The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk is considered a crucial early work in the field of sociology. The author, W.E.B. Du Bois, was a writer, historian, and activist. One of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois wrote essays of protest against racism as well as biographies and sociological studies. He blended the three genres together in The Souls of Black Folk. Every chapter opens with the musical notes of a spiritual and treats such topics as religion, higher education, and music in African American life. The book also includes a memoir and a short story.

In the book, Du Bois posited the idea that African Americans and whites live on either side of a "color line," and that leaders within the African American community are needed to fight the discrimination that the color line engenders. Du Bois's illumination of the experiences of African Americans' lives in a country divided by color has long been seen as a vitally important work on race.

1. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University.

Du Bois started his college career at Fisk University in Tennessee. He took classes at this traditionally black college for two years and then went to Harvard as a junior. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1890 and a master's degree in 1891 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895, the first African American to do so. His thesis was titled "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870." It was published in 1896 as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

2. The Souls of Black Folk was considered "the first widely public shot" in the debate on race between Du Bois and writer Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington was an African American educator and writer, working at the same time as Du Bois. The two men had very different attitudes and ideas about race, however. Washington advocated for acceptance of discrimination, urging African Americans to better themselves through practical education and hard work to win the respect of whites. This, he believed, would lead naturally to integration. Du Bois believed that Washington's ideas would only perpetuate discrimination. Instead, he urged the ending of what he called the "color line" between the two races through the power of education and aspiration. He accused Washington of asking African Americans to give up political power, civil rights, and higher education. The Souls of Black Folk was a refutation of Washington's ideas. It stressed the vital importance of education for African Americans. Their feud was summed up in the final lines of a 1969 poem by Dudley Randall, titled "Booker T. and W.E.B.":

"It seems to me," said Booker T.—
"I don't agree,"
Said W.E.B.

3. Some reviews warned that reading The Souls of Black Folk could be "dangerous" for African Americans.

The New York Times, a Northern newspaper, reviewed Du Bois's book very cautiously, noting that Du Bois was an African American raised in the North who could not be expected to understand the ways of the South:

Many passages of the book will be very interesting to the student of the negro character who regards the race ethnologically and not politically, not as a dark cloud threatening the future of the United States, but as a peculiar people, and one, after all, but little understood by the best of its friends or the worst of its enemies.

Southern newspapers, however, were not always so genteel. The Nashville Banner stated:

This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only excite discontent and fill his mind with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind.

4. Du Bois became a Communist at age 93.

In 1961 at the height of the Cold War, Du Bois officially joined the Communist Party. He had become a Socialist in 1911 but left the party to support Woodrow Wilson in his presidential bid. In the 1920s Du Bois visited Communist countries, admiring their attitudes on racial matters. He claimed that:

Communismthe effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contributethis is the only way of human life.

5. Du Bois convinced Albert Einstein to write an essay on race for The Crisis magazine.

After helping to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, Du Bois edited the organization's magazine, The Crisis. In 1931 Du Bois wrote to German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein to ask him to contribute to the magazine, asking for "a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world." Einstein wrote back, sending a short piece in German, which Du Bois translated himself. It began by noting:

It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class.

The essay went on to encourage the organization to work to educate African Americans.

6. Du Bois was an apologist for Joseph Stalin.

In the 1950s Du Bois and his second wife, Shirley Graham, were active in leftist and Communist organizations and social circles. Du Bois believed that the methods Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union, used against his enemies were cruel. These methods involved torture, imprisonment, and exile to a gulag of remote islands. However, Du Bois felt these actions were made necessary by the attempts of the West, and the United States in particular, to undermine Stalin's regime. He believed that anti-Stalin news reports were western propaganda. After Stalin's death in 1953, Du Bois wrote in praise of Stalin:

Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also—and this was the highest proof of his greatness—he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.

7. Du Bois's death was announced at Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Equality took place on August 28, 1963. The March's intention was to bring national attention to the inequalities suffered by African Americans. Over a quarter million people took part. The day before the march, Du Bois had died in Accra, Ghana, at age 95. When Roy Wilkins, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was told of Du Bois's passing, he initially said, "I'm not going to announce that Communist's death." But later, Wilkins stood onstage and did just that, stating:

At the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by DuBois published in 1903.

8. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wondered whether his son, who died in infancy, was not better off dead.

Du Bois's son, Burghardt, was born on October 2, 1897. At 18 months, the baby caught diphtheria, an infection of the nose and throat, and died in Atlanta. During his illness, Du Bois tried to find a doctor to treat Burghardt, but no African American doctors were available, and no white doctors would treat a black child. This tragedy deeply affected Du Bois; Chapter XII of The Souls of Black Folk is titled "Of the Passing of the First-Born." In despair, Du Bois wrote about his son:

My soul whispers ever to me, saying, "Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free. No bitter meanness now shall sicken his baby heart till it die a living death, no taunt shall madden his happy boyhood ... Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.

9. Du Bois's attitude toward his daughter was surprisingly patriarchal.

Du Bois's daughter Yolande married Countee Cullen, a renowned poet, in 1928. Not long after, she wrote to her father about the depression and loneliness she was suffering in the relationship. Du Bois urged her to "help a great poet become greater" and told her to stop thinking of herself. Cullen later revealed that he was gay, and Du Bois again encouraged his daughter to stay in the marriage and try to make it work. He did state, however, that if Yolande was unable to do so, he would still be her "affectionate father." Yolande and Cullen divorced in 1930.

10. Du Bois resigned from the NAACP after writing articles promoting voluntary segregation.

Du Bois, along with a number of others, white and black, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Editor of the organization's magazine The Crisis, he was an important voice in fighting racism and segregation. However, over time his attitude toward segregation changed as he observed African American poverty and the failure of integration. In 1934 he published an essay, "Segregation," in the NAACP's magazine calling for "voluntary segregation," in which African Americans would choose to live and work together. The NAACP, which focused on integration, forced Du Bois to resign from the organization as a result.

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