W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is a seminal work in African American literature and an American classic. In this work Du Bois proposes that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." His concepts of life behind the veil of race and the resulting "double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," have become touchstones for thinking about race in America. In addition to these enduring concepts, Souls offers an assessment of the progress of the race, the obstacles to that progress, and the possibilities for future progress as the nation entered the twentieth century. Du Bois examines the years immediately following the Civil War and, in particular, the Freedmen's Bureau's role in Reconstruction. The Bureau's failures were due not only to southern opposition and "national neglect," but also to mismanagement and courts that were biased "in favor of black litigants." The Bureau did have successes as well, and its most important contribution to progress was the founding of African American schools. Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, Du Bois claims that the most significant event in African American history has been the rise of the educator, Booker T. Washington, to the role of spokesman for the race. Du Bois argues that Washington's approach to race relations is counterproductive to the long-term progress of the race. Washington's acceptance of segregation and his emphasis on material progress represent an "old attitude of adjustment and submission." Du Bois asserts that this policy has damaged African Americans by contributing to the loss of the vote, the loss of civil status, and the loss of aid for institutions of higher education. Du Bois insists that "the right to vote," "civic equality," and "the education of youth according to ability" are essential for African American progress.
Du Bois relates his experiences as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee, and then he turns his attention to a critique of American materialism in the rising city of Atlanta where the single-minded attention to gaining wealth threatens to replace all other considerations. In terms of education, African Americans should not be taught merely to earn money. Rather, Du Bois argues there should be a balance between the "standards of lower training" and the "standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life." In effect, the African American college should train the "Talented Tenth" who can in turn contribute to lower education and also act as liaisons in improving race relations.
Du Bois returns to an examination of rural African American life with a presentation of Dougherty County, Georgia as representative of life in the southern Black Belt. He presents the history and current conditions of the county. Cotton is still the life-blood of the Black Belt economy, and few African Americans are enjoying any economic success. Du Bois describes the legal system and tenant farming system as only slightly removed from slavery. He also examines African American religion from its origins in African society, through its development in slavery, to the formation of the Baptist and Methodist churches. He argues that "the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the history of the Negro in America, but no uninteresting part of American history." He goes on to examine the impact of slavery on morality.
In the last chapters of his book, Du Bois concentrates on how racial prejudice impacts individuals. He mourns the loss of his baby son, but he wonders if his son is not better off dead than growing up in a world dominated by the color-line. Du Bois relates the story of Alexander Crummel, who struggled against prejudice in his attempts to become an Episcopal priest. In "Of the Coming of John," Du Bois presents the story of a young black man who attains an education. John's new knowledge, however, places him at odds with a southern community, and he is destroyed by racism. Finally, Du Bois concludes his book with an essay on African American spirituals. These songs have developed from their African origins into powerful expressions of the sorrow, pain, and exile that characterize the African American experience. For Du Bois, these songs exist "not simply as the sole American music,