The Souls of Black Folk Questions and Answers
by W. E. B. Du Bois

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When John Comes what is the symbolism

The coming of John symbolizes the development of racial consciousness among African Americans in the 19th-century, especially African American men. Initially, John is somewhat innocent of the harsh realities of racial oppression in America. But over time he develops an acute awareness of the plight of African Americans.

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The fictional character of John Jones is used by DuBois to symbolize the development of racial consciousness among African Americans in the 19th century. At first, John is a naive young man, blithely unaware of the realities of racial oppression in the United States. But all that changes when he's sent to the Wells Institute, where he's shocked to learn the full extent of the daily humiliations and injustices to which people of color are routinely subjected.

John's personal experiences are also crucial in his journey of racial awareness. When he goes to New York, he's humiliated by White John, a man who was once John's childhood playmate, but who is now a thoroughgoing racist and white supremacist. The incident where White John has John Jones thrown out of a concert hall for no other than the latter is black brings home to John the true nature of life in America for people of color.

But as John subsequently discovers, white society, as represented by the figure of White John, doesn't just have the power to humiliate African Americans; it has the power to inflict violence upon them with almost total impunity. We see this when White John brutally beats John's sister Jennie. John intervenes and kills White John, and although this killing could be regarded as justifiable homicide under the circumstances, John is now wise enough to know that this is not how the white authorities will regard the matter. He knows that it's almost certain that he will be lynched for killing a white man.

DuBois deliberately leaves John's ultimate fate ambiguous, though it's not hard to guess what it might be. In any case, he uses John's tale to remind the reader that the process of racial awareness and racial self-consciousness, though liberating in some respects, cannot of itself change the fundamental dynamics at the heart of a racist, unjust society.