The Souls of Black Folk


W.E.B. Du Bois

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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.

Slavery vs. Freedom

Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk almost 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished chattel slavery across the US, yet the legacy of slavery was anything but over. Much of the book is dedicated to examining this legacy, and calling into question the extent that African-American people can truly be considered free. Du Bois also examines the way that the South is particularly shaped by the ongoing consequences of slavery, and argues…

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Material vs. Psychological Racism

One of the most groundbreaking aspects of The Souls of Black Folk is its focus on the psychological experience of racism alongside the issues of physical and economic oppression. In the book, Du Bois argues that even the few black people who manage to achieve prosperity, higher education, and professional success cannot escape the mental and emotional effects of living in a racist society. Du Bois himself is a key example of this phenomenon; born…

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Education is at the centre of Du Bois’ theory of racial uplift, and to his understanding of how society in general can be shaped for the better. One of the key problems Du Bois identifies with the way society currently operates is that people—and white people in particular—are obsessed with wealth and motivated entirely by profit. He argues that education can counter this problem of greed by instilling better morals in people and encouraging them…

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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…

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Exclusion vs. Belonging

Du Bois begins the book by arguing that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” thereby claiming that black people’s exclusion from white society is the most important issue facing 20th-century America. Both a physical and metaphorical barrier, the color line prevents black people from accessing the institutions, spaces, and opportunities available to white people; this exclusion is both created by and fuels the psychological and social issues…

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