The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois


W. E. B. Du Bois, 1918

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, 1918

Photograph by C.M. Battey [Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The Souls of Black Folk, from which this week’s ten-minute read is taken, is an important text written in the United States by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903.  

This influential book of essays is foundational to the writing and politics of the century(s) that followed. It also makes for powerfully immediate reading. The meticulous passion and creativity in Du Bois’s language and imagery is thought-provoking, sometimes beautiful and always arresting. As essay collections return to popularity in recent years, we wanted to bring a best-selling and genre-defining text from this genre to the front of our book club reading list.  

The book’s publication in 1903 came at a pivotal moment. It was almost forty years since the end of the American Civil War, which had, with Constitutional Amendment XIV, given black men full citizenship and promised equal protection under the law, enshrined in the project of Reconstruction. But racism was still rife, and individual states varied greatly in their treatment of black Americans. Reactionary laws and statutes, often referred to as ‘Jim Crow’ laws (itself a racist slur), began to be implemented from the 1890s onwards to drastically reduce and limit the rights of black Americans. In such a dehumanising context, the forthright focus on the soul in Du Bois’s book is an act of vital resistance, and a landmark call for greater awareness of the growing divisiveness and damage that racism was causing. 

Du Bois has also had tremendous creative influence on subsequent writers, such as Richard Wright, Harlem Renaissance writers, Lorraine Hansberry (who knew him personally through his frequent visits with her family), James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, to name just a few of countless others. Souls is something of a hybrid text, combining music and lyrics, sociological analysis, history, memoir, and even some fiction: even in these first few pages Du Bois interlinks the deeply personal with broad and deep historiography, nimbly shifting tone, style and perspective throughout. 

—Alexandra Paddock and Erica Lombard


Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Selfhood and consciousness, or the ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ 

  • History: who tells it, and how 

  • The nature and implications of ‘spirituality’ 

The Forethought


Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line. I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.

I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive. First, in two chapters I have tried to show what Emancipation meant to them, and what was its aftermath. In a third chapter I have pointed out the slow rise of personal leadership, and criticized candidly the leader who bears the chief burden of his race to-day. Then, in two other chapters I have sketched in swift outline the two worlds within and without the Veil, and thus have come to the central problem of training men for life. Venturing now into deeper detail, I have in two chapters studied the struggles of the massed millions of the black peasantry, and in another have sought to make clear the present relations of the sons of master and man. Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls. All this I have ended with a tale twice told but seldom written, and a chapter of song.

Some of these thoughts of mine have seen the light before in other guise. For kindly consenting to their republication here, in altered and extended form, I must thank the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly, The World’s Work, the Dial, The New World, and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Before each chapter, as now printed, stands a bar of the Sorrow Songs,—some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past. And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?

W.E.B Du B.

Atlanta, Ga., Feb. 1, 1903.


I. 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.
musical score


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 words 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. Through 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 carpet-baggers, 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.

A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. But alas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much of this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress, he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance. But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil,—before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom “discouragement” is an unwritten word.

But the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate. Whisperings and portents came home upon the four winds: Lo! we are diseased and dying, cried the dark hosts; we cannot write, our voting is vain; what need of education, since we must always cook and serve? And the Nation echoed and enforced this self-criticism, saying: Be content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for half-men? Away with the black man’s ballot, by force or fraud,—and behold the suicide of a race! Nevertheless, out of the evil came something of good,—the more careful adjustment of education to real life, the clearer perception of the Negroes’ social responsibilities, and the sobering realization of the meaning of progress.


The full text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found for free at Project Gutenberg

The Writer 

The sociologist, Pan-Africanist, novelist and critic William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (pronounced doo-boys) was born in 1868. He was highly educated, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University before becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895 (after having had to get a second BA because Harvard would not accept his course credits from Fisk, an African American college). With other African American civil rights activists, he established the Niagara Movement in 1906 and later, in 1909, became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As an author, he is probably best known for The Souls of Black Folk.  

The Souls of Black Folk is one of the founding texts not only of African American literature, but also of the discipline of sociology itself. Du Bois makes some of his most widely quoted statements in these essays. His influential concepts of the color-line, the Veil, double-consciousness, and second-sight, which have become defining ways of thinking about race both within and without the United States. 

Book History 

The Souls of Black Folk was published by A. C. McClurg and Co. in Chicago on 18 April 1903. The book was immediately popular, reprinted twice in its first two months. It is estimated that between 18,000-20,000 copies of The Souls of Black Folk were sold between the time of its first publication and the time it was last issued (from those original plates) in 1940. In 1948 Du Bois finally secured the rights to produce a cheaper edition, and a fiftieth anniversary of the work was soon conceived, with some editing and a new foreword (Blue Heron Press, 1953).  

The Full Text

This can be found for free in various formats at Project Gutenberg.

Academic Publications and Other Resources

Lloyd Pratt’s The Strangers Book (2016)

Pratt’s discussion of Du Bois’s historiography (in ‘The Abundant Black Past’, and the Introduction) can be accessed via Google Books.

W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, 1803-1999, University of Massachusetts Amherst Library

The UMass Library has digitised a huge amount of its Du Bois collection, and it is a treasure trove for avid readers.

Reiland Rabaka’s 24th Annual W. E. B. DuBois Lecture

Watch a video of Professor Rabaka giving the 2018 W. E. B. DuBois Lecture at UMass Amherst.

Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century

This TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) research network and its blog facilitates conversations about race, racism, resistance, and liberation within Oxford and beyond. 

About the Contributors

Dr Alexandra Paddock was awarded her DPhil by the University of Oxford in 2017. She is Assistant Senior Tutor at Middlebury-CMRS and Lecturer in English at Keble College, University of Oxford. She taught medieval literature as Lecturer in Medieval English at Keble (2015–2018). She is also Editorial Lead and co-director of the LitHits project at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford (2017–2019), and project coordinator for Ten-Minute Book Club. Alexandra specialises in English literature and the natural world, with a particular emphasis on whales in medieval poetry. She is interested in the ways in which animals constitute and even behave as the natural spaces in literary depictions, such as the island-turned-whale of the Exeter Book Physiologus. This is the topic of her current monograph, Unland: Space and the Matter of Animals in Medieval Literature. She also works on the medieval bestiary and Physiologus tradition. She is currently writing a chapter on bestiary worms, badgers, and other earth-moving creatures, for Earth, ed. Hugh Magennis, Marilina Cesario and Elisa Ramazzina (forthcoming, Brill). In her spare time, Alexandra also performs as a storyteller.

Dr Erica Lombard is a Lecturer in the Department of English Literary Studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She was educated in South Africa and the UK, where she completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2015 with a thesis on white nostalgic writing of post-apartheid South Africa. She has held postdoctoral research fellowships at the Universities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Oxford. At the latter, she was the postdoctoral fellow on the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, which explored experiences of reading Black and Asian British literature in the UK. She continues to work on the project website. Erica’s current research focuses on questions of transformation and transition in South African literary publishing in the post-apartheid era. She is co-host of the podcast Literate, in which she and fellow literary scholar Alicia Broggi go through the The New York Public Library’s 1995 “Books of the Century” list, book by book.