The Observer and the Observed
in The Souls of Black Folk
Shanette M. Harris
The autobiographical style that W. E. B. Du Bois adapts in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) suggests that the perceptions and experiences of an individual can provide insight into the mind-set of a people. He becomes the filtering agent through which whites could learn what it means to be black. He discusses issues to encourage sociobehavioral change within the African American community and to develop European American empathy toward African Americans. Yet his own understanding of and empathy toward “black folk” was rather limitedbecause of his few experiences with other African Americans. Du Bois's monoracial worldview emphasized social status andethnicity until college attendance. It is this early orientation that subsequently contributedto an interpretive framework for his behavior andthat of African Americans. Although he is creditedwith the application of scientific methodologies to understand the circumstances and life conditions of African Americans, principles of objectivity and impartiality are ignoredin Souls. Given his strong allegiance to science, why is this particular publication so personalizedandvalue laden? Is it possible that the observation and discussion of African Americans—the observed—made it impossible to avoidobservation anddiscussion of the self? Andif so, what impact did the personal attributes of Du Bois—the observer—have on his interpretations and perceptions of the African American experience? Finally, how were the multiple perspectives or voices, or “souls, ” characteristic of the African American community mergedinto a single perspective, in Souls?
The fourteen essays presented in The Souls of Black Folk consist of observations, opinions, and perceptions that represent a subjective rather than scientific worldview. Each essay reflects the degree to which Du Bois