Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Souls of Black Folk is the passionate and eloquent story of an individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, and a group, African Americans. Du Bois could not forget that his world was divided by a color line. Du Bois calls the experience generated by the color line the veil and allows his readers to walk with him within the veil. He does this with songs of sorrow that introduce each chapter.
The second chapter begins with the famous lines: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” These prophetic words tell the story of American slaves and their descendants. One way to address these issues is to work for gradual change, as advocated by Booker T. Washington. Du Bois’ criticism of Washington created a public debate about how to fight discrimination.
Du Bois then tells of entering Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He experiences the Jim Crow world of the South and teaches children who must endure its cruelty. Du Bois soon moves from the elementary school to higher education, but before leaving the South, he travels through it. Jim Crow railway cars physically and socially segregate black and white passengers. Plantations dot the landscape, recalling the slavery that maintained them and continue their legacy through tenant farming.
Du Bois reveals how the “faith of our fathers” is a communal heritage. Music and lyrics create a heritage from the past that lives in the present. Du Bois’...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk is multidimensional text that resists classification because it contains a history of post-Civil War race relations, sociological and economical analyses, a discussion of black education, a comparative study of European American and African American cultures, a short story about a character named John Jones, and a commentary on the transformative power of “sorrow songs,” or Negro spirituals, which for Du Bois are expressions of soul at the heart of African American culture. Du Bois is highly esteemed for his great sociological and historical texts, beginning with The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States, 1638-1870 (1896); however, he also wrote poetry, five novels, an autobiography, and several volumes of essays. Of all of the works in Du Bois’s oeuvre, The Souls of Black Folk has reached the widest audience.
Critical analyses of The Souls of Black Folk usually emphasize the most famous chapter, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” to discuss Du Bois’s critique of Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory policies. Often the work is discussed as a sociological analysis of the problem of the color line or the line between “American” and “Negro” cultures. However, this discussion will emphasize how Du Bois presents the very personal story of his experiences on both sides of the “Veil” between himself and European Americans...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Souls of Black Folk is a passionate and eloquent autobiography. It tells the life story of an individual, W. E. B. Du Bois, and of a group, African Americans. In the process of telling his personal autobiography, Du Bois shows how he is shaped by his community’s story. Du Bois inhabits a world in which a color line divides all life into two parts. One part is privileged and white, and it exploits the other part that is constrained and black.
As an author reflecting on his life, Du Bois could not separate himself from “what was then called the Negro problem.” Even his consciousness is divided into two parts, becoming a double consciousness. He calls the experience generated by the color line “the Veil.” As a man living behind the Veil, part of his being is hidden. One part of his consciousness belongs to the human race, and the other consciousness is shrouded behind the Veil. Du Bois allows his readers to look behind the Veil, to share his pain and humiliation and to celebrate a world populated by heroes and by joy. The souls of black folk are the flame of hope and life in a world where hatred diminishes and kills the body and the spirit.
The triumph of African American culture is revealed through the songs of sorrow that introduce each chapter. In the hymns, both suffering from enslavement and surviving through hope are conveyed simultaneously. Although the book is often based on facts, the spirituals connect the...
(The entire section is 1316 words.)
Du Bois begins his work by stating his objective in no uncertain terms; his goal is to represent what it is like to be black in America at the beginning of the twentieth century because he is convinced that race is the central problem of the century to come. He states this in his forethought and follows with a loose thematic grouping of the essays to follow.
The first three chapters in The Souls of Black Folk address historical and political issues. He begins ‘‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’’ with a provocative question underlying all other questions posed to him: ‘‘How does it feel to be a problem?’’ The essay addresses this fundamental question in a discussion of the contradictions inherent in the process of ‘‘striving.” Here Du Bois discusses efforts made toward winning the ballot and literacy and outlines the topics to follow in what amounts to an extended prologue. ‘‘Of the Dawn of Freedom'' is a straightforward history of the ways the U.S. government attempted to deal with the ‘‘problem” of African Americans just before, during, and after the Civil War over the years 1861 through 1872. The essay amounts to an even-handed analysis of the policies of the Freedmen's Bureau, including both strengths and shortcomings, and the ways that its unfinished work laid an outline for the social and race problems to follow. ‘‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” is an attack on the policies of the famous educator and...
(The entire section is 602 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis
W. E. B. DuBois: The narrator, a scholar of black identity in post-Civil War America.
Booker T. Washington: A leader who advised blacks to cede social equality in exchange for access to economic power.
President Abraham Lincoln: United States president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
Frederick Douglass: An advisor to Lincoln and a leader of the abolitionist movement to end slavery.
Atalanta: The mythological maiden whose downfall DuBois links to material temptation.
W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk launches in the late 1800s with an outline of the struggle for black civil rights. It is written during the decades following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively ended slavery in 1863. DuBois uses the occasion as a point of departure for his treatise about the condition of black life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to discuss his ideas about what blacks and America as a nation must and should be doing to ensure equality for all. His book seeks to answer that question by setting forth arguments about the current position of blacks in American society as well as by describing the vision of equality in great detail. He asks what emancipation means, what kind of leadership would emerge to guide the black community into a democratic society, and how blacks could forge an identity that is both black and American (even though America long forbade them freedom).
“How does it feel to be a problem?” asks DuBois, referring to the conundrum of black identity. DuBois’ first encounter with his status as a “problem” takes place in school when a little girl refuses a card he has offered her as part of a class-wide card exchange. He realizes that the Negro has been taught to view himself through the eyes of others and lacks another source upon which to base identity. This results in a “veil” between the black man’s world, where identity is constructed for him, and the white world, where there are more opportunities and possibilities. DuBois refers to this as double-consciousness, and asks how a man can be “both a Negro and an American.” He speaks of the complexity and futility of the Negro’s “double aims,” since achieving self-respect or respect...
(The entire section is 3124 words.)
Chapters 7-10: Summary and Analysis
DuBois turns his attention to the turn of the twentieth century. He tries to measure blacks’ progress since emancipation and questions the infrastructure available for their progress. DuBois acknowledges that the nation has three competing attitudes about the progress of blacks. First, there is the ideal view of an equal world where democracy is universal and people of all races and persuasions cooperate for a higher, human good. Then there is the view that men were not created equal, and the black man is subordinate to the white man. Finally, and stemming from this second notion, is a viewpoint that many blacks have internalized, which suggests that society’s historic inequality was deserved, and the Negro is really inferior.
DuBois notes that neither the passage of time since emancipation nor new legislation can affect the conflicting personal feelings that blacks and white have about where they stand in the culture. DuBois writes that “we are dealing with two backwards peoples”—those who are prejudiced and those who have been disadvantaged because of it.
He begins the study of blacks’ progress (or lack of progress) by focusing on the role of education in liberating and expanding possibilities. He outlines four periods of educational progress since the end of the Civil War and goes on to describe the period from the end of the Civil War through 1876 as a period of uncertainty in which numerous schools sponsored by different organizations sprang up to educate blacks. This period was full of good intentions but somewhat chaotic. From 1876 to 1885, DuBois describes a period of “constructive effort” to build entire school systems throughout the South.
This was followed by a period of difficulty that coincided with the Industrial Revolution. From 1885 to 1895, as black schools worked to continue expanding their capabilities, the Industrial Revolution created a demand for “artisans” (or those skilled in vocational trades) while legislators enacted racist laws. These simultaneous events brought to light the question of whether or not the black schools were fulfilling their purpose of basic training while also, from a practical standpoint, preparing their students for work in a competitive marketplace.
The next decade saw the rise of vocational schools to train workers for the trades seeking...
(The entire section is 2624 words.)
Chapters 11-15: Summary and Analysis
Son: DuBois’ infant son who dies not long after birth.
Alexander Crummell: A black priest denied worthy work for racial reasons.
John Jones: A black student ill-prepared for school but who is ultimately successful.
John (white John): A privileged and spoiled white peer of John Jones.
DuBois turns from an exploration of the freed slave’s external conditions and to the free black man’s spiritual struggles in the final chapters of The Souls of Black Folk. He begins with a personal story of spiritual struggle, recounting the time when his wife gave birth to a baby boy. DuBois dreamt that he could contain the baby’s life “within the veil” of black society and keep him happily unaware of American racism for as long as possible. However, the baby died. The family traveled north from Georgia to bury him, and DuBois notes that the emotional life and the inherently human dignity of that event was likely seen by “pale-faced” onlookers as little more than another social occasion for “niggers.” In reconciling with his son’s death, he notes that perhaps death blessed his child, allowing him to go “above” or “beyond” the veil of the class into which he was born.
DuBois looks around him for examples of strong character and is immediately struck by the charisma and quiet strength of Alexander Crummell, a man who had the fortune to be educated in New York but the misfortune of confronting racism while training to become a priest. Denied professional entry into a local parish, he worked in Providence, Rhode Island, before moving to Philadelphia. Once there, a deacon told him that he could not serve on the church’s committees but that he could sit in church. Crummell refused the terms on which he was invited to participate and managed to travel to England and Africa, furthering his training and his ministry even while living in poverty. DuBois is struck not only by the man’s grace but also by the sad fact that the world did not benefit from the man’s teachings to the extent it might have if society had moved beyond racism.
Another character that appeals to DuBois is John Jones, whose tale he recounts in “The Coming of John.” Jones was an irresponsible daydreamer whose family in Georgia nonetheless sent him off to a Northern school, where he was eventually suspended for his pranks...
(The entire section is 1287 words.)