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Critical Analysis of Spirituality in Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”

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In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Black Orpheus”, Sartre uses the image of the musician Orpheus in ancient Greek mythology to extoll black poets and points out that “the negro’s tireless descent into himself makes me think of Orpheus going to claim Eurydice from Pluto (Sarte 1948). To Orpheus, music is the translation or abstraction of life. He uses the music to show his deeply miss of his wife. In Hebert Marcuse’s “Eros and Civilization” (1955), Marcuse thinks further that the music represents the freedom of pursuing the subject and the object of libido, the self-affirmation, and the yearning for the new order. In W.E.B Du Bois, the music of black people also has the same appeal. The sadness that appears in the music contains hope, healing, and the power of redemption. It is the affirmation of the self and the resistance of the depression on the reality.

In Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois thinks the spirituals is one of the most important parts of black people’s culture. The spirituals are the way for black people to survive. There are fourteen chapters in Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”. Each chapter is composited by three parts. The first part is the poems from white people or the excerpts of folk music from black people. The second part is the parts of the musical scores of the spirituals. The third part is the texts. The last chapter of the “The Souls of Black Folk” is “The Sorrow Songs”. Du Bois clears up the mystery as he tells where most of the musical scores of the spirituals he uses come from. Although Du Bois shows clearly that the spirituals are the important symbol of cultural achievements, he does not explain clearly where the spirituals come from and why he chooses this spiritual with this song or poem. The unique use of the spirituals not only brings the aesthetic experience of reading but also includes special connotation.

At the beginning of Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois interprets the problem that is about identities of Afro-Americans. Their skin color is just like the “veil”, and the “veil” separates the Afro-Americans from the whites. This makes the Afro-Americans have the “double consciousness”. “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.” (Du Bois 1903). The use of the spirituals gives the interpretation of the “veil” and the “double consciousness” through the contents and forms. The spirituals make the whole book as a work of art and leave me lots of spaces to think about. The metaphorical meaning in the spirituals, the racial memory, and the innovations and the fusions of the spirituals are three important parts in Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”.

Metaphorical meaning in the spirituals Du Bois’s unique use of the spirituals in the “The Souls of Black Folk” contains metaphorical meaning. Before discussing the metaphorical meaning in the spirituals, we should know why Du Bois uses the spirituals instead of some other music forms? In “Slave Songs transcend Sorrow”, it mentions that “spirituals are recognized as some of the world’s most authentic spiritual utterances since David penned the Psalms.” (Slave Songs transcend Sorrow 2010). Spirituals contain fewer negative black culture emotions. Du Bois’s using of the spirituals tries to show the most representative and finest aspect of the black culture. In Eric J. Sundquist’s “To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature”, Sundquists mentions that “Du Bois deleted the lyrics so as not to place the dialect of slave culture before his readers.” (Sundquists 493). Most of the lyrics in the spirituals have thick Negro dialect and special features of spoken language. In this case, by comparison, including the lyrics in the spirituals is a little bit vulgar.

At the beginning of each chapter in the “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois quotes the poems that are written by the white people and puts the spirituals in the following. From my point of view, doing in this way, Du Bois wants to put the spirituals in the same position of the poems in order to show that there is equality between black culture and white culture. In Du Bois’s “In the Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois does not show the lyrics of the spirituals that he uses. If we only think about that not containing the lyrics of the spirituals is a way to separate the unnecessary things, we might miss the meanings that Du Bois gives to the spirituals. “The Souls of Black Folk” annotates that black people in the “veil” have “double consciousness”. The difficult situation causes black people not to have the opportunity to express their feelings. The spirituals are important ways for them to communicate with this world. “I know that these music is the articulate message of the slave to the world.” (Du Bois 1903). “The songs are indeed the shifting of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development.” (Du Bois 1903). Black people pass down these spirituals through generations. Later generations might do not understand the meaning of the lyrics, but they will definitely know the meaning of the music. The spirituals without the lyrics are the metaphor that all black people can understand. There exists the sadness and the hope that is unutterable. On the other hand, there is a fine line between the literature and the music and between the lyrics and the music scores. This fine line comes from the line between black people and white people. For white people who do not have the same experience as the black people or listen to the spirituals, the music scores are just the music scores. But for the black people, the incomplete music scores and invisible lyrics seem to be complaining that the sound of black people to find freedom and equality cannot be heard. Black people in American society are just like the lyrics and music scores that are incomplete and silent.

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The value of the spirituals in the “The Souls of Black Folk” is not only about its metaphoric meanings, but also its relationship with the poems and the texts from each chapter. For example, the spiritual in the first chapter is called “Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which is one of the most famous and most characteristic black people’s spiritual (Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen n.d.). The song is about black slaves who have suffered from hardship tell God about their circumstances and hope the God will help them. The music is deep and slow. The music works with the poem and the text, and they all together set the tone for the “The Souls of Black Folk”. In the first chapter, the first part is the poem from Arthus Symons’s “The Crying of Water”. The poem is about the sea keeps “crying”. This represents that the narrator’s heart is in tears. The third part of the first chapter is the text. Du Bois also narrates that the black people are in the Ages of slavery. Black people are like a lonely boat in a tossing, thoughtless sea. The poem and the text share the same main idea with the spiritual “Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. Just as what Du Bois discusses in the last chapter when America refuses to keep the promise that is dividing lands to free black people. Then an old man in the crowd starts to sing this song, and people around him are moved (Du Bois 1903). This is the suffering that Afro-Americans experience. When black people were brought to America by the first Dutch colonists, black people started to bear something that they could not bear with. Even though Lincoln announced to abolish slavery, freedom and equality are still far away from the black people. Although black people’s hearts are full of holes, they still need to persist. This is a painful shared memory, and there exists innumerable twists and runs that are hard to express and nobody cares. The metaphoric meaning of the spirituals builds a bridge between the words and the music, and the bridges extend to black people’s history and memory.

The Spirituals and The Racial Memory Du Bois’s use of the spirituals shows that the spirituals not only bring flowing vitality to African-American History but also challenge the authority of white people’s history. For the Afro-American, although the time of slavery has passed away, the bitter memory gets into the bloodstream of their bodies. Du Bois thinks that “His ancestors and their descendants have had “a common history”; have suffered a common disaster and have one long memory” (Gillman 2003). The spirituals fill time and space. They do not belong to a specific time period. They connect past, now, and future and they are Afro-Americans’ long-term memory. For a long period of time, people thought that black people do not have the history. The origin of this kind of thought can be traced back to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In his “The History of Philosophy”, he mentions that Africa does not have the history. Hegel remarked that Africa “is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.” (Hegel 1956). Hegel’s idea has a big influence on western scholars, and Hegel’s idea was viewed as the “golden rule”. In this case, this gives rise to the discrimination of race. Western society intentionally ignores black history and depreciates the culture of black people. Du Bois uses his own experiences and the spirituals to create history and identity for the black people.

In the last chapter of Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois always remembers a spiritual that his grandfather’s grandmother song (Du Bois 1903). The song is: “Do bana coba, gene me, gene me! Do bana coba, gene me, gene me! Ben d’nuli, nuli, nuli, nuli, ben d’le.” Although the spiritual has been sung for hundreds of years and the meaning of the song has been obscure, for Du Bois and his family, they can understand the spirits of this spiritual. Nora Pierre says that true memory “has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’s inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories.” (Pierre 1989). The spirituals have passed from father to son in the black families for a long time. This is racial memory. Du Bois uses spirituals to show the feelings and statutes of black people. In the “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois defines the spirituals as the sorrow of songs. This means that most spirituals’ tunes are sad. “Mother and child are sung, but seldom father fugitive and weary wanderer call for pity and affection, but there is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks and the mountains are well-known, but home is unknown.” (Du Bois 1903). Slavery leaves shades in black people’s hearts and creates unrecoverable damage to the relationship of African-American families. Many black slaves do not know who their fathers are. They do not have normal love and marriage. They even do not know where they belong. Using spirituals to express black people’s sadness seems to be a tradition. The spirituals explain how the sadness slowly becomes the collective memory and emotional appeal of black people. According to Maurice Halbwachs’s “Collective Memory”, he mentions that we keep our memory of each period. These memory appears again and again. Through memory is just like through some continuous relationship. Our identity will be preserved forever (Halbwachs 1925). The spirituals are not simply music, but more like the collective memory. The spirituals are part of the inner selves of black people and are the most important part of their life. National or social memory is the reconstruction of the past. Du Bois uses spirituals to bring back the memory of the past and also write down the current black history. Most of the spirituals are depicted in sad feelings. The missing lyrics is in the memory of black people and is also between the lines in each chapter. That is, although it seems that black people get freedom and obtain equality, black people are badly bound in the chains of poverty and ignorance.

In “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois does not only focus on describing the painful memory that black people have in the past. Du Bois uses texts, poems, musical scores and some other methods to show the real life after the civil war ended. In the “Of the Meaning of Progress”, Du Bois tells the experience that he taught school in the hills of Tennessee ten years ago. After ten years, he went back to school. He saw lots of “progress”, but these “progress” for Du Bois is ugly. “Josie was dead. The Lawrences have gone. The Burkes held a hundred acres, but they were still in debt…” (Du Bois 1903). These “progress” is more like changes. Black people’s life is changing, and at the same time, the spirituals are changing (negrospirituals n.d). The changing spirituals show that black people’s life is changing, but the tone of the music is still sad and helpless. The missing lyrics is the sadness that black people cannot say. The Innovations and Fusions of Spirituals Du Bois speaks his mind about the value of the spirituals. He thinks that black people bring three gifts to America: stories and songs, sweat and strength, and spirits (Du Bois 1903). If we only think about recording and transmitting the spirituals, what Du Bois does is limited.

In the “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois only shows a piece of spiritual in each chapter, but Du Bois changes its way to show them. This lets the value of spirituals break the musical boundaries. He puts the spirituals with the texts. Du Bois’s innovative use of the spirituals breaks traditional writing style, and this makes racial memory appear on the paper. Those jumping notes are like the weep of black people. The spirituals become the racial memory that is shown on the paper, and the texts become the oral language that can be heard and felt. Du Bois’s use of the spirituals brings life and imagination to the texts. On the other hand, Du Bois’s parallel use the spirituals and the poetries from white people improves the level of art of black people. But more than that, this kind of parallel does not make something wrong. When Du Bois praises the traditional culture of black people, he does not eliminate or depreciate white culture. Du Bois presents the characteristics of black culture which can be heard and felt and creates the balance and equality between western written culture and oral traditional culture of black people. As what Du Bois mentioned in the “The Souls of Black Folk”, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line, I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.” (Du Bois 1903). Here “I” does not mean Du Bois himself. Instead “I” is the black history. The unique use and explanation of spirituals make readers feel that the black culture can have the same rich connotation and charm as the white culture. In the “The Souls of Black Folk”, poems, spirituals and songs mix, and support with each. In the “The Souls of Black Folk”, although Du Bois does not show the pieces of spirituals with the lyrics, this does not imply that the lyrics are not important. Instead, the separation of the lyrics from the pieces of spirituals highlights the importance of the lyrics. At first, some of the lyrics of the spirituals have been missed or changed in the process of spreading. But what have left in the end is actually what black people have experienced and have wished. It displays rich imagination and the wisdom of the metaphor of black people. In conclusion, Du Bois uses spirituals to express racial pain and to open the veil between black people and white people. The spirituals that carry the pain show lofty artistic value. They have the power to heal the hearts of black people. The combination of the spirituals and texts presents the black history, racial memory, and reality. The best way to understand the culture and tradition is to use the appropriate way to let them come into our lives and let them show their energy.

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Critical Analysis of Spirituality in Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from
“Critical Analysis of Spirituality in Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk”.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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