Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Chapter 3–4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated August 21, 2023.

Chapter 3

Du Bois identifies the influence of the educator Booker T. Washington as being perhaps the most significant influence on Black American history in the post-1876 era. As a spokesperson for the Black race, Washington supported education for Black people, but he also supported compromise and segregation, with the result that he was adored by white people across the whole of the United States—but Black people who criticized his position on civil rights were disregarded. According to Du Bois, Washington's willingness to compromise and work together with racist white people did of course mean that he secured exponential fame, but in a way that did little to benefit Black people. Although Washington managed to build his own material wealth to a significant degree, and should be applauded for this, he also did many things that hindered Black progress.

Du Bois notes that Black Americans have had several significant leaders from the time of the early enslavement revolts. However, once the focus shifted to intellectual achievement and political representation, enslavememt uprisings were replaced by quieter attempts to secure better rights and the abolition of enslavement. When Booker T. Washington emerged as a new leader in 1876, he was leading the Black cause in an era of significant economic prosperity and racial clashes; his approach of "submission" made him popular among white people because he minimized the importance of the vote for Black people at a crucial moment. As a result, Black education was defunded and the vote was taken away again from Black people, making them legally lesser than white people. While Washington preached self-reliance and dignity among Black people, his actual policies made it possible for white people to disenfranchise Black people once again.

Du Bois notes that Washington has been criticized both by separatist Black people who want Black Americans to return to Africa and by politically active Black people who are in favor of the Black vote and full Black involvement in American society. However, to his mind, the "elite" Black people in the South should have been more vocal in their opposition to Washington; Du Bois believes they should have demanded a reckoning about the fact that many poor Black people in the South were still living in a state of effective enslavement. While Washington did of course oppose lynching and other racist attacks on Black people in the South, Du Bois feels that he enabled white racism to continue.

Du Bois believes the racist society in the South needs to be held accountable for what it has done to Black people; Black people should not, as Washington did, dismiss racism in order to gain material advantage. 

Chapter 4

In this chapter, Du Bois reminisces about his experience of studying at the Teacher Institute in Tennessee, which was segregated, with the Black trainee teachers attending the institute at night to avoid encountering the white trainees, who attended in the morning. Du Bois explains that teachers were not assigned schools to teach at but rather were expected to ask around at local schools until they could identify one with a vacancy.

Du Bois himself found a teaching position quite by chance: he met a girl, Josie, whose large family took Du Bois in, although they were extremely poor. Josie's many siblings attended a school in need of a teacher. Du Bois was delighted to have found a teaching position and, later, to be asked to dinner at the commissioner's house with a white colleague; however, the "Veil" intruded again into Du Bois's life when he realized that he would not be allowed to eat with the white people but would be forced to eat alone afterward.

Although the school at which he taught was poorly funded and, in many ways, inadequate, Du Bois loved it. However, he notes that the school was subject to attack from both Black and white people, with Black elders frequently taking their students out of school in order to put them to agricultural work and many whites continuing to disapprove of Black education. While he taught at this school, Du Bois was befriended by many local families, including that of Doc Burke, and he identified a longing for self-improvement in many people, including Josie herself, who wanted to attend school in Nashville. However, the opportunities available to the local Black people were few, and most of them would never have the money to attend a better school.

Du Bois lived in this community for two years, singing with the community at the Black church and experiencing their poverty and their joy. When he returned to the community after a decade, however, he found that his old friend Josie was dead and her brother was incarcerated; the school at which Du Bois taught had been pulled down and replaced, and many of the people Du Bois had known were still struggling. Du Bois observes that Black Americans, in particular, live in a constant state of uncertainty about how much suffering they will be forced to endure and whether they will ever achieve what they long for.

Analysis

Having established the roots of the current situation for Black Americans in his discussion of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, Du Bois here goes on to present a picture of society in Tennessee and the rural South as it has been for Black people in recent years. He establishes the importance of the church as a hub in Black societies, something that will be fundamental to his discussion in the chapters to come, and also the fact that Black communities are deeply invested in their own well-being and the well-being of their neighbors. However, he also indicates how deeply harmful it can be to feel the effects of segregation: having described in a more general way why he disagrees with Booker T. Washington's policies, he then goes on to demonstrate how he has felt personally impacted and hurt by segregation, as when he was asked to dine alone at the house of the Commissioner. This personal example illustrates how such policies can actually be harmful to individual Black people, as well as having a negative impact on the progress of Black societies as a whole, because they allow white people in the racist South to view Black people, even Black professionals who are well-educated, as lesser members of society.

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Forethought–Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

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Chapters 5–6 Summary and Analysis