Historical Context for The Souls of Black Folk
The Souls of Black Folk
, arguably Du Bois’s most famous and enduring book, was first published in 1903 while he was teaching at Atlanta University. He was 35 years old. The book contains a collection of Du Bois’s essays, several of which had been previously published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in the years leading up to the book’s launch.
The Souls of Black Folk, read as a single work, is a unique admixture of history, social documentary, autobiography and anthropological fieldwork. By drawing on such a range of disciplines, Du Bois is able to offer his readers different lenses for viewing one central problem: the devastating effects that living in segregation had had on the souls and consciousness of black people.
One way to understand The Souls of Black Folk is as a response to the legacy of an earlier black American leader, Booker T. Washington. Washington was, by most accounts, the leading figure in the black community between 1895 and 1910. He advocated a gradual approach to ending racism, an approach that centered on an education in technical and industrial skills. Such an education, to Washington’s mind, was one that could lay the economic foundation for social and political progress for black Americans.
While Du Bois had high admiration and great respect for Booker T. Washington, he could not abide Washington’s program. The central issue, for Du Bois, was that Washington’s policies acquiesced to the alleged inferiority of black Americans. On Du Bois’s view, Washington was essentially asking black Americans to give up political power, civil rights and higher education – resources that, to Du Bois’s mind, were critical in the fight to achieve equality. As Du Bois writes in the third chapter of The Souls of Black Folk (entitled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others"), “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”
Du Bois himself worked in season and out to secure equal rights for black Americans. His philosophy, outlined in eloquent and moving prose in The Souls of Black Folk, continues to make a monumental impact not only on the field of Black Studies, but also on the course of American – and global – history.
Written by Patrick Comstock, Teachers College, Columbia University
Charles Lemert. “W.E.B. Du Bois,” The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists. George Ritzer, editor. Blackwell Publishing, 2003
Natalie Lewis. "The Souls of Black Folk," Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005, p. 437
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover, 1994
“William Edward Burghardt Du Bois,” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online.