Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Chapters 5–6 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated August 21, 2023.

Chapter 5

Du Bois turns away from the rural setting of the previous chapter toward the growing city of Atlanta, Georgia, where the Civil War left a particular scar. After the Civil War, Atlanta was plunged into poverty and particularly marked by racist and segregationist issues; now, however, the city is booming, with its economy on the rise.

Du Bois, who is strongly focused on the idea of Black self-improvement, does of course believe in the importance of industry in order to increase wealth and thus increase social status. However, he is concerned with the extent to which the people of Atlanta are focused on money to the exclusion of all else. He suggests that this is a white problem that has begun to spread into the Black community in Atlanta, who now seem to believe increasingly that all problems in society can be solved if only enough money can be made to solve them. This is to disregard the issue of the Veil between Black and white: the modern, younger leaders of the Black community in Atlanta are increasingly wealthy landlords who have little understanding of the issues their poorer brethren face.

Du Bois notes that in the pre-war era, the South was defined by the figures of hardworking enslaved people and Southern gentlemen. Although these archetypes contributed to the continuation of a racist power structure, they also embodied a particular sort of morality that is now disappearing into an obsession with wealth. While it is right for Black people in Atlanta to want economic prosperity, Du Bois fears that this may mean they sacrifice their desire for spirituality and knowledge.

The students at Atlanta University, where Du Bois currently lives and teaches, represent the best of the young Black population in Du Bois’s eyes. He feels sure that it is on the shoulders of these people that the future of the Black race will really lie because they work harder than students anywhere else in the world. Thus, the foundation of Black universities was an excellent step. However, Du Bois notes that it was foolhardy of the founders of these universities to expect ready progress; it was also foolish of them to assume that all students should be encouraged to go on to university. For some, this is simply not feasible; it does not mean they are less useful to society, but simply that they are meant to be skilled artisans rather than scholars. The role of those Black people, the Talented Tenth, who do go on to university and excel, is important because they will help reshape society until it can exist more harmoniously.

Du Bois also notes that it is not only Black people in the South who need more universities. On the contrary, as the South falls into moral decline, both Black and white people need to be better educated. Those who can think at a university level should be taught to think more deeply; those who are laborers and tradesmen should be bettered at that level. Education is a fundamental element in improving society across all strata.

Chapter 6

Du Bois identifies three "streams of thinking" that have existed in the United States since enslaved people were first introduced into the country. The first group of people believes that there should be harmony between races because we are all human. The second view, one which predominates in the South, believes Black people to be something more than animals but less than human: while Black people can be useful and loved, they can never be equal to white people. So predominant is this attitude that many Black people, who form the third group of thinkers, sometimes fear it to be true, even while they strive for equality.

All three of these streams of thought can be addressed and improved through the route of education, Du Bois believes. Education can help Black people recognize that they are indeed equal to white people; it can help eradicate prejudice among those in the second group of thinkers; and it can also help improve the standing of those who are struggling. No amount of change to the law will eradicate racism if there is no education.

Due to the aftereffects of the Civil War, Du Bois argues, both Black and white people in the South are "backward peoples" who often lacked education. While Black colleges were founded once the South began to recover economically from the war years, many of these were inadequate, as were the schools established for Black children. Meanwhile, the South sought to replace its previous industry, based on enslavement, with something else, the result of which was the founding of many industrial schools, which boomed in the 1890s.

Du Bois takes exception to industrial schools because they encourage the same school of thought he criticizes in Atlanta: they suggest that people are ultimately products, tools that can make money. Essentially, this is how people were viewed under enslavement. The only way Du Bois can see to break down these racist ideas of Black bodies as tools would be to remove the enforced separation that exists at every level of society: Black and white people need to be educated together, go to church together, and understand each other.

Du Bois describes the founding of the Teachers' Institutes, one of which he attended, and which trained 30,000 Black teachers in a very short space of time. Du Bois notes that there was much opposition to this: many critics argued that teaching Black students was a waste of money because they could never learn and retain knowledge. Du Bois points out that this is clearly untrue; Black people have, at the time in which Du Bois is writing, graduated from Harvard and Yale, and the Black university graduates Du Bois knows are not "agitators."

Black people in the South, Du Bois says, differ just as whites in the South do. As such, Black colleges need to exist in order for there to be any kind of social mobility; while some Black people are suited to skilled labor, some are intellectually advanced and need to learn how to engage with white society. Du Bois argues that those white people who seem to be afraid of Black people entering their society should recognize that Black people are in the United States only because of white people. White people fear that Black people are "criminals," but the crime of enslavement, which entailed much rape of Black women by white men, was surely the greatest crime of all. Du Bois also argues that, surely, white people should welcome educated Black people more than those who have not received an education.

Black colleges, Du Bois says, are vital not only to help improve the lives of Black people but also because they are the only way to encourage proper integration and understanding between the races. Education is the only way to move beyond the "Veil."

Analysis

A passionate educator, Du Bois expounds at length in these chapters on the importance of Black education. It is notable, however, that his approach seems at times geared toward calming white fears about the impact of Black education upon their society. It is particularly interesting that he observes that his many Black graduate friends are not "agitators." This seems to be a sideways nod to the fact that many white people object to Black education, not because they genuinely believe Black people are incapable of learning, but rather because they are afraid of how powerful Black people might become if they could read and write. Du Bois recognizes but does not say outright, that Black education is feared by many because Black potential is believed in, and racist white people fear being overtaken.

In other areas, however, Du Bois is less subtle in what he says. He directly challenges the idea of industrialization as straightforward progress, recognizing the many ways in which they strive toward a material gain in this way reflects the attitudes held in the era of enslavement. He also challenges his white readers to consider why they fear Black people among them and why they believe Black men to be criminals, given that the greatest crimes of all have been perpetrated by white people against their Black captors.

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Chapter 3–4 Summary and Analysis

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Chapters 7–8 Summary and Analysis