Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Student Question

How does Du Bois use rhetoric to express his perspective on freedom?

Quick answer:

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois uses the rhetoric of metaphors, images, and symbolism to convey the vital power and importance of freedom. This develops his point of view that attaining full freedom is essential to Black actualization.

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Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. What makes Du Bois's book so effective is his mastery of rhetoric.

Du Bois's point of view on freedom is that it is vitally and centrally important to Black life and culture on both an individual and collective basis. Black people must never accept second-class citizenship but must strive to achieve all the freedoms white people have in their fullest form: the vote, higher education, and dignified treatment. Otherwise they will commit "suicide" as a race and as individuals, shriveled and diminished.

Concrete description—what we can visualize, hear, touch, taste, and smell—is persuasive, so Du Bois constantly surrounds freedom with concrete imagery. He doesn't want his readers simply to treat freedom as an abstract concept that can easily be cast off.

Du Bois uses a series of metaphors to describe the dire state of Black freedom: he compares it to a will-o'-the-wisp, an object hard to grasp hold of. He also likens pursuit of freedom in the last decades of the nineteenth century to being in a boat on a stormy sea: Black people are clinging to freedom as they are blown this way and that on "mad waters." He then compares freedom to the phases of the moon: it waxes and wanes, and in recent years, this moon has become "dim and overcast."

Against these metaphors showing the fragility of freedom, Du Bois then utilizes additional concrete images. Freedom is not an abstract term, but leads to real benefits: the ability to stay alive, to work and thrive, to study, to love, and to "aspire." These positive images are meant to stir up in readers' minds the desire for liberation.

Du Bois uses symbols, too, to describe freedom: it is the ballot, the visible right to vote. Freedom is not just a cold idea: Du Bois surrounds it with heat, with vulnerability, with benefits. In this work, it comes alive as a thing worth having and worth striving for, a fire that lights and warms life.

Du Bois does not want, as other Black leaders at the time did, for Black people to trade reduced rights for economic gain. He emphasizes freedom's vitality, asserting it as the most important of goals.

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