The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Main Ideas


The Color Line

Du Bois opens the second chapter of The Souls of Black Folk by declaring, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Du Bois's project in his collection of essays is to examine the origins and effects of that division between black and white America. What he finds is that segregation, and the discrimination on which it is built, is harmful to those on both sides of the color line. It is only through the elimination of the color line that African Americans can realize their full individual and cultural promise, and that America can realize the promise set out in the Declaration of Independence.

Double Consciousness

At various points in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois notes one significant effect of the color line: black people must view themselves through the eyes of both black and white society. He says, "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." This inescapable, alienating experience of the world keeps black people from any true sense of self-consciousness or self-esteem.

The Veil

Du Bois introduces the book's central metaphor, the Veil, in his Forethought. He describes how the experience of never being seen as a full person and as an American is like wearing a permanent veil. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois attempts to raise the Veil for white readers, "so 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." Du Bois's essays are an argument for, and a celebration of, the black spiritual and interior life that the Veil renders invisible to white America.

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