The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois

The Souls of Black Folk
W. E. B. Du Bois
African-American literature
Published 1903

I finished this book in 2019 as part of TWEM histories.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American author, born after the Civil War. After writing The Souls of Black Folk, he helped organize the NAACP (1904). He was involved in multiple occupations, including civil rights, peace activist, historian, and sociologist. He was a productive writer whose works affected history.

Personally, The Souls of Black Folk was one of the most cohesive and engaging books I have read in a long time. I can tell by how much I wrote in the book. Half of my pages ended up like this:

I did not always agree with the author, but I understood why he thought the way he did. He made his case clear. He was truly impassioned and zealous about his arguments.

Some of the major ideas or arguments addressed by Du Bois included:

  • How it felt to be a problem
  • How the black man saw himself in this world
  • The real causes of the Civil War
  • What the nation should do with the newly freed slaves
  • How government complicated everything
  • Why the right to vote was most essential to the black man
  • Why Du Bois disagreed with Booker T. Washington
  • How wealth (or desire for wealth) destroys the black man
  • How should the Negro college respond
  • Why Du Bois disagreed with capitalism
  • The causes of poverty
  • How blacks and whites interacted
  • Segregation (the color line)
  • The characteristic of black religious life
  • The social history of blacks
  • Why blacks live a double life (black and American)
  • Why Freedom became Du Bois' religion
  • The "shadow of the veil"
  • What black folksong tells us
  • Why Du Bois went back to Africa

More difficult arguments were against Booker T. Washington, whom I respect very much. Du Bois claimed that Washington placed the black man's problems squarely on his shoulders alone; whereas Du Bois argued, and quite intelligently, that the responsibility belonged to the North, or the United States government.

Frankly, I accept both arguments equally. The government was responsible for the evils of slavery and the post-Civil War mistakes, which caused the difficulties that followed; but it was also wise to teach personal responsibility, as it made one more diligent, independent, and resourceful in the end.

Du Bois saw the desire for wealth as a stranglehold on black Americans, keeping them in slavery. He did not support capitalism, obviously, and believed it was one of the causes of racism. Instead he believed socialism was a better way to racial equality. (This I strongly disagreed with the author also.)

The book is bursting with arguments and evidence. It is well written and quite arresting. I only touched on two ideas.

Should You Read This Book?

Americans should read it for an engrossing perspective on American history, especially African-American history. If you are interested in topics on slavery, sociology, politics, economics, post-Civil War history, and African-American poetry and folksong, you should read this. Again, it is very well written and a prime example of how to write persuasive ideas in captivating and pleasing ways. In that case, if you want to be a great writer, read something by W. E. B. Du Bois.


  1. I too think both du Bois and Washington made good arguments. It's both!

  2. This sounds fascinating. It's on my TBR. I also own a big fat copy of Black Reconstruction in America by du Bois...


  3. Thanks for your wonderful presentation. Your pages are impressive!!

  4. This sounds fascinating. I'd heard of The Souls of Black Folk, but didn't really know much about it. I only just read something the other day about the disagreements between Du Bois and Washington, and find I'm becoming interested in learning more.

  5. I absolutely love Booker T. Washington so I'm not sure I'd appreciate Du Bois' comments. While it's important not to forget the past so you're able to learn from it, if you keep living there, it's unhealthy. I felt the people who kept bringing it up (living there) remained slaves, whereas Washington encouraged people to step into a new and hopeful beginning but by actively being part of that change. And I like how he seemed to see blacks and whites the same … because after all, that's who we are … we're all human beings and equal.

  6. Jean...it was really hard to pick a side. I absolutely couldn't. I'm very fond of Washington's message and perseverance, but I now saw a different approach through DuBois, and yeah, it was impossible to turn away.

    Jillian...this or any of DuBois' works would be essential to your writing; besides that he is in your field of topics or subject matter, but especially because you would appreciate his writing style.

    Emma...thank you! I still wish I had better handwriting, but it is what it is.

    Amanda...yeah, I guess it was a severe conflict. It's too bad that they couldn't work together, but I honestly do not know how Washington felt about DuBois.

    Cleo...it was really difficult for me to read about the feud bc I do honor Washington. His approach to pulling up one's bootstraps and getting to work is very attractive to me, regardless of the set backs. He even pointed out the foolishness and wasteful lifestyle of the black community. He wanted them to have leadership and responsibility. He himself was such a good leader because he led by example. I also understood what DuBois was writing about - I get it. I know he was right, but like you, I prefer Washington's ideas and perspective better.

  7. I wasn't going to read this book, but your review encourages me. I'm in the Washington camp. We need to move on. It seemed to DuBois was more of a segregationist and was the impetus for the present identity politics that is keeping people of all races down.

    I think the difference is that Washington was a Christian and had a higher vision of life, while DuBois was a secularist and believed that man alone could conquer his own problems.

  8. Ashamedly I've read neither DuBois nor Washington. But your review has encouraged me to read both. Clearly there is room for a variety of opinions and ideas since people are more than just their race, or their religion, or their socio-economic background, etc. We're all complicated humans. :D

  9. Sharon...good point! (Washington had Christian ideals; DuBois rejected them and embraced atheism. That could be another reason for his inability to agree w/ Washington.) It is no surprise that DuBois was very attracted to socialism and later communism. Yuck. It is too bad Washington isn't lifted up as much as Douglass and DuBois, but I understand why: racism is big business in America, and it has shaped our public policies and justice system even today. The sin of slavery is still haunting us. Sadly (I always say this every year -- every Martin Luther King Jr. Day), that "dream" of judging men by character, not skin color, still has not been realized.

    Ruthiella....well if you do decide to read either, read Up From Slavery by Washington. Also if you are interested in other similar topics, Frederick Douglass' autobiography is pretty good, too. Of course DuBois' writing is exceptional. But make sure you read Washington bc he is sadly he is neglected.

  10. I'm putting this on my TBR list! But I'm a bit of a rugged individualist and probably will continue agreeing with Booker T. Washington more...

  11. HAMLETTE...Ahhh! sorry I'm just replying now!!!! I hear you though. I know if you get to DuBois, you will probably disagree w/ his ideology; however, his writing style is strong and worth reading. You'll appreciate that much.

  12. Good review! I knew DuBois was a socialist but I didn't really see anything in this book that seemed influenced by socialism. It would be interesting to compare with DuBois with Douglass or Washington when I get around to reading them.

  13. I think Souls of Black Folk is an earlier work, which may not reflect the extent of his socialist influences, as that came later; but his examination of Washington's policies does begin to demonstrate his path to those ideas.