The Souls Of Black Folk Essay Summary

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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The Souls of Black Folk is a passionate and eloquent autobiography. It tells the life story of an individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, and of a group, African Americans. In the process of telling his personal autobiography, Du Bois shows how he is shaped by his community’s story. Du Bois inhabits a world in which a color line divides all life into two parts. One part is privileged and white, and it exploits the other part that is constrained and black.

As an author reflecting on his life, Du Bois could not separate himself from “what was then called the Negro problem.” Even his consciousness is divided into two parts, becoming a double consciousness. He calls the experience generated by the color line “the Veil.” As a man living behind the Veil, part of his being is hidden. One part of his consciousness belongs to the human race, and the other consciousness is shrouded behind the Veil. Du Bois allows his readers to look behind the Veil, to share his pain and humiliation and to celebrate a world populated by heroes and by joy. The souls of black folk are the flame of hope and life in a world where hatred diminishes and kills the body and the spirit.

The triumph of African American culture is revealed through the songs of sorrow that introduce each chapter. In the hymns, both suffering from enslavement and surviving through hope are conveyed simultaneously. Although the book is often based on facts, the spirituals connect the information to the heart and the soul. The result is a moving story of a race and a man. Spiritual striving shapes the lives of African Americans who search for freedom and fulfillment.

The second chapter begins with one of the most famous lines in this book: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” These prophetic words tell the story of American slaves and their descendants who continue to search for freedom in America and throughout the world. The international dimensions of the color line are rooted in the economy and in the politics of a worldwide struggle.

One way to address these issues is to work for gradual change. This position was held by Booker T. Washington, the most powerful African American leader in the United States when Du Bois wrote this book. Although Du Bois respected Washington’s rise from slavery, Du Bois was opposed to any position that accepted the limitations of African Americans’ rights. Washington represented adjustment and submission to an intolerable injustice. The training of the most talented members of the community was central to changing the community, but Washington stressed manual and vocational training at the expense of the gifted. Du Bois’s unflinching criticism of Washington created a public debate about how to fight against discrimination and the reason for engaging in the struggle.

Du Bois tells his personal story of entering Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1884. He experiences the Jim Crow world of the South and teaches children who are limited by its cruelty. Their life behind the Veil makes a mockery of the idea of progress and constrains his life as a schoolteacher. Du Bois moves out of the elementary school and on to higher education.

Before leaving the South, he takes the reader on a journey through the black belt. Georgia is the heart of this region where African Americans live behind a color line. Jim Crow railway cars physically and socially segregate black and white passengers. The railroads enforce this segregation throughout the South. Plantations dot the landscape, echoing the slavery that maintained them and continued their legacy years after emancipation was proclaimed but not realized. Churches, however, sustain the souls of black folk, who are isolated behind the Veil.

Du Bois discusses the continuation of the plantation system through tenant farming. The struggle for freedom from economic and from political slavery is like the quest for the golden fleece, a journey of epic proportions. Even off the land, segregation is enforced in housing, the economy, politics, and social customs. The vote creates the possibility to fight back, but political corruption subverts this power. Crime and poor public education further weaken the community and sap the strength needed to resist. Sympathy and cooperation, not charity, are necessary to improve the situation.

Faith in God, the community, family, and one another sustains African Americans. Du Bois reveals how the “faith of our fathers” is a communal heritage. The souls of black folk contain a deep religious feeling, a powerful heart nourished by dynamic vigor. The sorrow songs that introduce each chapter are part of the community and its continuing faith. Music, song, and lyrics combine to make a heritage from the past that lives in the present.

The death of Du Bois’s first (and only) son, Burghardt, occurs because medical caretakers refuse to aid the dying African American infant. Despair and rage at the Veil cause Du Bois to be darkly and perversely glad that his son escaped its ravages. His baby is beyond the Veil in the valley of death. His keening cry against the evil that murdered his baby is a heart-wrenching paean to lost hope and love.

People are able, nevertheless, to triumph behind the Veil, and the African American leader is the key to ending the despair and the suffering behind the color line. Alexander Crummell, a friend and mentor of Du Bois, is such a hero. He survives the temptations to hate, to despair, and to doubt the goodness of life. After Crummell is denied entry into the ministry because of the color line, he continues to serve others as a witness to the spirit. He fights against the wickedness of the color line and triumphs through his love and generosity until his death after a life of righteousness.

Ordinary people also have the ability to be extraordinary. Their path may be hard to find and filled with stumbling blocks caused by the Veil, but the triumph of the soul is a cause for joy and for celebration even in the midst of darkness. This book is a literary masterpiece because it articulates the cost of hatred and celebrates the power to resist it. Although it was never out of print since its publication in 1903, it assumed an especially important role in the 1960’s. It then became a rallying voice and inspiration for the American civil rights struggle. Du Bois’s life story is the story of a people: It reaches the soul of all its readers while revealing the souls of black folks. Du Bois forges a new autobiographical form in this book, revealing the contours of his life as rooted in black culture. His essay on Booker T. Washington turns his personal struggle with the man and what he stood for into a national political statement about the nature of civil rights. Du Bois calls for an active demand for social justice that will compromise with nothing less than full equality. Similarly, his grief at his baby son’s death becomes a eulogy for all the African American children slaughtered by white people’s hatred.

This technique of telling his life story while he tells the story of a people was used by Du Bois during the rest of his long and productive life. Thus, other Du Bois autobiographies tell of friends, struggles, and humiliations over the next sixty years; they do not reach the heights of this first one. The Souls of Black Folk is unique in its passion and eloquence. His phrases soar with anguish and anger, reflecting his pain and that of others. His language captures the imagination so dramatically that Du Bois’s book reaches out to all people who resist hatred. It offers hope for the triumph of the spirit and the possibility of social justice. Du Bois rose above the Veil.

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