In many ways, Du Bois depicts a rather bleak picture of “the souls of black folk,” outlining the way that the seemingly endless injustice and suffering black people endure forces them into a double consciousness. Unable to escape white racist views of the world, black people become alienated from themselves. At the same time, however, Du Bois suggests that black people’s souls exist on a different register from this troubled subjectivity, and are expressed in the tradition of the African-American spiritual. As Du Bois explains in the chapter on this topic, spirituals emerged from traditional African songs that were passed down from the very first slaves in the U.S. to the African-Americans living in the early 20th century. He describes them as “the most beautiful” form of human expression to have emerged in the U.S., the only moment in which Du Bois speaks of black culture in such unequivocally reverent terms.
For Du Bois, spirituals are a way of connecting to the many slaves who lived and died outside the record of history, whose lives were silenced by the white racist brutality. Although we cannot know what these enslaved people actually thought and felt, traces of their experience—of their souls—are found within the sounds and words of spirituals. Du Bois notes, for example, that few spirituals deal with the topic of romantic love, yet many mention childlessness—an indication of the way that slavery shaped black people’s understanding of kinship.
It is important to note that, below the fragment of a poem that begins each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois includes a few lines from a spiritual. This simple juxtaposition creates a dialog between the Western European literary tradition and African-American folk culture, and suggests that both have equal value—a radical statement in the context in which Du Bois was writing.