In "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois, are the souls gendered?

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James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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I would expect that the answer is “yes,” as nearly everything seems to be gendered, often along fairly predictable lines. That’s not a very helpful answer, of course, so I’ll add some specific comments about the final chapter of Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” and suggest an approach that you might use to search the entire book efficiently on your own for similar instances of gendering in the work.

My answer uses the electronic version of Du Bois’ text located at http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DubSoul.html

Following the link to the final chapter, I’m able to search the electronic text of that chapter for keywords. From my past reading of Du Bois, I know that this chapter discusses mother and fathers, so I’m going to search for those terms. Here are three passages that emerge from the search:

My grandfather's grand-mother was seized by an evil Dutch trader two centuries ago; ... [she] often crooned a heathen melody to the child between her knees, thus: [insert sheet music and song lyrics] The child sang it to his children and they to their children's children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.

Over the inner thoughts of the slaves and their relations one with another the shadow of fear ever hung, so that we get but glimpses here and there, and also with them, eloquent omissions and silences. 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…

Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung.

I get the sense from these passages, and from the chapter as a whole, that Du Bois uses the male term for the universal term (for example, Du Bois uses “fathers” instead of “ancestors” in that third, short passage, just as he uses “he” in Chapter 1 to talk about the American black person). At the same time, the discussion of his own “grandfather’s grand-mother” (see passage 1) and his comment that the songs tend to focus on mothers and children rather than on fathers (see passage 2) might be taken to suggest that women (in their role as mothers) are the primary transmitters of culture.

Throughout the work, Du Bois seems to me to make a strong, recurring connection between femaleness and motherhood just as he consistently seems to emphasize the male over the female.  A quick review of the chapter titles suggests as much: “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” “Of the Training of Black Men,” “Of the Sons of Master and Man,” “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” and so on. A quick review inside the chapters similarly suggests that men come before women, literally, in the very arrangement of words on the page. Chapter 2 offers two examples: “…two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages, -- the one, a gray-haired gentleman, …  and the other, a form hovering dark and mother-like…” and “… who has seen his father's head beaten to a jelly and his own mother namelessly assaulted…”

Take your time, explore different leads, and – above all – closely read the passages that stand out. I hope that this answer gets you started on your own investigation!

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