British Association for American Studies


Veiled Interpretations of Du Bois’s ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ (1903)

Du Bois’s work The Souls of Black Folk (1903) attempts to capture the quintessential twentieth century problem “of the color-line” (713), that is the problem of racial belonging and identification. In these terms, Du Bois cautiously steps within the “Veil” of his racial segregation, a capitalized term he coins to help readers visualize the obscure barrier that separates the two worlds, and attempts to decipher the subliminal fluctuations of a blackness vastly treated as a flaw. This is the exact point African-Americans were subjected to, along with historical, cultural and political revelations. A mixture of techniques is consequently employed, aiming to conceptualise the unconscious and familiarise the readers with what they find unfamiliar.

Through the title, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois devises an effective umbrella under which his arguments can easily be unfolded. Right from the start, the technique of colloquial English language divulges his intention to open up his argumentation in both the white and black audience. In particular, the definite article “The” is not accidental and may insinuate the author’s insistence on specificity. Du Bois does not generalise, but instead specifically raises some points concerning the “Negro Problem” (719). Moreover, the usage of the word “Souls” is equally effective, since it suggests the unviewed spirit that represents the humane aspects of the black culture and heritage. Relatively enough, the emotionally charged word “Folk”, impregnated by the experiences and a commonly shared black legacy, creates a sense of collectiveness and unity of race in relation to its problematic history.

In that regard, “The Forethought” section of Du Bois’s work gains a bilateral purpose, operating both as a preamble, where the main thematic concerns are introduced to the readers, as well as the author’s cry for the way that they should approach his work. Specifically, Du Bois, through a “calmly portentous [tone]” (Lewis 278) and meticulous approach to words and rhetorical questions attempts to communicate “[h]ow does it feel to be a problem … here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century” (714). Clarifying this, Du Bois pinpoints the readers’ major role in the task he is conducting by capturing on paper the “incomparable phrase that leaps from the page into indelible memory” (Lewis 279); in Du Bois’s words: “[t]his meaning is not without interest to you Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (713). Conspicuously enough, Du Bois’s address is an effort to equally cajole white and black readers not to be judgmental, but instead approach his text with kindness and receptive minds. In that way, the readers’ role is elevated, since Du Bois recognizes that the sole road towards his race’s better future is in the recipients’ acceptance of the ideas that his work delivers.

Therefore, in order to thoroughly describe the race problem from the inside, Du Bois steps within the “Veil” (713). In Du Bois’s mind, courage and passion intermingle (Lewis 279), to evoke a tone of personal testimony, mediated through the figurative and symbolic language used: “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” (713). It is as though “the small hurts and large insults of his own life- the visiting-card incident” (Lewis 279) are all fused within the term “Veil”, which either partly or wholly covers the black race’s truths and impedes our vision, and therefore, our thoughts. Through points like these, Du Bois expresses the ache within black people’s souls.

W. E. B. Du Bois, photo taken in summer 1907 in connection with the annual Niagara Movement meeting.

Furthermore, through his writing, Du Bois gives an insight into an African-American perception of the world. As Du Bois frames it, with the aid of the revolutionary conception of racial two-ness, “the African-American ever feels his two-ness- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” (715) and he is gifted with “second-sight in this American world” (715), a capacity to see incomparably farther and deeper. In that sense, and aided through the use of imagery, Du Bois moves from the divided external world to the African-Americans’ double-conscious personality and the urgent need “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (715). Henceforth, he neither aspires to “Africanize America” (Du Bois 715) nor “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (Du Bois 715). Instead, he toils to empower  African-Americans by making them aware of their struggle hand-in-hand towards a “proud hyphenation of their double-consciousness” (Lewis 281). Nevertheless, Du Bois posits that the reason why African-Americans still considered themselves to be ‘Americans’ was because “America had too much to teach the world and Africa” and consequently, the African-American wishes to “be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture” (Du Bois 715), so that “some day on American soil two world races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack” (Du Bois 719).

In these terms, in a notion of reciprocal exchange, African-Americans were finally given “work, culture, liberty- all these [they needed] not singly but together” (Du Bois 718) but in the meanwhile, they had already supplied American culture with much more than their slave labor: “a potent folk influence” (Butcher 23), which colored the temper of the American South (Butcher 24) or they negated “the ‘official’ color prejudice” (Butcher 23), allowing for a more open-minded perception of the world. Moreover, their lively disposition offered “a major form of the American theater: “blackface minstrelsy and […] vaudeville which were to affect the national stage for about three quarters of a century” (Butcher 25). Furthermore, they rose the unique “slave songs” (Du Bois 718) to “recognition and universal acclaim as the incomparable ‘Negro Spirituals’” (Butcher 27), which constitute the humble resources of the harmonious, improvised techniques of jazz music (Butcher 29). Hence, African-American contribution to American culture is now universally acknowledged through the unique distinctiveness of their artistic potentials (Butcher 37).

In contrast, there stands the white Americans’ perception of the race of color, who in the beginning of the twentieth century still only perceived them as a “lowly people” (Du Bois 716), as uncivilized and uneducated “half-men” (Du Bois 718). This was what the white oppressor used as an ostensibly irrefutable argument in order to sheerly subordinate and exploit the dark-colored race as inexpensive workforce in the plantations of the south (Berlin 336). Henceforth, in a symbolic castration, the “seventh son” (Du Bois 715) is called to purchase his survival in a white-oriented world, where the sole thing he offers is manual labor, turning himself into a mechanic of white dominance, as chattel, submissive to a white guardian who could sell or exchange him (Berlin 328). In other words, as Du Bois asserts through realistic facts, white Americans wished to have them living in “submission and silence as of civic and political rights” (725), requiring that Negroes remain powerless and in dependent slave capacities (Berlin 316), so that the white Americans extort the arduous slave labor they so longed.

Du Bois, therefore, filters both sides of the “twice told story” in an effort to grand his essay with objective argumentation on the race problem. Throughout The Souls of Black Folk, and especially in the third book, Du Bois’s non-fictional work cries for the readers to grasp the urgency of the moment, the desperate need of unity, a brotherhood and the call for a black nationality, perfectly equal with that of white Americans. In that sense, he opposes the Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegge Institute and the practical education it offered, for submission was still implied as well as it “almost completely [overshadowed] the higher aims of life” (Du Bois 724). According to Du Bois, these aims are positioned on self-esteem and on “manly self-respect [which] is worth more than lands and houses” (724).

Thus, through The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois, with his academic proficiency in profoundly analyzing perceptions of reality, attempts to build up a statement; an influential argument that will attract attention and succeed in liberating thought from the fetters of fictionality of his times. Additionally, he fights to establish the concept of race as a socially-constructed idea, which by facilitating uneven social discourse and uneven positions of people, forged an unaccepted racial division. Finally, he struggles to deliver the image of a race of black men, chattelized and almost dehumanised, who, nonetheless, through their own incessant efforts, managed to rise themselves into independence, beside the white race, whose sovereignty kept them in an inherent brutalized condition.

About the Author

Panteleimon Tsiokos holds a BA with distinction in English and an MA in English and American Studies from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. He is currently employed as a Lecturer of American Studies in France and his research interests revolve around issues of identity in ethnic and minority literature, modernist and postmodernist American poetry, issues of immigration, and the urban space.