The Soul of W. E. B. Du Bois


Arts & Culture

W. E. B. Du Bois


The dispute lasted for more than a year between itinerant black farmer Sam Hose and his wealthy white employer, Alfred Cranford. Hose requesting his wages. Cranford refusing to pay up. The dispute grew like the crops on Cranford’s farm outside of Atlanta, in Coweta County.

On April 12, 1899, Cranford aimed murderous threats and his loaded gun at Hose. Hose grabbed a nearby ax, threw it at Cranford, and ran into the Georgia wilderness.

Newspapers got wind of the incident and started blaring sensational details of the murderous Hose who raped Cranford’s wife as Cranford lay dying. 

The murder-rape story was a lie, but Jim Crow had flown on the winds of lies for decades. In the lead-up to North Carolina’s election day in 1898, Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, published a series of articles on the “unbridled lawlessness and rule of incompetent officials,” the “worthless police force,” and “incidents of housebreaking and robbery in broad daylight” in a Wilmington “under Negro domination.”

In reality, Wilmington was one of the few places where black majorities ruled democratically in the post–Reconstruction South. A majority black city of nineteen thousand residents, it had been governed, since March 1898, by an alliance of black Republicans and antiracist white populists. All year long, elite white Democrats had been organizing for regime change. When Josephus Daniels’s racist lies failed to manipulate Wilmington voters, violence followed. An army of two thousand white Democrats invaded Wilmington two days after election day, on November 10, 1898, gun-battled it out with black residents, ejected the mayor and aldermen, terminated all black city workers, ordered thousands of blacks to vacate the town, burned the black community of “Brooklyn,” and installed white Democrats in political posts and city jobs. As many as sixty black people died in the first successful armed overthrow of a city government in U.S. history.

W. E. B. Du Bois did not have a juddering front-row seat at the Wilmington massacre. But he was keenly aware of the racial tensions in Georgia in 1899, tensions that boiled over in August, when armed blacks drove back a lynch mob in McIntosh County. He knew as well as anyone how difficult it was to hold off lynch mobs mobilized by lies.

No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”

Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.

A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.

“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.

It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls. And we can hear in the book the strivings in the soul of Du Bois as much as we can hear the strivings in the souls of other black folk. We hear about Du Bois’s racial worldview (essay one: “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”). We learn of his ideological problem with Booker T. Washington (essay three: “Of Booker T. Washington and Others”). We take in his college-age experiences as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee (essay four: “Of the Meaning of Progress”). We come to understand his personal loathing of Atlanta’s greed (essay five: “Of the Wings of Atalanta”). We hear his plan for the Talented Tenth (essay six: “Of the Training of Black Men”). We read about his perspective on the impact of slavery on morality (essay nine: “Of the Sons of Master and Man”). We cry with him as he buries his firstborn son (essay eleven: “Of the Passing of the First-Born”). We learn about one of his idols (essay twelve: “Of Alexander Crummell”). We cry again during his tragic short story about an educated black man demolished by racism (essay thirteen: “Of the Coming of John”).

But Du Bois’s soul reflected many souls. Many could personally relate to John in “Of the Coming of John.” Many idolized Alexander Crummell, the founder of America’s first black intellectual society. Many buried their firstborns in the cemetery of 1890s racism. Many believed slavery had destroyed morality. Many looked up to the Talented Tenth. Many loathed Atlanta’s gold rush. Many knew about those rural schoolhouses. Many had problems with Booker T. Washington. These essays touched readers in 1903 and beyond, and harmonized with Du Bois’s more scholarly but no less lyrical essays on the Freedmen’s Bureau (essay two: “Of the Dawn of Freedom”), on “the massed millions of the black peasantry” (essays seven and eight: “Of the Black Belt” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece”), on African American religion (essay ten: “Of the Faith of the Fathers”), and on African American spirituals (essay fourteen: “The Sorrow Songs”).

Much as Du Bois’s soul reflected those of others, though, it remained uniquely his. Like all souls, it is poetic, and The Souls of Black Folk speaks to humanity like one long poem. In order to understand this long poem and why Du Bois wrote it when he did, we must understand the major ideas, events, and forces that nurtured it, particularly the power of “the Veil.”

The Veil separated black folk from white folk. Within it, black folk endured racism, exploitation, and heartache that white people did not see, or did not want to see. The Veil doubled as both the oppression and the mirror of oppression. But the mirror—the Veil—could really be seen only by black people. Black folk could see the freedoms white people enjoyed outside of the Veil. White folk struggled to see the slaveries black folk recoiled from within the Veil.

Du Bois could not let the murder-rape lie about Sam Hose live another day. He knew Hose’s life was at stake within the Veil. Sometime around April 23, 1899, he composed a restrained letter that laid out the facts of the case. He placed the letter in an envelope, picked up another envelope containing a letter of introduction he had written to the Atlanta Constitution editor Joel Chandler Harris, then dashed out of his hall on Atlanta University’s campus and headed down Mitchell Street to the newspaper’s office. His hope was for the letter about the case to be printed on the Constitution’s editorial page, and then for reason to take over.

But the red light of lynching news stopped Du Bois. He learned that Hose had been captured, on April 22. Two trainloads of Atlantans arrived in Newnan, Georgia, to join the two thousand white men, women, and children who cheered the mutilation of Hose’s body. Hose’s fingers, hands, ears, and genitals were sliced off. The flesh on his face was skinned off. Some people fought over his body parts; the rest watched his body hanging from a tree and being burned alive.

Hose’s knuckles were on display at a store farther down Mitchell Street, if Du Bois cared to see. Instead he turned back to campus in disgust.

After that public tragedy in April came a private one, in May. Du Bois’s two-year-old firstborn son, Burghardt, contracted nasopharyngeal diphtheria. The infection became severe, and Du Bois searched in vain for medical care. He could not find the town’s two or three black doctors, and Atlanta’s white doctors refused to see black patients. Like Hose’s, Burghardt’s black life did not matter within the Veil. Within ten days, Burghardt died, on May 24, 1899. Du Bois writes in Souls about his short life, filled with unspeakable joy, misery, and meaning, in “Of the Passing of the First-Born.”

At the beginning of his scholarly career, in 1894, Du Bois wrote: “The ultimate evil was stupidity” about black lives by “the majority of white Americans … The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation.” But after the public lynching of Sam Hose, after the private lynching of his firstborn son, after being surrounded by black Southern poverty, Du Bois realized he “could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved; and secondly, there was no such definitive demand” for his scholarly work: the world did not want to “learn the truth.” In 1899, his “young man’s idealism” had passed away like his young son. After laying his son to rest, Du Bois laid to rest his own detached scholarly identity and headed down a path that would lead to The Souls of Black Folk. It was a path paved with crisis—the crisis of American democracy. Du Bois believed that “the majority of Americans would rush to the defense of democracy … if they realized how race prejudice was threatening it.” It became his job to show how: he became a public intellectual.

Du Bois increased his literary output to the major publications of the day, like the Atlantic Monthly, World’s Work, and Dial. But he did not neglect sending essays to scholarly or more specialized publications, like Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and New World. In 1902, Chicago’s McClurg publishing company started asking Du Bois about collecting some of his essays into a book. Du Bois eventually agreed to put together “a number of my fugitive pieces.” But he resisted at first, “because books of essays almost always fall so flat.”

With the publication in 1903 of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had an unlikely best seller. And in the past few years, essay collections have returned to popularity. Witness the success of the anthology The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, and of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. The year of the essay, as Electric Literature declared 2014, ended with Roxane Gay reviewing an essay collection by Meghan Daum in the New York Times. In borrowing a lyric from rapper Kendrick Lamar to explain “how we might consider the essay—blood in the pen of the essayist, inking the personal to bring about an empathetic response,” Gay could have been describing Du Bois. In the opening section of The Souls of Black Folk that he called a forethought, Du Bois expressed the hope that these essays would be of “interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” And now, in the twenty-first century, when the essay is resurgent and we are taking another hard look at the color line, it is an opportune moment for the 150th edition of The Souls of Black Folk, published by Penguin Classics this month.

Nine of the fourteen essays in The Souls of Black Folk were first published between 1897 and 1902. Four of the nine were published in 1901, one of the most critical years of Du Bois’s intellectual life, and in the racial life of the United States.

On January 29, 1901, North Carolina representative George H. White gave his farewell address to Congress. Black America’s last representative was leaving Washington, after not seeking a bid for a third term, since black voter suppression in his state made reelection impossible. “This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress,” White said, “but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again.” As all those white male Congressmen settled into Washington, they were able to ease any guilt by reading Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. Washington saw racial progress at every turn and wrote of having faith in God, taking personal responsibility, working mightily hard, and overcoming incredible hardship.

With the publication of Up from Slavery in February 1901, Washington was at the height of his career. Praise and donations rained down on him while Du Bois was starving for funding and praise. As Du Bois looked up at the lonely Washington on the white pedestal of black leadership, it had all become too much for him to bear in silence. In his review of Up from Slavery in Dial on July 16, 1901, Du Bois “fired the opening salvo,” explained his biographer, “in the war between the Tuskegee Machine”—those publicly accommodating politicos, scholars, philanthropists, and editors loyal to Washington—“and the Talented Tenth.”

Despite Du Bois’s criticism, Up from Slavery remains an American classic. But another book, released weeks before, received as much praise in 1901: William Hannibal Thomas’s The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become. An enthusiastic New York Times reviewer placed its author “next to Mr. Booker T. Washington” as “the best American authority on the negro question.” Another reviewer jointly reviewed The American Negro and Du Bois’s previously published The Philadelphia Negro and argued that The American Negro was better.

For years, the biracial William Hannibal Thomas had worked as a preacher, teacher, journalist, and politician to eliminate racial distinctions and to be accepted by white people. Nothing had worked. And so he turned to the pen, pleading furiously for white acceptance in one of the most furious attacks on black people in history. His “list of negative qualities of Negroes seemed limitless,” according to his biographer. Blacks, Thomas wrote, are an “intrinsically inferior type of humanity.” Black history is a “record of lawless existence, led by every impulse and passion.” Blacks are mentally retarded, immoral beasts, “unable practically to discern between right and wrong.” Ninety percent of black women are “lascivious by instinct and in bondage to physical pleasure.”

While white readers almost unanimously praised The American Negro, black readers felt so betrayed by Thomas that they dubbed him “Black Judas.” But no one’s review hit as hard as Du Bois’s in Dial, titled “The Storm and Stress in the Black World”—an essay he may have considered for inclusion in Souls. “Mr. Thomas’s book,” Du Bois wrote, “is a sinister symptom” of the age that desires nothing less for “the Negro” than to “kindly go to the devil and make haste about it” so the “American conscience can justify three centuries of shameful history.” Even though it is forgotten today, Thomas’s book incited Du Bois, as well as Washington.

Decades later, James Weldon Johnson, the composer of the “Black National Anthem,” lifted every voice and sang the praises of The Souls of Black Folk, for having a “greater” impact “upon and within the Negro race than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It is difficult to understand where Du Bois was coming from in Souls without having traveled with Harriet Beecher Stowe to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published fifty years earlier, in 1852. “The scenes of this story,” Stowe wrote, “lie among … an exotic race, whose … character” was “so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race.” In black people’s “lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness,” she wrote, in “all these they will exhibit the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin put forward the racist idea of complementary biological race traits, of the humble, soulful African complementing the hard, rational European. The fourteen essays in The Souls of Black Folk reinforced this idea. From  Du Bois’s title, to his writing style—pairing the verses of Negro spirituals with those of European poets—to his content, Du Bois carried the idea of complementary race traits into the twentieth century. It would be a few decades before he would renounce this thinking.

Du Bois ends Soul’s first and most enduring essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” by expressing his dream “that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.” He adds, “we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” But it is racist to assert that a race lacks characteristics. White people do not lack “simple faith and reverence,” and black people do not lack materialism and “smartness.”

Educated in a New England influenced by the myths of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Du Bois had been professing these ideas since his graduate-school days at Harvard. In Souls, Du Bois tries to transform the dividing ideal of race into the “unifying ideal of race,” which would heal the split souls of black folk, and the split souls of America, split by the Veil. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” Du Bois writes. “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.”

For many of his black readers—in  1903 and thereafter—Du Bois’s double consciousness finally gave them the glasses they needed to see their own inner struggles. What has made this concept so enduringly popular among black people for more than a century after the publication of Souls? Du Bois met many black people where many of them were, and where many have remained—at the warring crossroads between assimilationist and antiracist ideas. He believed in both the antiracist concept of cultural relativity, of everyone looking at one’s self through the eyes of one’s group, and the assimilationist idea of “looking at one’s self through the eyes” of white people. In his mind, this double desire, this double consciousness, yielded an inner strife between pride in equal blackness and assimilation into superior whiteness, and an outer strife from the Veil of American racism denying both. “He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa,” Du Bois writes. “He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.”

Du Bois’s opening essay on his double consciousness of antiracist and assimilationist ideas set the conceptual stage for the rest of The Souls of Black Folk. But what sold books in 1903 was the third chapter, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” a refined and expanded version of his Dial review. “Two classes of colored Americans” have criticized “Mr. Washington’s position,” Du Bois explains. He dismissed those bent on “revolt and revenge” and Washington’s class of accommodators to make way for his elite class of doubly conscious colored Americans, advocating civil rights and higher education. He called this class “The Talented Tenth” and wrote about it in another essay—not part of Souls but included in the 150th anniversary edition.

Du Bois emphasizes education and character for entry into the Talented Tenth. “The Negro races, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” he writes. He asks Americans if they “ever stop to reflect that there are in this land a million men of Negro blood … who, judged by any standard, have reached  the full measure of the best type of modern European culture?” It was an assimilationist idea to measure the Negro against the best type of modern European, but that is how Du Bois came to frame the untalented ninetieth, those black masses that were inferior to the Talented Tenth and to white people. He described their spirituals, their religion, their economic lives, but he did not equalize the souls of the mass of black folk.

Before he died, though, he did. In 1948 Du Bois called for a “Guiding One Hundredth” whose “passport to leadership” would be their “expert knowledge of modern economics” and “willingness to sacrifice.” He had assumed in 1903 “that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is ever more natural than sacrifice.”

But among those doubly conscious black folk willing to sacrifice in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk became their manifesto, and in 1920 Du Bois’s Darkwater recharged them in battle, especially the essay “The Souls of White Folk,” included in the new volume. In it, Du Bois advocates for a “fight for freedom which black and brown and yellow men must and will make unless their oppression and humiliation and insult at the hands of the White World cease.” But before these men and women could meet Jim Crow on the battlefield, they first had to fight Washington’s Tuskegee Machine. Du Bois’s dismantling of those, like Washington, who were apparently accommodating to Jim Crow is as insightful and impassioned and intrepid as the abolitionist dismantling of those accommodating to slavery in the 1830s, or the Black Lives Matter dismantling of those accommodating to mass incarceration and black death since 2013.

And the accommodators instantly knew it in 1903. “This book is indeed dangerous for the negro to read,” admitted the Nashville American. The Tuskegee Machine tried to suppress it, to no avail. Black newspapers, done with Washington, typically shouted in unison, “SHOULD BE READ AND STUDIED BY EVERY PERSON, WHITE AND BLACK,” to quote one, the Ohio Enterprise. And today it still SHOULD BE READ AND STUDIED BY EVERY PERSON.

Du Bois lived another sixty years after the publication of Souls, dying in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington. He was thirty-four years old when he assembled Soul’s essays in 1902, the same age I am as I write this. He did not bare his soul and then devour the acclaim, trash the criticism, and close the door on his thinking. He evolved as black thought evolved over the course of the twentieth century. Or did black thought evolve as he evolved? We should remember Souls not only as the poetry that so many black folk could relate to in 1903, like the spirituals they often sang in church, but also as the foundation on which Du Bois built a lifetime of ideas, and on which the black and antiracist intelligentsia continues to build today.

“Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deep to reap the harvest wonderful,” Du Bois prayed at the end of Souls, in the section he called an afterthought. “Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is a mockery and a snare.” Looking at the harvest of black thought since Souls, his prayers have been answered. But looking at our drear days when human unity remains a farce, his prayers have yet to be answered.

Du Bois could not save Sam Hose from the noose. He could not prevent the death of his firstborn. But with the poetry of Souls, we should never forget his courageous rescue of black folk from the Veil of the beast.


Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was published by Nation Books and won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Adapted from the introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois, published by Penguin Classics. Copyright © 2018 by Ibram X. Kendi.