In this book, originally published in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois has collected fourteen of his own essays about life after the Civil War, especially in the South. While the book predominantly deals with black society and the life of “freedmen,” it also discusses how white society evolved after Emancipation. Throughout the text, Du Bois presents specific examples of racial injustice and inequality in the South. Before each essay, Du Bois includes a poem (or an excerpt from a poem or song) appropriate to the essay’s subject matter. Every inclusion is “a bar of the Sorrow Songs,—some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from the black souls in the dark past.” Du Bois revisits the significance of these inclusions at the end of the book.
While each essay examines a particular piece of the evolution of black society, they are arranged to give the reader a historical perspective. Chapter I. and Chapter II. deal with the history and immediate impact of Emancipation, using historical examples and Du Bois’s own experience. Chapter III. specifically discusses the formation and responsibility of black leadership, while criticizing Booker T. Washington on an academic level. Du Bois goes on to describe the Atlanta Compromise and the limitations it has placed on black society in the South. Chapter IV through Chapter VII. discuss the need for progress, and how it is blocked by lack of education and opportunity. He stresses that current systems produce mostly laborers, and that there is little room for black upward mobility, especially in the South, due to a lack of education (and college-educated individuals). In Chapter VIII. and Chapter IX., Du Bois describes visiting Dougherty County in rural Georgia. His first-hand experiences there are contrasted with his upbringing in New England, to show not only that there is greater disparity in the South, but also that many blacks in the South are not fully aware of it. In Chapter VI. and Chapter VII., Du Bois draws on analogies to mythology to better explain the challenges he sees in the upbringing of black men. In Chapter X., Du Bois examines the religion of the black South.
Chapter XI. through Chapter XIII. offer narrative examples of individuals Du Bois has encountered and events from Du Bois’s own life to illustrate the disparity between white and black society. He discusses the death of his young son, pays tribute to a world-traveling preacher who remained undiscouraged, and recalls a student who had great potential but was a victim of his circumstances. Du Bois admits that these men are not well-known to history, but he considers their experiences are worthy of study. The final chapter, Chapter XIV., has several selections of “Sorrow Songs” that Du Bois describes as the “spiritual heritage of the nation.” He describes how the songs have been handed down, many from before slavery, and how they have become interconnected with religion and are still a centerpiece in black society.
Throughout the work, Du Bois uses historical fact and narrative example to establish how slavery and its aftereffects have shaped both black and white society in the South. As a teacher, he then examines each situation academically. He presents cause and effect relationships and applies sociological analysis to them. The largest problem Du Bois discusses is the shortage of resources and opportunity for black people at the beginning of the twentieth century. He points out the effects of disparities in education and privilege and demonstrates the need for change.