The Souls of Black Folk

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Themes and Colors
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Souls of Black Folk, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Leadership Theme Icon

Throughout the book, Du Bois implies that one of the main problems preventing African Americans from achieving greater justice and prosperity is lack of proper leadership. He devotes a whole chapter to criticizing the leadership of Booker T. Washington, the most famous and influential black leader at the time. Du Bois argues that Washington was far too conciliatory to whites, and that his decision to compromise on the issues of civil, political, and educational rights allowed white people to strip African Americans of these rights and reverse the brief moment of progress that took place during Reconstruction. Du Bois is certainly aware of how difficult it was for a single leader to address the concerns of both the radical and conservative sides of the African-American community, not to mention whites who were vigilantly opposed to any kind of racial equality. However, he is decisive in his judgment that Washington contributed to the “speedier accomplishment” of the disenfranchisement, “civil inferiority,” and economic hardship black people experienced at the time he was writing.

For Du Bois, then, the question of leadership is closely tied to education. He shows that teachers (including himself) often come to serve as leaders within their communities. Similarly, institutions such as universities and the church also provide opportunities for individuals to work for change on behalf of the communities they represent and to inspire people toward hard work and self-improvement. Given that black people were deprived of the vote, teachers and clergymen became even more important as leaders of the African-American community. The chapter on Alexander Crummell, who was a Cambridge-educated scholar as well as an Episcopal priest, highlights the ways in which Crummell was a better leader than Washington and thus suggests that the leaders the black community needs will likely emerge from the church and universities.

In writing The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois positioned himself as a major leader in the African-American intellectual tradition and in the fight for racial justice. In many ways, Du Bois’ leadership style is unusual. He combines personal anecdote, historical evidence, numerical data, and even a short story in order to depict the African-American community in a multi-dimensional, insightful, and nuanced manner, and refuses to shy away from highlighting the bleaker elements of black life. Although prescriptive at points, the main purpose of Du Bois’ writing seems to be to convey rich and detailed information about the history and present situation of black people in America. In doing so, Du Bois suggests that if more people properly understood the reality of race and racism, they would be inspired to act in a way that would foster racial justice.

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Leadership ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Leadership appears in each Chapter of The Souls of Black Folk. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Leadership Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

Below you will find the important quotes in The Souls of Black Folk related to the theme of Leadership.
Chapter 3 Quotes

History is but the record of such group-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its type and character!

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has detailed his assessment of the highly influential African-American leader Booker T. Washington, criticizing Washington’s popularity among white people and the silencing of his condemnation within the black community. He argues that it should not be the case that black people have their leaders chosen for them by whites, but that they should elect their leaders themselves. This is especially important because, as Du Bois points out in this quotation, the historical record tends to revolve around the leaders of groups, rather than ordinary citizens—and thus people are represented by their leaders not only in a present, political sense, but also in history. So it is unwise and unjust for leaders not to be chosen by the very people they aim to lead.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged––wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the "cracker" Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued that hard work and entrepreneurship will be vital to the economic development of the South. However, he warns that over the past decades, white Southerners have become obsessed with wealth to the point that money itself is seen as a solution to every social problem. Du Bois’ concerns in this passage echo themes that have been central to political debates in the US throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Du Bois claims that although wealth is useful and can be a powerful tool in bringing about social progress, wealth alone will not lead to meaningful change. This is partly because racism is as much a psychological as an economic issue, and thus even if black people were in a better position financially, they would still suffer the effects of racist ideology.

Additionally, Du Bois is suspicious of the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself, as he perceives this to be a corrupting influence on society. Critical of capitalism, Du Bois believed that too much focus on profit corrodes moral values, and that people should instead be guided by knowledge and reason. This belief represents a major distinction between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who focused on entrepreneurship—rather than education—as the proper vehicle for African-American advancement.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The teachers in these institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. The colleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped and harkened in the dawning light.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has explained that at the time he is writing, despite the protests of white people who claim that educating African-Americans is a waste of time and resources, many black people have graduated from Teachers’ Institutes, black colleges, and from the top universities in the country. Du Bois points out that this last category of student proves that black people are capable of excelling in the most challenging courses, and in this passage describes their experiences at these elite institutions. Du Bois paints a rather idyllic picture of the traditional university experience, conjuring an image of a progressive, inclusive, and supportive environment free of racism.

While the image of university Du Bois invokes is perhaps a little romanticized, it works to persuade the reader that allowing black students to receive a classical education at highly competitive institutions is a positive thing, rather than being risky or absurd. Du Bois’ emphasis on the harmoniousness of student life at New England universities is a stark contrast to the backlash against integration that would come in the later decades of the 20th century.

Chapter 9 Quotes

War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery––this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois opens the chapter by stating that his age is characterized by the effects of colonialism, which white people have justified because it brought “civilization” and Christianity to groups of people they deemed uncivilized. In this brutally ironic passage, he points out that the reality of colonialism was violence and tyranny, and emphasizes the hypocrisy of the fact that this was carried out in the name of Christianity. Many people in favor of colonialism argued that it was unfortunate that colonization often involved violence, but that this was a regrettable side effect of what was an essentially noble cause. Du Bois rejects this view by emphasizing that “again and again” colonialism took the form of deliberately tyrannical programs (such as systematic genocide and chattel slavery).

In any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued for the importance of suffrage as a tool for progress. He explains that during the French revolution, the prospect of universal suffrage seemed possible, but that this promise has disintegrated. In this passage, Du Bois argues that history has shown that it never works to have one stronger group of people governing on behalf of a weaker group. This is not just true of particular places and periods in time, but of “human nature” in general. By making this argument, Du Bois uses classical philosophical reasoning to suggest that black people in the US are treated unfairly.

Depending on the reader’s individual interpretation, this passage could appear more or less conventional. It may be the case that Du Bois is simply arguing for democracy. Having just invoked the French Revolution, perhaps he is claiming that the basic liberal values on which America was founded should be enacted properly by giving African-Americans the right to vote. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this statement in a more radical way. Surely, in any capitalist country (note that Du Bois invokes capitalism with the phrase “modern free competition”) those who are in government will inevitably be “stronger, richer, and more resourceful” than those over which they rule. Is it possible that Du Bois is arguing that capitalism is incompatible with true political justice?

Chapter 12 Quotes

Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? He had out- grown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth of his life-work,––to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his… this, this seemed more than man could bear.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker), Alexander Crummell
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has told the story of Alexander Crummell’s early life, indicating that as a young man he was tested by three “temptations”––Hate, Despair, and Doubt. This passage describes Doubt, the final temptation, as the worst of all. While it is comparably easy to overcome hate and despair, the urge to doubt himself and his very race is something from which Crummell almost does not recover. All three temptations are brought about by racist incidents, but only doubt makes Crummell resent black people in particular, rather than the world and its racist nature. Du Bois uses this tale—which in many ways resembles a Biblical or mythic story—in order to warn the reader against falling into doubt, while simultaneously showing how easy it is for this to happen.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: John Jones
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is taken from the fictional story of John Jones. At this point in his life, John has returned home to his community in rural Georgia, after being sent to Wells Institute to study and running into trouble while there. Back home, John asks the town’s white Judge if he can teach a class at the school for black children. The Judge is wary, and tells John that although he is “a friend” to black people, this friendship has its limitations. Over the course of this passage, the Judge’s tone switches from sympathetic to patronizing to sinister. These shifts in tone suggest that behind white people’s claims to compassion often lie viciously racist thoughts.

As the Judge’s words make clear, he is particularly threatened by the idea that black people—particularly intelligent, upwardly mobile people such as John—will try to “reverse nature” and fight back against oppression. Clearly, the Judge is only sympathetic to black people as long as they accept a completely subservient role in society. He considers the undoing of the racial hierarchy so dangerous that it justifies the violent genocide of the entire black community. His threat foreshadows the violent end John meets at the end of the chapter, and connect John’s story to the widespread lynching that occurred in the wake of Reconstruction.