“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 Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays by W.E.B. Du Bois, is a cornerstone of African-American literary history that explores the concept of double consciousness. Within these essays, Du Bois attempts to show what the Emancipation meant to African-Americans, and what it has been like to live in the aftermath.
I am particularly fascinated by Du Bois’ use of the Veil, which is a manifestation of the Color Line. It gives the reader a glimpse of the African-American world in which economic, political, and social opportunities are so vastly different from those of the white community.
Each chapter begins with text from a poem, usually by a European poet, and the musical bars of Sorrow Songs, which Du Bois describes as, “some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past.” I found this to be a particularly poignant element. It elicits an emotional response that Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, which I read simultaneously, simply does not reproduce.
Du Bois actually addresses Washington’s rhetoric in chapter 3, as he vehemently disagrees with Washington, who urged blacks to accept discrimination for the time being and concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity. Du Bois begins the chapter about Washington with an epitaph, just as he does all of the other chapters. This one begins with a quote from Byron:
“From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”
Du Bois, who helped found the NAACP, argued for establishing the education of black men beyond industrial skills and manual labor as Washington’s theory would only serve to perpetuate white oppression. He closes the chapter by saying, “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders and stand aside as critical and rather pessimistic spectators; when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”