Du Bois begins with the claim that the central problem of the 20th century is that of the color line, and that all readers will thus be interested in the issues raised in Souls, no matter their race. He outlines the book, which features thirteen distinct chapters on issues ranging from Reconstruction to leadership to education to religion.
The first chapter opens with Du Bois noting that white people seem to be curious about what it is like to be considered “a problem” by society. He recalls the moment at which he first became aware of racism as a child, when a little white girl in his elementary school class refused to accept a greeting card he gave to her. Du Bois characterizes the force of racial prejudice and alienation as a Veil that separates black people from whites and from the broader society in which they live. The Veil produces a distinctive kind of subjectivity that Du Bois calls double-consciousness, a term that refers to the way black people are forced to seem themselves both through their own eyes and through the hostile gaze of racism. This double consciousness leads black people to experience a tortured sense of internal conflict and confusion.
Du Bois notes that before Emancipation, slaves dreamed that a single divine event would not only abolish slavery but also end all of the violence, pain, and injustice to which they were subjected. When slavery was finally abolished, however, this ended up being far from the reality. The transition away from slavery was chaotic, violent, and laborious, and black people living at the turn of the century have not yet truly experienced freedom. During the Civil War, the Union armies were uncertain about how to deal with the fugitive slaves who increasingly sought shelter behind their ranks. From this point forward, the treatment of freedmen was haphazard and inconsistent.
In order to assist the newly freed slaves in the immediate aftermath of slavery, the federal government sponsored the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which sent money, clothes, and educational materials to the South, and assisted in providing freedmen with access to education, land ownership, medical treatment, better labor conditions, and a fairer criminal justice system. Although this was planned with the best of intentions, the result was far from a success. Chaotic conditions in the South and the opposition of both Southern whites and the federal government conspired to inhibit the Bureau from accomplishing half of what it initially set out to do. There were certainly some positive consequences of the Bureau’s existence, but overall it failed to provide freedmen with the resources and support they desperately needed, and ultimately the Bureau was shut down.
Du Bois moves on to discuss the most famous African-American leader at the time that he is writing: Booker T. Washington. Du Bois points out that Washington is extremely popular among white people and has many excellent qualities, but that this popularity is akin to an oppressive “cult” that squashes criticism, particularly criticism originating within the black community. Du Bois points out that in the early days of slavery, there were many slave uprisings, but as time went on this happened less. By the time Emancipation took place, the key leader of the black community—Washington—was notably conciliatory to whites, making a famous “Atlanta compromise” speech which involved giving up the fight for black political and civil rights. Although Du Bois argues that Washington was not directly to blame for the loss of rights that came in the backlash after Reconstruction, he does place some responsibility on Washington and the “cult” he created. Du Bois suggests that the African-American community is in desperate need of better leaders to fight on their behalf into the future.
Du Bois then switches to personal narrative, recalling his experience teaching at a rural school in Tennessee during the summers of his undergraduate years at Fisk University. During these summers, he grew close to members of the community in which he worked and became acquainted with the problems facing the black rural poor. He was particularly close to a girl called Josie, whom he describes as kind, intelligent, and ambitious; however, when he returns to the community years after his tenure as a teacher, he finds out Josie has died.
Du Bois shifts to focus on the city of Atlanta, and describes the zeal and dedication of the young black students at Atlanta University. He argues against the current trend advocating that industrial education is sufficient for black people. Although some young African Americans thrive better learning technical skills and trades, others are perfectly capable of excelling in elite institutions and becoming scholars. Du Bois argues that classical higher education also instills moral values that the South—and the country in general—is in desperate need of. He emphasizes that the only hope for racial progress is in the teaching of truth and reason, which lead to moral righteousness. During slavery, black people were treated as no more than workers, strictly prohibited from even learning to read and write; so it would be a great shame if this trend continued into the post-Emancipation period. When given the chance to apply themselves in even the most challenging educational environments, black people have shown their commitment and ability. Du Bois concludes that it is thus a matter of great moral and practical urgency that higher education opportunities become available to young black people.
The next chapter moves away from the pleasant environment of Atlanta University to the decidedly more forsaken, violent, and segregated landscape of the rural South. Du Bois describes the “Black Belt,” an area of rural Georgia with a large poor, black population. He notes that black workers in the area are plagued by debt and haunted by memories of slavery. Indeed, many still live in slave cabins and work in conditions resembling slavery; few own land and a significant proportion pay their rent in cotton, an arrangement that makes paying off debt and owning land virtually impossible.
Du Bois turns his attention to the social interaction between white and black people, which has become increasingly restricted through segregation. Although poor communities of both races often live in proximity to one another, the wealthiest members of each race tend not to interact at all. Yet the lives of members of both races are inevitably bound up together: whites continue to control black people even indirectly, since black people aren’t allowed to vote and are heavily discriminated against within the criminal justice system. Du Bois suggests that racism is likely better solved through ordinary social interaction than through legislation, but in order for this to happen people must first accept that racism is a real and important problem.
Du Bois then vividly describes a scene at a black church as if from an outsider’s perspective. He explains that through studying the black church, it is possible to gain a comprehensive understanding of the black community, and to connect to the thoughts and feelings of slaves whose lives were left out of the historical record. Having been excluded from the country around them, black people create their own world within the church—a world that provides education, community, governance, and more. Religion serves as both a source of strength and an outlet for the expression of bitterness and sorrow. It also allows African Americans to have faith in a better world to come, whether on Earth or in the afterlife.
Du Bois tells the story of the birth of his son, Burghardt, whom he deeply loved but whose blond hair and blue eyes reminded Du Bois of slavery and seemed to be a sinister omen. Soon enough, while Burghardt was still in infancy he contracted an illness and died. Du Bois describes the extreme grief and despair he felt in the wake of his son’s death, and notes that his family were called “Niggers” by a group of white people during the boy’s funeral. However, Du Bois also admits that he felt a perverse sense of relief at the fact that Burghardt would not have to grow up and experience the cruel reality of the Veil, but would instead find true freedom in death.
Du Bois then tells the story of Alexander Crummell, a leader whom he knows personally but whose story he tells in a somewhat mythic, Biblical fashion. Born to a free black family in early-19th-century New York City, Crummell was faced with three temptations while growing up in a racist world: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. With difficulty, he overcame these temptations and went on to study and qualify as an Episcopalian priest. Despite daunting opposition, Crummell built an impressive array of accomplishments, including studying at the University of Cambridge and living in Liberia. Du Bois suggests that, although he was famous neither during his life nor in death, Crummell exemplifies the sort of leadership needed by the black community.
The penultimate chapter of the book consists of a fictional story of a young man named John Jones. John grows up in rural Georgia; a talented, cheerful, and popular boy, he is sent to study at Wells Institute, against the wishes of the white population in his hometown who claim that education will “ruin him.” At the Institute, John has difficulty studying and gets into trouble. He also discovers the reality of racism and becomes embittered as a result. He eventually returns home and tries to help his community, first by urging unity across religious denominations and then by choosing to teach at the black school. John asks the town’s white judge if he may take the teaching position, but the judge is hesitant, worried that John will advocate resistance to the rule of white people. John promises not to, but once he starts teaching he goes back on his word, and his classroom is immediately shut down. The story ends with the suggestion that John is about to be lynched.
The book’s final chapter examines the genre of the African-American spiritual. Du Bois claims that spirituals are the most beautiful form of expression to originate out of the US. An oral tradition, spirituals are derided by white people, who see them as vulgar and caricature them in minstrel acts. Despite this, spirituals remain a vitally important art form for the African-American community, particularly because they provide a chance to connect generations back through slavery and give an idea of slaves’ inner thoughts and feelings (in other words, their souls). Du Bois concludes on a hopeful (if tentative) note, asking the reader not to forget the book and urging people to use reason in order to solve the problem of racism in America.