Folks is the tension between this duality of identity and I do not see any good counter-argument to this from my personal experience.
"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, -- peculiar even for one who has never been anything else...
The above quote is from the first two paragraphs of the book. This excerpt is something that Black Americans consciously or unconsciously have to always confront. Of course this book, being part self-study, uses Du Bois own life in order to examine the Black experience.

This book is also a very thorough polemic against Booker T. Washington. Du Bois sees Washington and his influence as one of the worst calamities to hit the African-American nation. Booker T. Washington believed that Black people should not seek social equality or political independence, but should strive for economic equality only and be guided on political matters under strict, White supervision; Black education should not include the liberal arts, but be limited to vocational trades. All of this infuriated Du Bois and led to an intense rivalry between the two that only ended with Washington's death in 1915. A whole chapter of this book is devoted solely to refuting Washington and his accommodationist beliefs.

The sad state of political status and employment of Black Folk are also covered in this book and it is depressing to see how much things have not changed. Given the recent spat of police shootings it makes reading the following quote even more painful:
"...the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves...For such dealing with criminals, white or black, the South had no machinery, no adequate jails or reformatories; its police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police. Thus grew up a double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals, and erred on the black side by undue severity, injustice, and lack of discrimination. For, as I have said, the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track of all Negroes, not simply of criminals; and when the Negroes were freed and the whole South was convinced of the impossibility of free Negro labor, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts as a means of re-enslaving the blacks. It was not then a question of crime, but rather one of color, that settled a man's conviction on almost any charge. Thus Negroes came to look upon courts as instruments of injustice and oppression, and upon those convicted in them as martyrs and victims. - from chapter 9.
This has been confirmed, by now, as not just a Southern problem, but as a nation-wide issue now. Another issue is the lack of balanced employment. Du Bois was convinced that if greedy land-owners did not perpetually swindle Black people out of ownership, there would not be such a large movement of people from rural areas to the urban areas. He was, in-fact, witnessing the origins of The Great Migration.

One of the more interesting things covered in this book are Negro Spirituals. Each chapter of this book contains two epigraphs (as demonstrated at the beginning of this review). One is a random quote vaguely related to the chapter, but the second quote is a musical notation of a passage from a spiritual. The last chapter of this book is dedicated to talking about the deep cultural and artistic importance of the spirituals (called Sorrow Songs by Du Bois) and he talks about their origins and of the musical group most noted for interpreting them: The Fisk Jubilee Singers. Each chapter quotation is also listed in this part of the book, but if you can read music you will guess the universally recognized ones like Swing Low or Steal Away.

While I would like to keep thoroughly dissecting this book, I will probably just keep shaping the review as I think of new things to examine in it, in the future I may keep adding on, but I find that it is especially difficult for me to analyze this book that is so old, but so relevant and personal. I will give Dr. Du Bois the last word then:

"Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful. Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare. Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed

Profile Image for mark monday.
1,644 reviews5,102 followers
May 8, 2023
an imperfect book, made perfect by its imperfections. perfection is cold; this is a warm book, hot at times. complex and flawed and all too human; anger and mourning and judgment doled out in equal measures. Du Bois' sad and often seething voice rings from the page. surprisingly lush and stylized prose across 14 essays, mood pieces, personal narratives, even a short story. all are complex. an experience both nourishing and scouring, and far from an easy read. but should it be? the book is America's dark night of the soul... a spiritual dryness, loneliness, existential doubts... a guide to the Black Belt, a history of a people kept low... but in the end, the wounded soul will still survive.

(some adapted from posts in GR group The Readers Review)

Chapter I: "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
- Du Bois' prose is dense and really beautiful. He has such a gift for poetic phrasing and metaphor. I was struck in particular with his description of "the tyrant and the idler... the Devil and the Deep Sea" and his "two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages" - the embittered old white man who has lost sons in the war and sees himself supplanted; the enslaved black woman, nurturer and caregiver and victim of constant abuse.
- I loved the passage "there are today no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes" and another later that notes that the original American fairy tales and folklore are indigenous and African-American - I was reminded of Albert Murray's writings in his collection The Omni-Americans.

Chapter II: "Of the Dawn of Freedom"
- I was unfamiliar with Freedmen's Bank. reading about how its collapse put freedmen so far back - on top of the lie of "forty acres and a mule" - was startling, disturbing.

Chapter III: "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others"
- an extended critique of Booker T. Washington. I'm very sympathetic to Du Bois' pillars of voting/civil rights/higher education as where the thrust of black advocacy should be (in Du Bois' time). But as a fan of Washington as well, it was also hard for me to fully agree with the critique.

Chapter IV: "Of the Meaning of Progress"
- probably my favorite chapter so far. the descriptions of his two summers teaching were so beautiful and the melancholy of his return so palpable. just such gorgeous prose in this chapter. the end of Josie was so heartbreaking. all that said, there was a slight sourness to some of the depictions of the students. overall it wasn't enough to really bother me, it was just a little startling. I suppose Steinbeck did the same when describing the residents of various small towns. but then I actually haven't loved that when reading Steinbeck either.

Chapter V: "Of the Wings of Atlanta"
- another impressive chapter. reads like a sermon against Mammon, with Atlanta as a stand-in for all such cities undergoing industrialization at no small cost to its people.
- it was interesting how up-front Du Bois is about how some folks are suited for college and others for vocational schools: "that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should be made a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a free workman among serfs." I appreciated that realism when it comes to humans (of all colors) and was reminded of similar stances from current sociopolitical writers, from center-left John McWhorter to far-left Marxist Freddie de Boer, whose Cult of Smart I just read. interesting synergy between the three.

Chapter VI: "Of the Training of Black Men"
- I was often bored & irritated by this chapter, although the point being made here is clearly close to Du Bois' heart. I could never disagree with the benefits of higher education, for those so suited, so basically in alignment?
- a bit turned off by the snobbery in one part, when describing black college graduates: "they have not that culture of manner which we instinctively associate with university men, forgetting that in reality it is the heritage from cultured homes, and that no people a generation removed from slavery can escape a certain unpleasant rawness and gaucherie, despite the best of training."
- very turned off by the classic Du Bois stance that I first came across in college: that the way forward is for a relatively small number of educated to lead the uneducated masses, i.e. "They already dimly perceive that the paths of peace winding between honest toil and dignified manhood call for the guidance of skilled thinkers... Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect." I had a flashback to my college self, an ardent socialist, shaking my head in disbelief when reading that. as if uneducated folks can't understand organizing.

Chapter VII: "Of the Black Belt"
- brilliantly written and very depressing dirge about Georgia. such hopelessness in this chapter. fucking cotton!

Chapter VIII: "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece"
- Du Bois anticipates modern arguments about systemic racism with these powerful quotes:
"Once in debt, it is no easy matter for a whole race to emerge"
"The underlying causes of this situation are complicated but discernable. And one of the chief, outside the carelessness of the nation in letting the slave start with nothing, is the widespread opinion among the merchants and employers of the Black Belt that only by the slavery of debt can the Negro be kept at work."

- fucking cotton

Chapter IX: "Of the Sons of Master and Man"
- one of the most absorbing, rich, yet also uncomfortable chapters so far. I really appreciated how he very specifically lays out the various ways that blacks and whites of the South are divided and how their division exists on all levels: political (particularly in regards to the vote), economic, and perhaps most sadly of all, social.
- my discomfort with this chapter comes from what feels like classism e.g. his outrage that "the best" of black people (i.e. most educated and politically/economically/socially sophisticated) are separated from "the best" of white people, in a way that is unique to the South. And that discomfort comes from a certain Leftism in my own political perspective, rather than any feeling that Du Bois is actually wrong in any way. Perhaps I just chafe at this constantly repeated label "the best"...
- a quote - and thesis - that is deeply uncomfortable but remains very relevant to today's world: "But the chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not the punishment of the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime." Imagine saying such a thing now in regards to black Americans! At worst, a person would be branded a racist. At best, a Glenn Loury.

Chapter X: "Of the Faith of the Fathers"
- black faith & spirituality is sketched, from its roots in African religions to its transformation into Christianity, to its use as a tool to engender submissiveness within slavery ("Christian humility") to its ecstatic identification with Abolition as the great freedom finally come, to the post-Emancipation divide between Northern black radicalism and Southern black compromise.
- "The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil."

Chapter XI: "Of the Passing of the First-Born"
- this amazing, and amazingly sad, recounting of the short life of Du Bois' son can barely be summarized. how to summarize an infant's death? Du Bois mourns the boy and yet wonders if the child is better off dead, rather than to live and grown in a country that despises him.
- from Wikipedia: His son, Burghardt, contracted diphtheria and white doctors in Atlanta refused to treat black patients.

Chapter XII: "Of Alexander Crummell"
- the life of a black priest
- his three temptations: Hate, Despair, Doubt
- Bishop Onderdonk: "I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: No negro priest can sit in my church convention and no negro church must ask for representation there."
Alexander Crummell: "I will never enter your diocese on such terms."

Chapter XIII: "Of the Coming of John"
- childhood playmates Black John and White John both leave their small town to become educated in the greater world. Black John's education drives the joy from his eyes, but he'd rather be unhappy than ignorant. White John's education changes little in the man. the two return to their birthplace. White John is welcomed but bored, oh so bored, by the hick town that is no comparison to the fun and the women of the big city. Black John is welcomed and then shunned; his education has transformed him into someone humorless, uppity, overly concerned with such unattainables as justice and equality. the two crossed paths in the big city once, to their mutual discomfort. and they cross paths again, back at home, to their mutual destruction.
- this is a perfect story. I was reminded of Leonid Andreyev's Lazarus in its multi-leveled, parable-like narrative, the awful beauty of its prose, and the depths of its despair

Chapter XIV: "The Sorrow Songs"
- “Your country? How came it yours? ... Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song - soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst... Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro People?”
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,688 followers
January 4, 2018
"The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land."
- W.E.B. Du Bois


I seem to be reading backward in time, not universally, I've read slave narratives and I've read Frederick Douglass, but mostly I've read about race backwards. I immersed myself in Coates, King, and Baldwin, and now Du Bois. Certainly, Booker T must be next.

I loved the book and how Du Bois danced between a sociological and cold examination of slavery, share cropping economics, home life, racism, etc., and flipped into an almost lyrical hymn about being black at the end. The chapter on his dead son (Chapter 11) moved me to tears, but so too did the chapter on Alexander Crummell (Chapter 12) and the chapter on the two Johns (Chapter 13). These chapters rang for me like good poetry and lyrical storytelling always does. But Du Bois is also sharp. He delves into the issues of the Freedmen's Bureau (Chapter 2), critiques Booker T's limited vision for his people (Chapter 3), and addresses his thesis that the blacks of the South need (1) the right to vote, (2) the right to a good education, and (3) to be treated with equality and justice. Du Bois also introduced me to the idea of "double-consciousness" or "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."

Other things I loved? I loved his focus on education, his critique of the economics of both slavery and the post slavery economy in the South, hell, his critique of capitalism to a degree. I also loved his imagry of the veil: "So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil."

This last year (actually the last couple years) has been hard. What seemed to be a jump forward on race for a couple decades, seems to have aggrivated and angered some deep, dark cyst in white America's soul. So, now I'm drawn to these narratives. They give me hope that the journey is not over for our too often divided nation. I hope that, given time, love, education, respect, and economic security, the wounds of slavery and discrimination, will continue to heal. Sometimes a fever doesn't break immediately. Sometimes an infection needs to burst to heal. Hopefully, things will calm the F down. Hopefully, like Du Bois suggests/sings:

"Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed - The End."
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,177 followers
June 15, 2016
W.E.B. Du Bois was many things: pioneering social scientist, historian, activist, social critic, writer—and, most of all, a heck of a lot smarter than me. I say this because, while reading these essays, I had the continuous, nagging feeling of mental strain, which I found hard to account for. There is nothing conceptually difficult about his arguments; in fact, most are quite straightforward. Although his sentences do twist and turn, they’re not nearly as syntactically knotty as other authors that I have waded through. So what was it?

I have decided that it is Du Bois’s broadness and versatility which made The Souls of Black Folk so exhausting for me. His writing style is poetic, in that every sentence carries with it multiple shades of meaning. His social advocacy is rendered in prose dense with Biblical echoes and classical allusions; his vignettes push forwards with the emotional weight of a sermon, but are couched in the learned style of a professor; his arguments are never dry, never sterile, but always proffered with full consciousness of their significance to the lives of real people.

What I find especially impressive about Du Bois is his self-assurance. In some older American authors—such as Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and even the philosopher William James—I find a strange, self-conscious embarrassment of their Americanness. It is as if these authors were painfully aware that they were aping European art-forms, and struggling to find a native voice. There is none of this in Du Bois. His prose, his arguments, his concerns, and his manner are all firmly American, without a tinge of doubt, shame, or apology. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I feel the same way about another American author, Frederick Douglass, who speaks with the same eloquent self-assuredness.

It is a great irony, then, that Du Bois, who felt a “double consciousness”—a clash between his identity as an American and a “Negro”—somehow managed to escape that other double-consciousness that has plagued America’s great white authors: being a European and an American. The conflict between wishing to continue, and to claim as ours, the heritage of the Old World—the awkward knowledge that we have no Shakespeare, no Goethe, and no Dante—coupled with our desire to break off on a new path.

Meanwhile, Du Bois writes in a voice that is distinctly his own. And, more importantly, distinctly American. So let us relish the poetic justice that our most genuine voice emanated from a people who were systematically trampled underfoot.
Profile Image for Monica.
592 reviews621 followers
April 17, 2022
Started a little slow but ended up being a fascinating look back in time. Du Bois was intelligent, extremely thoughtful, and a powerful writer. This details the lives of Blacks at the turn of the century. There are definitely echoes of this era in the present regarding cultural and societal process of thinking and behaving etc. Looking back well over 100 years ago, there are definitely some view points that gave me pause, but I'm in awe of the intellect and frankly the fine writing of this man born around the time of slavery. Tremendous historical value in reading this.

4 + Stars

Listened to Audible. Mirron Willis had a way of narrating that made me feel like it was the turn of the century. Well done!
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,967 followers
July 26, 2020
Twenty-odd years ago, I read a few of these essays in other collected works and I remembered them very fondly.

Reading them again now, in full, is something of a treat. I had not forgotten the quality of the writing. Indeed, the writing is gorgeous, erudite, and emotional.

The sequence on education, the narrative of self-exploration, even of self-transcendence is a thing to behold.

Of course, it is also heartbreaking. This was published in 1903, almost forty years after the Civil War, after the Emancipation Proclamation, and after the full roll-back of most of the rights that blacks SHOULD have had following their "freedom". Forty years after, poverty and the Jim Crow laws still hold sway. The systematic pushdown of an entire race is in full swing. Blacks got one-quarter of the funding for education as whites. If blacks wanted teachers, they had to teach themselves. The same thing went for making their own communities.

High-interest rates and debt and company towns were the norm for any kind of share-cropping. It was slavery without the whippings. Economic chains instead of real ones. Massive movements arose to kick all blacks out of politics.

Ignorance was the means to keep blacks down.

What I LOVE most about W. E. B. Du Bois is his sequence on education. And it is the same for today as it was back then. It's not enough to endure. You must know. It's not enough to survive, to thrive you must understand the whole web of your life.

Interestingly enough, when I read this in the nineties, it just felt RIGHT. It was about the same amount of time AFTER the 60's Civil Rights Movements.

The feeling of ennui. The desire for change. The ability to make a stand slipping out of our hands.

-- The understanding that all that hard work, all the HOPE was disappearing beneath a tide of false promises, empty platitudes, and (let's face it) ignorance. --

But it's not impossible. Nothing is impossible.

It's hard. All of it is hard. But the fight is worth it. We can't let hate win.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,734 reviews649 followers
February 13, 2021
In reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, I learned more about the period termed the Reconstruction. The following quote is a good example.

"Had political exigencies been less pressing, the opposition to government guardianship of Negroes less bitter, and the attachment to the slave system less strong, the social seer can well imagine a far better policy—a permanent Freedmen’s Bureau, with a national system of Negro schools; a carefully supervised employment and labor office; a system of impartial protection before the regular courts; and such institutions for social betterment as savings-banks, land and building associations, and social settlements."

Du Bois' discussion of the Freedmen's Bureau helped me to shift my focus from the injustices done to slaves to the unfulfilled promises that were made to freed men.

The book is short and its salient points honed.

"I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive."

"I have in two chapters studied the struggles of the massed millions of the black peasantry, and in another have sought to make clear the present relations of the sons of master and man."

"How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?" (The outrages were never confined to the South, but “body cams” have helped make us aware of the daily double standard for people of color.)

Thought-provoking and, in cases, action-provoking because there is so much that we may have assumed has changed.

[For an updated take on many of the same period issues, particularly the disputes between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, see Gates, Stony the Road]
Profile Image for Donna Ho Shing.
97 reviews46 followers
October 21, 2021
Dr. DuBois is nothing short of genius. His in-depth analysis of the Black experience here in America is brilliant. The Souls of Black Folk is not one to be read and then shoved in a corner but should be reread time and again. I certainly will. Published in 1903 but is still just as relevant and important today.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,793 reviews2,340 followers
January 31, 2015
There is such beautiful writing here.

Some of it is full of hope:

He arose silently, and passed out into the night. Down toward the sea he went, in the fitful starlight, half conscious of the girl who followed timidly after him. When at last he stood upon the bluff, he turned to his little sister and looked upon her sorrowfully, remembering with sudden pain how little thought he had given her. He put his arm about her and let her passion of tears spend itself on his shoulder.
Long they stood together, peering over the gray unresting water.
"John," she said, "does it make every one—unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?"
He paused and smiled. "I am afraid it does," he said.
"And, John, are you glad you studied?"
"Yes," came the answer, slowly but positively.
She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, "I wish I was unhappy,—and—and," putting both arms about his neck, "I think I am, a little, John."

Some is filled with despair:

It was several days later that John walked up to the Judge's house to ask for the privilege of teaching the Negro school. The Judge himself met him at the front door, stared a little hard at him, and said brusquely, "Go 'round to the kitchen door, John, and wait." Sitting on the kitchen steps, John stared at the corn, thoroughly perplexed. What on earth had come over him? Every step he made offended some one. He had come to save his people, and before he left the depot he had hurt them. He sought to teach them at the church, and had outraged their deepest feelings. He had schooled himself to be respectful to the Judge, and then blundered into his front door. And all the time he had meant right,—and yet, and yet, somehow he found it so hard and strange to fit his old surroundings again, to find his place in the world about him. He could not remember that he used to have any difficulty in the past, when life was glad and gay. The world seemed smooth and easy then. Perhaps,—but his sister came to the kitchen door just then and said the Judge awaited him.
The Judge sat in the dining–room amid his morning's mail, and he did not ask John to sit down. He plunged squarely into the business. "You've come for the school, I suppose. Well John, I want to speak to you plainly. You know I'm a friend to your people. I've helped you and your family, and would have done more if you hadn't got the notion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I'll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we'll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land. Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were,—I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well—well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks' heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?"

And then there was my horror at realizing that more than a century has passed since this book was first published, and there is so much that has not changed.

*Both selections are from Chapter 13 - Of the Coming of John. Please read it here: http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/203/the-sou...
Profile Image for Paul.
692 reviews66 followers
March 6, 2018
Perhaps your education was different, but I don't think it's a coincidence that when I look back at which prominent African Americans were taught in my elementary school history classes, Booker T. Washington featured prominently while W.E.B. Du Bois was never mentioned at all. Reading The Souls of Black Folk, it's easier to see why.

Washington was the advocate of conciliation, arguing that African Americans suffering in the ashes of failed Reconstruction should set aside their desire for equality in order to focus on "industrial education" – trade schools, in other words. Du Bois not only rejected this argument, he did so forcefully, and in The Souls of Black Folk, he indicts not only Washington for upholding an unjust and oppressive system of racism, but he indicts white American at large.

Published in 1903, Souls is less a focused treatise and more a collection of essays, many of them previously appearing in magazines throughout the country. As a result, Du Bois' tone ranges from clinical and academic, as in his sociological studies of Georgia's Black Belt written while he was on faculty at the University of Atlanta, to scathing and searing, as when he discusses "the Veil" – his overarching metaphor for living on the wrong side of America's color line – or describes the birth and untimely death of his firstborn son. But no matter what style he's using, Du Bois was an amazing writer. His lyricism flows naturally from his pen; he spins analogies and metaphors seemingly without effort. He weaves poetry and sarcasm into single sentences, all of it in service to his greater argument, which is that African Americans deserved freedom and 40 years after technical emancipation still hadn't gotten it.

As an example of how Du Bois' formidable talents in both historical analysis and beautiful prose work together to form a burning and memorable argument, here is a passage I've picked at random by opening the book and selecting the first bit of my highlighting I saw:

Free! The most piteous thing amid all the black ruin of war-time, amid the broken fortunes of the masters, the blighted hopes of mothers and maidens, and the fall of an empire – the most piteous thing amid all this was the black freedman who threw down his hoe because the world called him free. What did such a mockery of freedom mean? Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful of victuals – not even ownership of the rags on his back. Free!

Or this amazing excerpt, which I read out loud to my wife, from his essay on the short life of his son:

Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live – a Negro and a Negro's son. Holding in that little head – ah, bitterly! – the unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tiny dimpled hand – ah, wearily! – to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, and seeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of the Veil as it passed over my baby, I saw the cold city towering above the blood-red land. I held my face beside his little cheek, showed him the star-children and the twinkling lights as they began to flash, and stilled with an evensong the unvoiced terror of my life.

It's no surprise that Du Bois – founding member of the NAACP, creator of sociology as we know it today, historian and activist and brilliant writer – has been overlooked in favor of Washington. Because Du Bois is not tame; he upends the careful fictions of white America that say slavery ended in 1865, that discrimination ended in 1965, that we should all be color blind and move forward. In The Souls of Black Folk, a book that should be required reading in every American high school, Du Bois anticipates and confronts those fictions and demolishes them.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
April 7, 2020
A landmark text charting the arc of Black life in America from the time of slavery to the early 20th century. Having been released over a century ago, the collection’s obviously dated, but it’s hard not to admire the way in which Du Bois swiftly cycles between social, cultural, political, and personal history, weaving together many threads into a compelling narrative.
Profile Image for Kevin.
495 reviews83 followers
April 24, 2022
"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." ~The Nashville Banner, 1903
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews221 followers
July 17, 2020
This was one of those older foundational books that I'd felt a little embarrassed for not having read, and now I'm happy to have finally approached it. I enjoyed both for the luxurious prose style as well as seeing this collection of writing for the first time.

Though many of these pieces were published separately at first, there are some common themes. It is easy to explore Du Bois' idea of "double consciousness", that series of competing thoughts and perspectives, or specifically "unreconciled strivings" that a black person feels in a majority white American society, and to draw it out from its Hegelian roots. The "Talented Tenth" proposal, of educated advocates for black people, may lean into a bit of elitism, and given Du Bois' later inclinations, a possible precursor into revolutionary vanguardism and all the disastrous inter-party conflict that involves.

But this book, with all its art, observation, and writing crammed into fourteen short pieces, is still a book for the present and the future. Du Bois takes easily to writing a sermon or a prophecy. The problem of the twenty-first century, or at least of 2020, etc. still is around the color line.
Profile Image for Christina Marie.
414 reviews370 followers
September 14, 2021
Read this in college a while ago... Loved it. Changed the way I think. It was the first time I was introduced to the concepts of "the veil" and "double consciousness". My mind was blown.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
February 19, 2016
Dubois is probably one of the best writers/thinkers of his generation. This book is not only relevant today, but the prose is timeless. It's also a great historical artifact explaining reconstruction america.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
August 22, 2020
One of the compliments people often give to old books, to argue for their continued relevance, is to say that they could easily have been written in the present day. It's impossible to say that about this book however because I can scarcely conceive something so dignified, generous, unhurried and universalistic being published today. Dubois was one of those people whose exceptional talents and mastery of the tools of a conquering civilization could put to shame the conquerors. This book is a collection of essays ranging widely over an array of subjects. Some of them are dated, in the sense that they deal with the minute details of social conditions that have long since passed. But all of them contain some invaluable gems of insight mixed in with the beautiful prose for which he was known.

As far back as the 19th century Dubois noted the dilemma that faced African-Americans, being subject to the goodwill of the "good whites" as a tool in the endless civil war they are locked in with the presumed "bad whites." This conflict more or less continues to this day in strange forms. Faced with the predicament of being a minority, minorities have the choice of either embracing an identity based on anger and revenge, totally comporting themselves to the preferences of the majority, or attempting some form of genuine self-realization. Even today so many people trap themselves in the first two options, instead of choosing the more laborious yet rewarding road offered by the third.

Dubois was a bit of what we would call an elitist. In his view, racial tensions were often the result of the lower classes of respective races rubbing up against each other, or from mixing relations between the lower of one with the higher of another. Education was the most important tool for the elevation of the masses as a whole, but not everyone was suited to every sort of education. He was truly a universalist however, staking ownership of the high traditions of the West while never compromising in the face of the towering injustices that educated Westerners had committed in violation of their own civilizational values.

There are many personal travelogues here of Dubois in the south, as well as a painfully beautifully reflection on the death of an infant son. In a few short pages he could condemn with unflinching dignity the mass rape of slaves in America by masters, then move on to lay claim for himself Shakespeare, Balzac and Marcus Aurelius, none of whom "winces when I sit near" as being his by way of universal cultural inheritance. He was absolutely right. If America was unable to accommodate him by the end of his life, it was due to its own shortcomings.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,382 followers
January 2, 2015
Larsen describes him as "peppery," and I like that. He's civil, but he's quietly laying haymakers. It's an important book. To a depressing extent, when we talk about racial injustice these days, we're still repeating DuBois.

It is nonfiction - essays on the challenges Blacks face in the wake of the Civil War - so be aware, it's not like it's going to have a plot. I'm reading it one chapter at a time between other things; going straight through was making me miss some stuff.

The prologue, with the iconic question, "How does it feel to be a Problem?" and the confession that, looking at white folks, Du Bois sometimes wanted to just "beat their stringy heads," is worth the price of admission.
Profile Image for Francesca Calarco.
360 reviews31 followers
May 1, 2020
Influential, ground-breaking, and timeless—W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk is an amazing social analysis/piece of literature that took the world by storm. I knew Du Bois was a force of nature, but I had no idea of just how truly influential he was (and is) until I read this work.

A century before Ta-Nehisi Coates penned Between the World and Me as a letter to his son on racial injustice in America, W. E. B. Du Bois asked of his fellow man, ”Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it… How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” With these sentiments, Du Bois presents the concept of life ”within the Veil”—a manifestation of the color line—where life is split between the expectation established by hegemony, and the reality of systemic injustice.

Du Bois evaluates life ”within the Veil” throughout a number of the essays presented in this volume. Notably though, in Our Spiritual Strivings, he expands that within this context, how people form a type of ”double-consciousness”. This term, Du Bois explains as:

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this 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. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

In addition to offering elegance and insight, Du Bois’ social analysis, which was built on thoughtful interactions with the people he was writing about, predates the work of many prominent anthropologists first credited with “inventing” ethnographic field work. I would actually consider this collection to be one of the best ethnographic collections I have ever read. Du Bois was a man ahead of his time in a number of ways, though his work will most likely be remembered for its very real impact on civil rights in the United States.

Over half a century before Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream,”, Du Bois questioned in his final essay, The Sorrow Songs, “Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified?”

Given the current reality, I think that this question is (and will remain) one worth revisiting. This, in addition to a number of other great content, including a memorable critique of Booker T. Washington’s more conservative approaches, is why I think The Souls of Black Folk is a book worth reading. Either way, Du Bois’ resonance will persist whether or not you are aware of it.
Profile Image for Eddie.
107 reviews37 followers
May 28, 2013
Speaks The Truth To Power

In 1903, two years after Booker T. Washington's autobiography, "Up from Slavery: An Autobiography", W.E.B. Du Bois published "The Souls of Black Folk", a series of essays which today most consider a seminal work in African-American Sociology literature. Du Bois view of race relations in American at the dawn of the 20th century was clear, critical and deeply profound.

Throughout the fourteen chapters Du Bois uses a metaphor, the veil, with considerable deftness:
"...the Negro...born with a veil...gifted with second sight...double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."

Du Bois shares his thoughts on Emancipation & the Post-Emancipation era, "...there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime and its practical nullification as a duty." In other chapters he covers: the education of the Negro, Negro suffrage, tenant farming, and Negro spirituals a.k.a Sorrow Songs. In the chapter, "Of the Black Belt", we take a journey with him as he travels through the Black Belt of Georgia - which is not a reference to the large number of people of color in the area but to the color of the soil. In "The Coming of John", the lone fictional chapter, Du Bois relates a short story of two Johns, one white and one Negro, both coming home to the South after attaining an education in the North.

I could go on and on but this one relevant text that you must read for yourself.
Profile Image for Canon.
637 reviews64 followers
June 19, 2022
"To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

I read several of these essays, each one a rhetorical tour de force, in 2018 or ‘19 — objectively speaking, a mere few years ago; subjectively speaking, which is perhaps the true measure or anti-measure of time, ancient history. Wanting to read Du Bois' Black Reconstruction in America, the Completist Demon hunched on my shoulder filled me with chagrin for not having read every one of these essays back then. So, as a prolegomena to Du Bois' epic history of Reconstruction, I read all of the essays this time. Thanks in part to the intervening epoch of roughly 2020-2021, the passing of those personal and political eons, I found them even more interesting and incisive. Du Bois' reflections on the color line; the Veil; double consciousness; segregation and the polarization of whites and blacks; the role of religious faith and sorrow songs; the successes and failures of the Freedman's Bureau; and the connection of slavery and Jim Crow in America to a broader international context of colonial domination and revolt are all excellent.

— — — — — — — —

"The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line."


"We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence."


"After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this 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. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."


"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."


"The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of “swift” and “slow” in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Æschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Profile Image for Marta.
997 reviews100 followers
July 24, 2017
This seminal work of African-American scholarship was first published in 1903 and unfortunately is still relevant. Breathtaking in scope and written in eloquent, dignified and often poetic prose, Dubois examines the history and state of blacks in America from sociological, political, psychological and cultural point of view. He draws a picture of constant struggle, dispair, poverty, lack of education and motivation.

This work is essential in understanding many of the issues facing African-Americans today. I had no idea, for example, that the criminal justice system's clear racial bias originated right after Emancipation - arresting black people for no or trivial reasons was a way of forced labor, a substitute for slavery.

He discusses the "color veil" or "color line" that separates blacks and whites in every part of society and opportunity; and the duality of being black in America.
"He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."

This book is remarkable not just for its content but its writing and format as well. He mixes impassioned essays with scientific studies; autobiography, biography, anecdotal and fictional stories; prose with poetry, and even a chapter on the special American black music. All this in beautiful, classic-education inspired, exquisite language. It is a true work of art and must be read by all in America.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,339 reviews1,629 followers
August 30, 2014
FINALLY finished! This book has been my 'errand book' book for ages now. I'd read a page or two while waiting in the car while running errands, or in line at the post office or the grocery store, etc, and... I'm not sure that is the best way to read this book. I can appreciate it for its role in literature and history, but reading this way made it feel like this slim little book would never end. It got rather tedious towards the end, I'll be honest.

That being said, there is some really good stuff in here, and I do think that this book is one that should be read by everyone... just maybe in a more structured way. Maybe an essay per night before bed or something.

Anyway, I don't know what I can say about this one that hasn't been said about a bazillion times before, so this is probably going to be one of my lamest reviews. *shrug* Sorry.
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
720 reviews136 followers
December 24, 2019
It is an important book and I am glad to have read it.

Apparently I am the first reviewer to notice that Du Bois has done precisely what Sojourner Truth warned against. I had to hunt for it, but here it is: "...if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before."—Sojourner Truth, 1867

There is discomforting harping on classes of black people, those who have pursued "advancement" and those who have failed, for which "two hundred and fifty years" of helpless servitude have led them to "ignorance, shiftlessness, poverty, and crime" and his appalling antisemitism. For the suffering of poor southern blacks, he blames "the sons of poor whites fired with a new thirst for wealth and power, thrifty and avaricious Yankees, shrewd and unscrupulous Jews" ("Of the Sons of Master and Man").

Du Bois details the post-Civil War struggle to find a place for millions of freed people in American society, and the mistakes made. He counters Booker T. Washington's occupational training with a desire for education as a pathway to "manhood", and in other ways explains how it is that slavery still haunts our nation. Rather than inviting these people of color (a phrase he uses here) to their places at the table, Booker T. wanted them trained to serve, and, lost to Mammon, we all lost some of our humanity.

This is compelling history, some charming prose if often purple—Du Bois liked to show off with the classics and prove his humanity with "elevated" diction. In some chapters the writing suggested an unfortunate cross between Louisa May Alcott and P.G. Wodehouse, though without humor.

He reserves his concern for men with little mention of black women except as victims of rape and other abuse until a black woman shows up from Greek mythology, but no woman of color is cited by name until two thirds through the book. There is no suggestion that black women might want some respect as people. It is a history not of black folk, but only of black men, and only one northerner's view. He assumes that black southerners did not notice the bigotry with which they were treated in the Jim Crow South until they experienced the contrast with the North, which seems naive, if not offensive. This book might as easily have been written by a white man of two hundred years ago, and I am sorry for that.

In choosing his chapter epigraphs, two come from "Mrs. Browning," but for all his education, he found no poetry from persons of color, though he was aware of Phillis Wheatley—the only black woman named in the text. It goes some way to explaining the first stanza of (his son-in-law) Countee Cullen's "Heritage" (1925)

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

There is some painful irony in his neglect of women that Du Bois was raised by a single mother, that he was awarded scholarships to college and was a man before he first encountered the Jim Crow South. Though he appeals repeatedly to the Christian conscience, he was not a Christian. He worked to the end of his life for racial justice and world peace.

Finally, be warned. Du Bois has written in an "elevated" style that was customary among 19th century writers anxious to prove their humanity. The result is a book that is not as comfortable to read as it might be for modern readers had he written as I hope he spoke. He was an intelligent man, well educated, and wise. He knew his audience would require every bit of evidence he could muster that he was a human being and that led to an almost crippling use of purple prose.

For a different use of formal literary register juxtaposed with the vernacular—and humor!—read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God from years later.
Profile Image for Paula Koneazny.
306 reviews32 followers
March 1, 2009
I appreciate DuBois’s classic study of race as an historical document, and at times even as a piece of literature. I particularly value his depiction of the political, social and material conditions in the South immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Nevertheless, I question some of his proposals and conclusions. Although his views may have been radical in 1903, many of them now sound paternalistic and outdated. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is a sign of progress.
The Souls of Black Folk, of course, is didactic. It’s also a polemic, for DuBois’s stated aims are to both instruct and convince his audience. Many indications in his prose suggest that he conceived his audience to be “the best kind” of white people, and more Northern, I think, than Southern. I don’t think his arguments are directed toward “the best kind” of Negro. I use these terms because they are his, and because this sorting of people, both black and white, into categories of “best” and “worst,” is one of the things that most irritates me about DuBois’s thinking. He touts The Talented Tenth (although he may not have coined this phrase, it became intimately associated with his ideas) as worthy candidates for a classical liberal education and as the source of leadership for “their race.” He admits the need for a sort of benevolent guardianship (by the Talented Tenth and enlightened whites) over the masses of unschooled and largely impoverished black folks in the South. He says, “the paths of peace winding between honest toil and dignified manhood call for the guidance of skilled thinkers, the loving, reverent comradeship between the black lowly and the black men emancipated by training and culture.”
Besides the Talented Tenth, two other concepts are integral to Du Bois’s thinking, that of The Veil, which is both a physical and social demarcation of difference, and double-consciousness, defined as “a peculiar sensation, . . . this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others . . . . one ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro.”
Although he argues against Booker T. Washington’s preaching of abandonment of political and social goals in order to focus solely on material gains for blacks, Du Bois himself proposes that blacks not fit to benefit from the education he proposes for The Talented Tenth should indeed settle for training in a trade and much more limited aspirations.(Apparently, Du Bois modified these views somewhat later in his life.) On the other hand, Du Bois is often forceful in his defense of equal rights for all blacks, for example, when he states, “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”
Although many of the social conditions that Du Bois references have been ameliorated over time, some of his observations sound uncomfortably current today, such as the following: “the white folk say it [the county prison:] is ever full of black criminals,--the black folks say that only colored boys are ever sent to jail, and they not because they are guilty, but because the State needs criminals to eke out its income by their forced labor.”
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,306 reviews753 followers
January 11, 2021
Much that the white boy imbibes from his earliest social atmosphere forms the puzzling problems of the black boy's mature years.
On Feb 1st, 1903, a century ago and counting, W.E.B. Du Bois introduced this work with the statement that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." It is the Twenty-First century. I regularly teach students who have known no other century than this. All of them have aspirations to go to college. Very few of them are white, and as someone who's neither straight nor neurotypical, I'd imagine a fair amount of them are the same. There's no guarantee that pursuing higher education in California will protect them, or that limiting the search to "liberal" states will offer a buffer between them and those who follow in the footsteps of their forebears and enact their violence outside the realm of video games. All that these "liberal" states have are in preponderance are brown nosing equivocators who think social justice and property destruction are incompatible, as if the Boston Tea Party, the Bastille, Stonewall, the Berlin Wall, etc, etc, etc, meant nothing. The fact that I haven't seen a single black student or employee at my center makes sense in the state with what has been called "the biggest prison building project in the history of the world."

On the one hand, everything has changed since Du Bois penned this peace. On the other, nothing has, as the politics that went into trying and failing to make the Reconstruction the best that it could be was same shit, different day. I've spent a good portion of my time on the Internet learning about the history of the South, capitalism, the sapping of the black creation by the white overlords, education, respectability politics, despair and self-annihilation brought on by racism, the global search for Black Lives Matter, and lynching that these pages cover, and the fact that I had to turn to unorthodox connection when education failed to deliver means the Internet can't solve what the Powers That Be choose to ignore. On a minor note is the prose, which is dense and distanced from modern conventions enough that I am extremely thankful that this work made its way into my headlights before Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 drew me into its long slog of a grasp. On a major note is how Du Bois completely sidelines women and the working class in the favor of guidance by a genteel philosopher kingdom (it's okay if they're white by the way. we can't blame them for all that racism has caused). Considering how often he and Wells-Barnett worked together, he has no excuse, although it does give a preamble to him shafting her when it came to giving credit for the foundation of the NAACP. As a result, guess who's autobiography I'm willing to spend time on.

I guarantee you that there are people who are reading certain books on this website and in the US and crying because they know what the stakes are. I can also guarantee you that there are people who aren't reading certain books on this website and think that those crying people deserve to be culled so that they, the non-criers, can keep their precious cars and handbags and military industrial complex. I'd hope that I'd culled the last of those from my literary contact list, but they just keep on popping up every time they think they can use people as metaphors without normalizing said people's murders. If you don't think now is the time to start taking a serious look at yourself and your habits of conforming, have fun ranking your friends and family in terms of whom you'd give up first when the police came knocking and whom you'd give up last. Contrary to popular belief, survival of the fittest does not have a steep learning curve. You just lie low and hope that they kill enough people around you to get bored and move on.
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization.
Profile Image for Andrew.
46 reviews85 followers
August 5, 2007
So far, so good.

This collection of short essays was written in 1903 and basically changed the way people thought and talked about race in America. DuBois broke down the notion of a scientific explanation for racism and racial bigotry. He essentially went to the University of Atlanta to do just the opposite, to accomplish by scientific means some understanding of race relations and what was called at the time "the Negro problem." After only a few years, he realized that you can't solve a social problem with hard science - it's like trying to write a poem with a Rubik's cube, or determine the square root of a prime number by reading the collected works of Marx. The answer will fail to satisfy the original question - may lead to interesting further inquiry, though.

Anyway, though his prose can be a little list-heavy, he's got some incredibly strong blunt-edged phrases. "How does it feel to be a problem?" is essentially how he translates most questions about race by white people. Which is the truest version of the question of race as put to the person on whom racism is perpetrated.

W.E.B. DuBois was a heavy thinker, and his reading of the dualism of racism - that is, being able to see oneself dually, as seen by oneself, like oneself, and as seen by the rest of society, as unlike the collective Self - is essentially what some of the more progressive thinkers (Edward Said comes to mind) of the twentieth century have come to. And DuBois was onto this in 1903.

W.E.Burghardt DuBois will make you think, and he makes you work for it, but so far it's worth it.
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