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

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What happens in The Souls of Black Folk?

W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk is a classic of African American literature. It introduces many important social concepts, such as double-consciousness, the color-line, and what Du Bois calls "the Veil," or the experience of being black in a country divided by the color-line.

  • Du Bois was born and raised in a relatively tolerant community in Massachusetts. He later enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he experienced the racism of the Jim Crow South for the first time.
  • Du Bois' only son, Burghardt, died after being refused medical treatment because of the color of his skin. Du Bois experiences a perverse happiness after the death of his son, because he knows that Burghardt is now beyond the Veil and can no longer be hurt by racism.
  • Du Bois respects the ideas of Booker T. Washington, a prominent African American leader, but ultimately disagrees with Washington, arguing that gradual change is best implemented by vocational training, not the education of the "talented tenth" of African Americans who graduate from traditionally white institutions.

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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’ faith is tested by the death of his first and only son, Burghardt, who was refused medical care because of the color line. Du Bois’ keening cry against the evil that murdered his baby is heart-wrenching.

People are able to survive and triumph behind the veil, nevertheless, and the African American leader is the key to ending the color line. Alexander Crummell, a friend of Du Bois, was such a hero. Ordinary people can be revealed...

(The entire section is 1,737 words.)