Web Dubois The Souls Of Black Folk Essay Definition

The Enduring Lyricism Of W.E.B. Du Bois' 'The Souls Of Black Folk'

W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls Of Black Folk has been re-published in a new edition for the author's 150th birthday anniversary. C. M. Battey/Getty Images hide caption

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C. M. Battey/Getty Images

W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls Of Black Folk has been re-published in a new edition for the author's 150th birthday anniversary.

C. M. Battey/Getty Images

It was no accident that W.E.B. Du Bois called his book The Souls Of Black Folk, says Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America. Du Bois wasn't looking for a catchy title — he was reacting to the reality of his times.

"Racist Americans were making the case that black people did not have souls," Kendi says. "And the beings that did not have souls were beasts."

Friday is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Du Bois, the great African-American thinker and writer. To celebrate, The Souls Of Black Folk has been republished. It's a collection of essays on black life and race relations in the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

In his introduction to the new edition of The Souls Of Black Folk, Kendi writes that Du Bois wanted the world "to know the humanity of black folk." Some of the essays, like one about his time as a teacher in the rural South, vividly depict what it was like to be black. Others address the ongoing debates of the time about the best way to improve black lives. Taken as a whole, the book reads like one long poem.

"It's deeply lyrical, but not just lyrical in the sense that he had, sort of, beautiful language," Kendi says. "It's lyrical in the sense that he was able to really capture the complexities and multiplicities of life."

A central metaphor in the book is the idea that a veil separates white and black America. Blacks can see through the veil, says Kendi — whites either can't or won't.

"In many ways black people could see the opportunities through the veil that white people were privileged to have," Kendi says. "White people could not see through the veil the opportunities that black people were denied."

Many of the ideas that Du Bois outlined in the book still endure. Dana Williams, head of the English department at Howard University, has taught the book many times.

"It doesn't matter where the student is in his or her learning experience," Williams says. "There's always something in The Souls Of Black Folk that students can identify with."

Nnyla Lampkin is a freshman at Howard. She and several other students gathered recently to discuss the book.

"It was amazing to me to hear somebody from the past speaking the way that some of us think today," Lampkin says.

One idea that seemed to resonate with the group was Du Bois' concept of "double consciousness," which describes how difficult it was to be both black and American — at a time when being American essentially meant being white. Freshman Hadiyah Cummings says this duality can still be a struggle.

"It's definitely hard having to know I love being black and I love what I represent, and also knowing that if I want to get a job that I have to look a certain way or speak a certain way," Cummings says. "And so having to fight this constant battle of choosing which side of me am I going to show today and also just wanting to be able to be unapologetically me and be accepted in both spaces is definitely hard to deal with."

In The Souls Of Black Folk, Du Bois outlines his ideas about the need for higher education for blacks. He lays the groundwork for a later essay, "The Talented Tenth," which is also included in this new edition. This is one of his best known ideas — that "the Negro race," as he called, it would "be saved by its exceptional men."

Though Du Bois later revised some of his thinking, this idea has been criticized as elitist. Howard senior Sadiya Malcolm doesn't see it that way.

"To me the proposition is not elitist," she says. "It's a responsibility — it's a task. It's about creating opportunities so that when my nieces or my little brothers and sisters are going to school, it looks possible — so they have somebody in their community to go to to say 'well, what's the college process like?' It's about realizing collectively how we can contribute to our betterment as a people."

At the start of each essay Du Bois includes a bar of music. These are "The Sorrow Songs" that Du Bois writes about in his final essay. They are the spirituals and folk songs that emerged from slavery to become a gift to America — what Du Bois calls the "singular spiritual heritage of the nation." It is the story of these that touched Asan Hawkins most deeply.

"I don't think any of us have escaped our childhoods without hearing at least one of these songs," Hawkins says. "And for him to weave them into each and every one of these chapters — he lit up our spirits. He gave us something that we could relate to throughout time. Each song spoke to somebody, each chapter spoke to somebody."

In his introduction, Ibram Kendi notes that when The Souls Of Black Folk was first released, a black newspaper in Ohio declared that it should be read "by every person." Kendi believes that advice still holds today for anyone who wants to understand America and to see what's on the other side of that veil.

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Souls of Black Folk” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Souls of Black Folk” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper. Before you begin, however, please get some useful tips and hints abouthow to use PaperStarter.comin the brief User's Guide…you'll be glad you did.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: DuBois’s Direct Address to the Reader

In The Souls of Black Folk DuBois appears to be highly conscious of the fact that he is writing for a particular audience. From the opening of the text DuBois works to establish a relationship with the reader and specifically asks the reader to accept his work under certain terms and conditions (see Quote 2, below). Write an essay in which you explain the reasons for DuBois’s engagement of the reader in this way. Be sure to include a treatment of the ways in which DuBois maintains the relationship and reaffirms it throughout the text. Examine the conclusion and make a determination about who DuBois anticipated his audience would be and assess whether his text was effective in achieving the objectives DuBois established.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Role of the Sorrow Songs in The Souls of Black Folk

In the section titled, “The Forethought," which is essentially the preface to The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois explains that he will be opening each chapter by presenting one of the “Sorrow Songs," “haunting" melodies “from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past" (1704). Write an explanatory essay in which you identify what sorrow songs are and explain what they mean in relationship to DuBois’s text. You may wish to focus on one or more specific sorrow songs in order to develop your explanation.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Image of the Veil

In the “Forethought" section of the text, DuBois introduces the image of the Veil. Note that when DuBois introduces this image, the word “Veil" is capitalized. The veil will become an important symbol and metaphor that is developed across the narrative. Examining quotes 4 and 5 below, as well as others that you identify yourself, explain what the Veil is, and how DuBois’s relationship with the Veil is described initially and how it develops as the text progresses. At the end of the text, determine whether the veil is intact or rent asunder, and what this means for the future of African Americans.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: What Are the Souls of Black Folk?

The title of DuBois’s narrative suggests that the author will explain to the reader what the souls of Black folk are. Indeed, DuBois explains the souls of Black folk in many ways over the course of his text. Examining some of the definitions that DuBois offers (including some identified in the Quotes section below), write an essay in which you explain how DuBois viewed the Black condition at the time he wrote this text. Convey your belief about DuBois’s effectiveness in convincing the reader about the Black condition, and explain whether DuBois believed that the souls of Black folk would—or could—change if the social transformations he was seeking occurred.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: DuBois’s Relationship to Intellectualism

In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois explains to the reader that the best, and perhaps the only, way that DuBois himself could transcend his conditions and the way in which he believes African Americans could transcend their situation was to embrace intellectualism and understand their circumstances. Some critics of DuBois’s writing and political stance found this position to be passive; they would have advocated a more active and aggressive kind of social change. Write an argumentative essay in which you defend your own position with respect to this argument: Would you have been an assimilationist or an abolitionist? Be sure to explain why.


This list of important quotations from “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.

“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." (1703)

“I pray you…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." (1703)

“Leaving, then, the world of the white man, 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." (1704)

“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?" (1704)

“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…." (1705)

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and the 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…." (1705)

“One ever feels his two-ness—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." (1705)

“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." (1705-1706)

“He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa." (1706)

“And now what I have briefly sketched in large outline let me on coming pages tell again in many ways, with loving emphasis and deeper detail, that men may listen to the striving in the souls of black folk." (1710)

Reference: DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 1702-1718. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

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