The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

3.7 86
by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Originally published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk is a classic study of race, culture, and education at the turn of the twentieth century. With its singular combination of essays, memoir, and fiction, this book vaulted W. E. B. Du Bois to the forefront of American political commentary and civil rights activism. The Souls of Black Folk is an impassioned, at times…  See more details below


Originally published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk is a classic study of race, culture, and education at the turn of the twentieth century. With its singular combination of essays, memoir, and fiction, this book vaulted W. E. B. Du Bois to the forefront of American political commentary and civil rights activism. The Souls of Black Folk is an impassioned, at times searing account of the situation of African Americans in the United States. Du Bois makes a forceful case for the access of African Americans to higher education, memorably extols the achievements of black culture (above all the spirituals or 'sorrow songs'), and advances the provocative and influential argument that due to the inequalities and pressures of the 'race problem', African American identity is characterized by 'double consciousness'.

Editorial Reviews

Sacred Fire
Herein lie buried many things, which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.

Born in Massachusetts in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was the foremost black intellectual of his time—and mind you, his time stretched all the way from Reconstruction to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. A man of staggering intellect and drive, he was the first black to hold a doctorate from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote three historical works, two novels, two autobiographies, and sixteen pioneering books on sociology, history, politics, and race relations. He was a founder of the NAACP, pioneering Pan-Africanist, spirited advocate for world peace, and tireless fighter for civil rights during the darkest days of Jim Crow.

Du Bois was also a prophet: At the turn of the century, he wrote in the "forethought" of this seminal collection of essays that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." That statement has resonated throughout this turbulent century and remains just as fresh today as in 1903. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of fourteen powerfully written essays that are by turn testimony and autobiography, stands as a monumental achievement and quite possibly his most influential work. The book is both a vivid portrait of the conditions facing freshly emancipated black folk at the turn of the century and a still-relevant discussion of the dilemma of race in the United States. It was here that Du Bois introduced his influential concept of "double-consciousness": the struggle of black people trying to define themselves as both black and American.

What makes these unflinching, luminous, and troublesome essays so powerful is that each builds upon the other to try to answer questions about race that have perplexed, enraged, and divided America for over a century. Written in part to counter Booker T. Washington's prevailing strategy of accommodation, The Souls of Black Folk created a fresh way of looking at and protesting the multifaceted oppression of black people.

New York Times Book Review
The Souls of Black Folk throws much light upon the complexities of the negro problem, for it shows that the key note of at least some negro aspiration is still the abolition of the social color line. -- New York Times review, April 1903; Books of the Century
Library Journal
Du Bois's 1903 classic is one of many large-print standards being released by Transaction. Other new titles in the series include Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy (ISBN 1-56000-523-8), Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (ISBN 1-56000-517-3), H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (ISBN 1-56000-515-7), Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (ISBN 1-56000-507-8), E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (ISBN 1-56000-507-6), and Scott Fitzgerald's The Ice Palace and Other Stories (ISBN 1-56000-511-4). These are available in a mixture of paperback and hardcovers, with prices ranging from $17.95 to $24.95.
From the Publisher
“One hundred years after publication, there is in the entire body of social criticism still no more than a handful of meditations on the promise and failings of democracy in America to rival William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s extraordinary collection of fourteen essays.” —from the Introduction by David Levering Lewis

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Random House Publishing Group
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The Souls of Black Folk

100th Anniversary Edition
By W. E. B. Du Bois

Signet Classics

Copyright © 1995 W. E. B. Du Bois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0451526031

Chapter One

Of Our Spiritual Strivings

O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
All night long the water is crying to me.
Unresting water, there shall never be rest
Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
All life long crying without avail,
As the water all night long is crying to me.

— Arthur Symons

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience — peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards — ten cents a package — and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, — refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, — some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self- consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man's turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is not weakness, — it is the contradiction of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan — on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde — could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would- be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a- dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people, — has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.

Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries. To him, so far as he thought and dreamed, slavery was indeed the sum of all villainies, the cause of all sorrow, the root of all prejudice; Emancipation was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Israelites. In song and exhortation swelled one refrain — Liberty; in his tears and curses, the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand. At last it came, — suddenly, fearfully, like a dream. With one wild carnival of blood and passion came the message in his own plaintive cadences: —

"Shout, O children!
Shout, you're free!
For God has bought your liberty!"

Years have passed away since then, — ten, twenty, forty; forty years of national life, forty years of renewal and development, and yet the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation's feast. In vain do we cry to this our vastest social problem: —

"Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble!"

The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, — a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.

The first decade was merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom, the boon that seemed ever barely to elude their grasp,—like a tantalizing will-o'- the-wisp, maddening and misleading the headless host. The holocaust of war, the terrors of the Ku-Klux Klan, the lies of carpetbaggers, the disorganization of industry, and the contradictory advice of friends and foes, left the bewildered serf with no new watchword beyond the old cry for freedom. As the time flew, however, he began to grasp a new idea. The ideal of liberty demanded for its attainment powerful means, and these the Fifteenth Amendment gave him. The ballot, which before he had looked upon as a visible sign of freedom, he now regarded as the chief means of gaining and perfecting the liberty with which war had partially endowed him. And why not? Had not votes made war and emancipated millions? Had not votes enfranchised the freedmen? Was anything impossible to a power that had done all this? A million black men started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom. So the decade flew away, the revolution of 1876 came, and left the half-free serf weary, wondering, but still inspired. Slowly but steadily, in the following years, a new vision began gradually to replace the dream of political power, — a powerful movement, the rise of another ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night after a clouded day. It was the ideal of "book-learning"; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of Emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work. The cold statistician wrote down the inches of progress here and there, noted also where here and there a foot had slipped or some one had fallen. To the tired climbers, the horizon was ever dark, the mists were often cold, the Canaan was always dim and far away. If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place, little but flattery and criticism, the journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect. In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, — darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.


Excerpted from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois Copyright © 1995 by W. E. B. Du Bois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Langston Hughes
My earliest memories of written words are of those of Du Bois and the Bible.

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The Souls of Black Folk 3.7 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 86 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
W.E.B DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk successfully elucidates the paradoxical existence of the African American. His main thesis embellishes the ¿double-consciousness¿ of the African American (an American of African heritage or the African displaced in America) and the hardships that emerge as a result. More specifically, the African American, detached from his ancestral homeland and having some significant investment in the development of this nation (i.e. slavery), longs to receive the constitutional gifts entitled to its citizens. However, because the ¿American dream¿ was conceived by and for the benefit of white Christian men of substantial wealth, and moreover, because this enabled group continuously fails or refuses to recognize their darker counterparts as equals, the African American can never truly realize his place among society. Likewise, the endless, and often fruitless, process of assimilating with mainstream American culture equates with the gradual loss of ethnic authenticity. Consequently, the African American is left at war with his own identity. Finally, DuBois exposes the socioeconomic security on behalf of white America beneath the stronghold of racism, as well as the contradictions of American values with the maintenance of social color lines . The Souls of Black Folk is presented in 14 essays, each beginning with a slave hymnal. Harvard educated DuBois employs both black vernacular and academic language, further emphasizing the duality of the African American experience. Though DuBois¿ Souls analyzes black culture in context of the early 1900s, his ideas, for the most part, hold true today and have myriad applications. Regardless of background, this text provides original and genuine insight to the American societal dynamic based on historical social investigation. I challenge you to read this work whole-heartedly and find a personal meaning! - C.G. F.
ReadingVixen67 More than 1 year ago
This book was required reading before I went to college. Ironically enough, I went to W.E.B. DuBois' Alma mater, Fisk University. Excellent read; delves deeply into what black people were looking and searching for during those times: a sense of belonging, a sense of peace within the community and within each other. An excellent manifesto!
talented_tenth More than 1 year ago
W.E.B Du Bois's book "The Souls of Black Folk" is a must read for all Americans to get a deeper more philosophical sense of what it means to be "Black in America". DuBois was a visionary who was ahead of his time. This book is often a mandatory read for African-American studies students, but should be a must read for all serious students of history. The issues DuBois highlighted and detailed at the turn of the 20th Century seem to be resurfacing at the turn of the 21st Century. The Color Line!
Jackkeg More than 1 year ago
Take the time to learn of the accomplishments of some of the relative unknowns in our history. The First Black PH.D from Harvard, De Bois looks from the perspective just north of slavery and the need to seek to understand what the future must bring. A great read for those who wish yo know more about individuals sometime segmented into a black history subject matter when his thoughts are universal and his blackness secondary.
Guest More than 1 year ago
On the surface this book seems to be an account of what it was like to be black in the early 1900s. It is so much more than that. It is a description of what America is, what it can be, its greatness, and its shortcomings. Here is a man who was a true American. He loved his country even as it was not fulfilling its promise to him. Amongst the gems you will find in this work: 'Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, --criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, -- this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.' Can we ever hear that too much? 'It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumpgh of the good, the beautiful, and the true that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and crueltly.' I don't think we're there yet. This work documents the time of the Reconstruction, something we probably know less about that we think we do. We think we know what went on, but in reality we have mostly theory. Here is someone who lived through the time and the aftermath of the civil war. He bears truer witness to it than anyone writing on the subject today. If you want to know why the state of the races is as it is, here is a book to shed light. 'One thing, however, seldom occurs: the best of the whites and the best of the Negroes almost never live in anything like close proximity. It thus happens that in nearly every Southern town and city, both whites and blacks see commonly the worst of each other.' Was it so different in the North? Is it so different today? Even with all the forced integration in the 70s? If you like American History, this is a text you should have in your bookcase.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
African American Literature!  Composed of several essays discussing race, W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk effectively explains the the existence of the Negro in America. Within these essays that compose the book, DuBois mainly exemplifies the difficulties that African Americans pertain in an American society. These difficulties that DuBois explains throughout the book mainly comes under the accepting of ones rights that were entitled to them. But, because of  their skin, as well as their previous existence (i.e. slaves), the superiority (i.e. whites) turned a blind eye towards them. DuBois explains how by this fact:  African Americans will never truly find themselves as equals in society if such continues to occur. Hence, DuBois reasons that with this constant  ingratiation towards the white man, and trying to acquiesce with his culture, only leads to a misunderstanding of the intrinsic ethnicity of African Americans. Finally, DuBois uncovers the truth about the White America involving race. In every essay composed within the book, you will find the reality of the African American citizen of that time, as well as their rationale on such matter. This book is for ones who are willing to know about the thinking of the Black man from a single-minded view. This book will truly change the thoughts of those who read it. I hope you enjoy the reading!  
AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
Du Bois engages one with his erudition and his use of African American Spirituals to set off each essay. He closes the book with a reflection specifically on these spirituals. He makes clear several aspects of American and slavery history and presents interesting perspectives and criticisms of other important figures, such as Booker T. Washington. I found this book greatly insightful not only on the times and social milieu of Du Bois but also for current times. I highly recommend this book for all interested in this history and especially for all non-African Americans.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In Souls of Black Folk I heard a voice of a my people intrenched in a what seemed to be a temporary situation but sad to say relevant in today's community and societies as a whole. Double consciousness still a major issue, "but our dogged strength alone keeps us from being torn asunder..." This book was riveting, I have the physical copy that is old and worn and on its 15th read, so I figured I'd by the Nook copy so I will always have it on my MAC and ready for me to peruse!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A highly recommended book for all blacks to read, it is a must, Mr. Dubois speaks from the soul and manifest what is in the minds of most black 'folks'. Speaks on the conditions of slavery and its effects on an entire people. All whites and republicans should read this novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
W.E.B. DuBois was a pioneer of African American literature and thought. This book of essays will Make you rethink the progress and status of African Americans throughout America's history, and will help you understand and sympathize much more. this book has some disturbing anti-semiotic passages in it. I find it strange that DuBois can so effectively and reasonably argue for the equality of African-Americans while so irrationally claims such anti-Semitic comments. Except for this problem, (which should not be overlooked), the book is very important and powerful, and it did and continues to do a lot for the advancement of African-Americans in the US. It is sort of like a guide for an African America who is lost and does not really understand who he is. DuBios presents his information in a chronological and straightforward manner. I would recommend this book to truth seekers and soul searchers!
Anonymous 11 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a White American, I realized almost 40 years ago that the history I was taught in school was insufficient. So, loving to read, I sought out a number of books for more information after reading Anne Frank. Before the Mayflower, the Life and times of Frederick Douglass, Diary of a Slave Girl, and the Souls of Black Folk were a few of the most outstanding works I found over the years. It seems not only informative, but also justice that these narratives be read and pondered by all of us. I haven't found the prose of any of these authors difficult to understand. If I did, I'd consider it a challenge for me, with the educational advantages I've enjoyed, to read with a dictionary handy. After all, if former slaves can overcome their ignorance in the face of numerous obstacles, surpassing the reading /writing level of the average American today, what does that say about us? The Souls of Black Folks isn't difficult to comprehend, but it is sometimes difficult to stomach. I find myself wanting to go back in time, and treat Black people with justice and equality. I wonder what it will take for us to wake up,and change our attitudes toward our fellow men. How can we say we love God, whom we never see, if we don't love our fellow man, whom we see every day?
CLT43 More than 1 year ago
Good read in my view!
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