Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
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 and sloppy work. But Jones, fearful of shaming his mother, used his time under school suspension to work and returned to school responsible and reflective. He pursued college and traveled to New York, guiltily remembering he promised his family he’d one day return.
As Jones grew, the “other John” in town, the white son of the wealthy local judge, was also off in school and the subject of much conversation in the white community, in much the way Jones was among his family and their churchgoing friends. But when Jones encountered John at a music performance in Manhattan, John had him ejected from the theater, and Jones realized it was time to go back home. While New York was “the world,” he had seen enough.
Back in Georgia, John Jones had to let the Judge patronize him in order to secure a job teaching. The Judge then fired him due to rumors about his Northern ways and thoughts. John Jones wondered if he could do anything right, if he would not be “good enough” for the Northern working world and yet somehow too “high and mighty” and full of ideas for the Southern community where he was raised. While walking home, John Jones saw the judge’s son attacking his sister in the woods, and he killed him. The story ends with his reflection that he must leave after all, probably to go north.
In closing, DuBois lingers on the artistic and spiritual journey that slaves made while imprisoned. While prisoners of the plantations, slaves found moments of joy and happiness, which were translated into the many songs or “spirituals” still sung and well-known today. He notes that the songs he chose as epigrams for his book’s chapters are “Sorrow Songs” and that they point toward a future in which men will be judged by the content of their souls rather than the color of their skin. Decades later, long after DuBois' death Martin Luther King, Jr. would reiterate this idea in similar language during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. DuBois closes the book citing lyrics from a Sorrow Song that recommend cheering the weary traveler—a metaphor for the needs of the black population of the South, particularly in the disorganized years following the so-called emancipation.
The final chapters of DuBois’ work center on the question of what he and other characters believe constitutes “the real world” in the years after emancipation. DuBois uses the story of the birth of his child to discuss the urge to protect life “behind the veil” and still pretend that life as a black man could be separate but equal in order to better enjoy life. The death of his son brings him crashing back to the reality that life can’t remain behind the veil. His knowledge that the humanity and emotion experienced at his son’s funeral were sacred experiences that any man ought to consider holy clashes bitterly with the idea that whites witnessing the procession must think little of him and his “nigger” companions dressed up in their church finery.
The next two tales—of Alexander Crummell and John Jones—offer a study of two men raised “behind the veil,” both believing that their type of life was full of possibilities. Crummell, raised in New York, went forth to become a minister but faced racism and insults even in church. Jones, raised in blissful ignorance in Georgia, traveled to boarding school to fulfill his family’s naïve dreams of success, only to feel the conflicting call to go home and make something of himself despite the simultaneous tug to never return, to live outside of Georgia and in the “real world.”
Jones’s Manhattan encounter with a white peer from home teaches him that he can’t create or access a better world by leaving Georgia, for racism is pandemic. So he returns home, facing it at its most blatant. He straddles a rough middle ground because his education distances him from his family and former friends, yet offends and doesn’t impress the judge, his white employer, who suspects it has given him “uppity” notions. The judge tells Jones that Negroes should be trained to remain in their place. Like Jones, DuBois urges the reader to wonder if the entire enterprise of black freedom during the years following emancipation is real or a mirage—or both. For even if the Negro succeeds, he still fails a little.
That DuBois ends his work with an analysis and nod to the slaves’ Sorrow Songs suggests that he has defined what "reality" is for him, and he has answered his own question. Reality is an acknowledgment that life is full of sorrow, and understanding that is the real key to freedom. He writes that from “behind the veil” Sorrow Songs reach out and communicate the ignored voices and experiences of the exploited slaves. Those voices are beautiful and rich with spirit, but also weighted with sadness. In a nation where emancipation is several decades old, black social equality and basic civil rights are far from established. What is established, however, is the sadness and humanity of the black legacy in America, as reflected in the hymns and the songs that racism could not erase from the country’s history.
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