The Souls of Black Folk Characters
The main characters in The Souls of Black Folk include W. E. B. Du Bois, Burghardt Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington.
- W. E. B. Du Bois is the book’s author and narrator. A highly educated writer, activist, and sociologist, he sets out to enlighten readers about the realities of the Black experience in the United States.
- Burghardt Du Bois was W. E. B. Du Bois’s first son, who died in infancy.
- Booker T. Washington was a Black educator who gained widespread fame for the ideas laid out in his Atlanta Compromise, which Du Bois argues against.
Last Updated on March 18, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055
W. E. B. Du Bois
Raised in a relatively wealthy New England family and educated among white children, Du Bois (1868–1963) is aware that his experience is not that of all Black people. However, by introducing himself into the narrative of his book from the very beginning, he is able to make clear that, although Black people come from backgrounds as varied as those of their white compatriots, there are some elements of the Black experience that are common to all. Du Bois was a fairly light-skinned Black man, which offered him some color privilege, particularly outside of the United States, but despite this, he recalls realizing early in his life that he was different when a white child at school refused to accept a card he gave her. Du Bois's response to this was to attempt to excel educationally and athletically beyond his white peers; he did become an incredibly educated man, but he realized there was no way he could educate himself onto the other side of the "Veil."
Very successful in his academic field, as a Black man, Du Bois does believe that education is the key to Black progress, but he also recognizes that even his own education has not protected him from racism and that many other Black people suffer much more difficulty. He therefore believes that he can sow some understanding in the minds of white readers by using his own point of view and education to show them how it feels to be Black in America.
Burghardt Du Bois
Burghardt du Bois was the first son of Du Bois and his wife. While Burghardt's short life and early death were a particular personal tragedy for his father, Du Bois’s observations on the life of his son also offer a tragic insight into how Du Bois felt about the plight of Black Americans.
Burghardt, born with golden hair and blue eyes, was a literal representation of the complexity of American Blackness: his features showed the legacy of white rape of Black slaves, and Du Bois feels he would have struggled to understand why and how he was cursed by the "Veil" despite his largely white appearance. He notes that Burghardt's short life was itself "perfect" but feels that perhaps, if he had not died, it would have been a life of pain for him once he recognized how blighted the lives of Black people are.
Booker T. Washington
Du Bois's criticism of Washington in this book is notable, given that at the time of writing, he was widely applauded among Blacks and whites alike for having come from slavery into a position of prominence as an educator and philanthropist. However, while Du Bois recognizes Washington's achievements, he suggests that much of Washington's approach has made him beloved of white people exactly because he is willing to accept a subordinate position for Black people. Du Bois is particularly opposed to the Atlanta Compromise, a speech in which Washington declared that education and industry would be the key to Black success, even if Black Americans were not legally allowed access to white spaces. In Du Bois's view, this acceptance of a subordinate position enabled white legislators to roll back civil rights for Black people during the Jim Crow period.
Josie and Her Family
When Du Bois was studying to be a teacher in Tennessee, the practice was for the student teachers to find their own positions. Du Bois encountered Josie, a young Black girl, one day by chance; she informed him that a school was wanted and that she and her brothers wanted an education. Josie represents a vivid young Black life: she is ambitious, eager for education, and hopes to be able to improve her own lot and that of her family. She is particularly keen for her brothers to be educated, and Du Bois spends much time with the family during the time he lives in Tennessee. To a considerable extent, they take him in as another son, and he remembers them very fondly. Josie's struggles, however, increase when she is unable to find the money to go away to school elsewhere; her family also struggles with the "meanness" of various white people in their lives.
Du Bois is very saddened to find, when he returns ten years later to this community, that Josie has died and that the family has suffered "a heap of trouble." Josie had worked incredibly hard to help her family financially, possibly working herself to death. She represents the thwarted hopes of many Black young people, filled with spirit but not presented with any opportunity.
Du Bois introduces the far more obscure Alexander Crummell as an example of Black industry who took a different route to Washington. Also a former slave, Crummell decided he wanted to become an Episcopal priest and succeeded in being ordained as such, after which he took a degree at the University of Cambridge and traveled to Liberia to help end racist policies. According to Du Bois, what sent Crummell to Liberia was his refusal to accept a position that would have stripped him of any rights or representation in the convention of his church. Rejecting this offer of a subordinate position, Crummell travels to Liberia instead to try and work more radically for Black progress.
John Jones and White John
The story of John Jones is a fictional one, but it represents a situation in which many Black people might find themselves. John Jones, who is Black, plays as a child with the judge's son, White John, who is white. The town in which he was born is opposed to his seeking an education; Jones manages to become educated despite this but finds that he now does not fit in with either the Black or the white residents of his hometown. At the same time, he is subject to public ridicule from his childhood friend, White John, when he tries to view a concert in New York and when he returns home to find White John trying to sexually assault his sister, Jennie. Furious at the impossible position in which he finds himself, Jones kills White John and then submits to being lynched by an angry mob. He seems to have reached the tragic conclusion that there is no way to escape the Veil except through death.
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