The Souls of Black Folk

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African-American Spirituals Symbol Analysis

African-American Spirituals Symbol Icon

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.

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African-American Spirituals Symbol Timeline in The Souls of Black Folk

The timeline below shows where the symbol African-American Spirituals appears in The Souls of Black Folk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Forethought
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...Veil,” and discusses the issue of education. Further chapters cover the black peasantry, religion, and song. The book concludes with “a tale twice told but seldom written.” In the final page... (full context)
Chapter 4: Of the Meaning of Progress
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
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...which he met people from “other worlds” and listened to “the mighty cadences of Negro song.” The community Du Bois inhabited was drawn together by a common experience of the cycle... (full context)
Chapter 10: Of the Faith of the Fathers
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...of shrieking, jumping, and flailing, all centered around the powerfully charismatic preacher and hauntingly beautiful music. Indeed, Du Bois describes African-American religious music as “the most original and beautiful expression of... (full context)
Chapter 14: Of the Sorrow Songs
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The chapter begins with a verse from a Negro spiritual. Du Bois writes that as he has been writing this book, the Sorrow Songs sung... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that the spiritual is the “articulate message of the slave to the world.” He claims that the songs... (full context)
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Du Bois names the songs with which he begins each chapter of the book, claiming that the choice of these... (full context)
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Spirituals frequently contain nature imagery, and the lyrics suggest a reflectionof the lives of slaves in... (full context)
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The songs do contain a sense of hope, a belief that justice will come, if not in... (full context)