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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Chapters 13–Afterthought Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1475

Chapter 13

This chapter differs from the rest of the book in that it does not purport to be a true story: the story of John Jones from Altamaha in Georgia is, however, a cautionary tale about what life is like for many Black people.

Coming from a town that is primarily Black, John Jones is discouraged by local white people from attending school, even though his mother wants him to do so. When he does go to school in Johnstown, he finds it expensive to return home. He leaves his sister, Jennie, working as a kitchen maid for the white judge, whose own son, White John, once played with John Jones as a child and has now left town to attend Princeton. The judge is as sure that college will improve his son as he is that it will "ruin" the Black John.

John Jones at first struggles at school, but he promises to work very hard if he is allowed to stay. He does work hard, but this means he becomes aware of how prominent a force racism really is. Despite this, when offered to go to New York to sing as part of a quartet, he accepts and is delighted to visit a concert hall and see a performance. While at the theater, Jones comes across a young white man accompanied by a girl; the young man begins making scathing remarks about Jones to his date. Later, inside the theater, the young white man sees Jones sitting near the seats he has reserved for himself and his companion and complains about this. An usher asks Jones to leave, at which point Jones recognizes the young white man as White John. White John appears slightly cowed when he realizes this is his old friend, John Jones, but rather than pause to speak to him, Jones leaves in embarrassment, wondering whether he is being foolish for wanting to change the status quo.

When he returns to Altamaha, Jones finds that he no longer fits in with his community. When he tries to promise his congregation that he will help build an industrial school and create a sense of community between their church and other Black churches, this causes a riot, and Jones is criticized for "trampling on the true religion."

As such, Jones asks the judge if he can teach at the new Black school. The judge says that he can, but only if Jones does not teach about freedom or equality. If Jones challenges white rule, the judge says, he will have the Black people of the town lynched. Jones reluctantly agrees. Shortly after the school opens, White John returns home; his father is delighted and hopes that he might rise to become the mayor, but John says he will not stay in a place like this, which is so full of Black people.

The postmaster tells the judge and his son that Jones is causing trouble at the Black school. Realizing that this is his old playmate, White John tells his father the story of the theater incident, at which the judge is incensed and goes at once to the Black school to announce that he is closing it down. Jones has been teaching them things that might encourage rebellion, and the white taxpayers no longer want their money spent on this.

While the judge is closing down the Black school, White John is approaching Jennie, trying to beg a kiss from her and then pursuing her into the woods. His pursuit of her suggests that he intends to do her violence and feels entitled to her body.

Jones leaves the school and is on his way home when he sees Jennie, with White John trying to force himself upon her. Infuriated, Jones kills White John with a tree branch. Afterward, Jones goes to tell his mother he is going north again but instead goes back to the woods. While he is there, a mob of white people begin approaching, led by the judge. Jones knows they are going to kill him but only smiles and closes his eyes, thinking of the sea. 

Chapter 14 

Du Bois has anchored his book around the "Sorrow Songs," the spirituals that were the expression of slaves' souls and that have always made an impression on Du Bois, even though they came from the South. Du Bois in this chapter discusses these songs, which he calls a beautiful expression of human experience, despite the fact that this art form has been frequently misunderstood. Many "negro spirituals" have been forgotten, while others were listened to only "half credulously" until the Fisk Jubilee Singers made clear the true value and importance of these songs.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were formed by George L. White, who was born in New York, then fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before serving in the Freedmen's Bureau. He then championed a group of Black singers, who traveled throughout New York and then overseas to Scotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland. Altogether, they made $150,000, with which Fisk University was founded. Since this time they have been imitated, both well and badly, but the true folk song of Black Americans cannot be destroyed by mockery or debasement, being too powerful a message from the captive slave to the world.

Du Bois notes that some people argue the songs communicate joy, which cannot have been the case for many slaves. However, they certainly do transmit true emotion, particularly death, suffering, and longing. This music has its roots in Africa, and Du Bois knows that some of the songs he was sung as a child had been handed down for generations.

Du Bois describes a number of spirituals that are well known throughout the United States, including "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen" and "Swing low, sweet chariot." He describes the nature imagery commonly found in many of these songs, as the slaves who sung them express their fear of the world they live in. The songs often privilege mother-child relationships but rarely speak of fathers, perhaps reflecting the social conditions in which slaves were forced to live.

Many of these songs, despite being mournful, do contain a sense of optimism about the future. Du Bois questions whether this "faith in the ultimate justice of things'' can be justified. He notes that some white people today believe that the races who are still "backward" have proven themselves to be not worth saving. However, Du Bois believes that this is an incredibly arrogant assumption that disregards questions such as why Black people are in America to begin with and whose country the United States was before white people colonized it. Du Bois says that Black history is a central part of the history of America: Black people have been in the United States for three hundred years, and without their blood, sweat, and toil, America would not be America at all.

Du Bois concludes with the hope that, if there is indeed Eternal Good in the world, then the Veil will eventually be no more, and light will be allowed to pierce the world of Black Americans.


Du Bois prays to "God the reader" that his book will not fall on deaf ears. He prays that it will provoke thought in the minds of a "guilty people" and stimulate a movement toward justice.


The concluding section of Du Bois's book is both dark and powerful. In these chapters, he strays from his previously anthropological and distanced approach to the Black community, instead presenting a fictionalized portrayal of life for a young Black man who, despite trying his hardest to seek self-improvement through education, eventually concludes that the only escape for him is death. This is portrayed as a truly cruel and painful existence, and Du Bois moves on from it by discussing Black spirituality and the reasons why Black Americans find such solace in songs. The juxtaposition of the two chapters underscores the fact that Black people are in need of solace in a way that white Americans are not. While white Americans like White John may feel that Black women like Jennie are their playthings and that education is a simple pastime, Black men like John Jones may fight their whole lives to be educated and still feel that it avails them nothing. Of course, in the end, they feel that their lives are unworthy, not least because they know white men like White John feel they are entitled to the bodies of their Black sisters and relatives.

Du Bois has focused on spirituality and religion in Black communities throughout his work, but by ending on this note, after the pain of John Jones's story, he underlines the fact that religion is important to Black communities in ways that white Americans can never understand. Black Americans need religion because their lived experience on earth is so thankless.

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Chapters 11–12 Summary and Analysis