The Souls of Black Folk


W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk Study Guide

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Brief Biography of W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was born to a free black family who owned land in Massachusetts, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation. He attended an integrated public school followed by Fisk University, during which time he spent summers working at a black school in rural Tennessee. He then attended Harvard College, where he earned a second bachelor’s degree and received a scholarship to pursue a PhD in sociology. While completing his doctoral work, Du Bois spent time at the University of Berlin. Having graduated as the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard, Du Bois worked as a professor at Wilberforce University, where he met his wife. Du Bois then spent time at the University of Pennsylvania before taking a professorship at Atlanta University. During this time, he published works of sociology about African-American communities that analyzed the subtle class distinctions within the black community and challenged racist ideas and stereotypes. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, while growing increasingly involved in campaigning against lynching and Jim Crow segregation. In 1909, he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became the editor of the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis in 1911. He joined the Socialist party during this time, coming to believe that the origins of racism lay within the system of capitalism. Under McCarthyism, Du Bois was tried for his sympathies to socialism. In 1961, furious that the Supreme Court upheld the McCarran Act requiring Communists to register themselves as such, he joined the Communist party. He died in Ghana at the age of 95, one year before the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US.
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Historical Context of The Souls of Black Folk

Chattel slavery—which had been banned in Northern states starting in 1775—was finally abolished in the South with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. This moment coincided with the end of the American Civil War, which began in 1861. The period that followed, known as Reconstruction, saw money and resources sent to the South in the hope of aiding the transition from a slavery-based into a modern economy. During Reconstruction, former slaves (known as freedmen) experienced what Du Bois described as “a moment in the sun.” Black men were given voting rights, and the Freedmen’s Bureau—an organization that Du Bois covers extensively in Souls—was established to provide education for freedmen, channel philanthropic efforts to black communities, protect labor rights, and much more. While well-intentioned, these efforts were somewhat haphazard and chaotic, and were ultimately blocked by whites who refused to accept the authority of the Reconstruction government. Over time, Southern “Redeemers”—a coalition of conservative, landowning whites—took control of the South and overturned the progress that black people glimpsed during Reconstruction. During this period, black people were subjected to extreme violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other vengeful whites, and often found themselves in conditions that were little better than slavery. Meanwhile, many white people in the South argued that black people had received an opportunity to “prove” they were worthy of political and civil rights and that they had demonstrated their inferiority through ignorance, laziness, and crime. Of course, the reality was that black people were not naturally lazy or ignorant, but that they had none of the resources or opportunities necessary to exist in the modern world. Meanwhile, the Southern justice system was racially skewed to the point that whites could not be prosecuted for crimes against black people, creating the illusion that black people were more inclined to criminality.

Other Books Related to The Souls of Black Folk

When Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, the African-American intellectual tradition was still in its infancy. The earliest African-American writers were freedmen who wrote books that were often autobiographical in nature and sought to persuade white readers to support the abolition of slavery. Examples include Frederick Douglass’ The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845), Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Booker T. Washington extended this tradition into the post-Emancipation period by writing an autobiography called Up from Slavery in 1901, which received a critical review from Du Bois. Du Bois’ doctoral dissertation was entitled The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America, 1638-1871. Prior to writing The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had also published a text entitled The Study of the Negro Problems (19898), a study of the black community in Philadelphia entitled The Philadelphia Negro (1899), and another volume entitled The Negro in Business (1899). A prolific writer, he published dozens more books over the course of his life, including an autobiography that was published posthumously. Du Bois was an enormously influential figure, significantly shaping both academic and popular writing on race into the present day. He is considered one of the “fathers” of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of stunning black cultural production that included the writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen. He was also a significant influence in the political and literary education of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders such as James Weldon Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, and Arthur Schomburg.
Key Facts about The Souls of Black Folk
  • Full Title: The Souls of Black Folk
  • When Written: 1903
  • Where Written: Atlanta, Georgia
  • When Published: 1903
  • Literary Period: Early African American Literature
  • Genre: Sociology
  • Setting: USA, especially the South
  • Antagonist: White racist society
  • Point of View: Du Bois’ own point of view, though some of the chapters are narrated in the first person and some in the third

Extra Credit for The Souls of Black Folk

Dr. Du Bois. Du Bois refused to be addressed by his first name, insisting that even his closest friends call him “Dr. Du Bois.”

Parallel Persecution. In 1936 Du Bois traveled to Nazi Germany, and on his return to the US expressed his horror at the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, which he compared to the African slave trade.