Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Chapters 1-6: Questions and Answers

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Study Questions
1. W. E. B. DuBois writes of the “double identity” and “double aims” of the Negro during the years following the Civil War. What does he mean by this?

2. The Freedmen’s Bureau, created in 1866 to govern and assist freed slaves, had a mixed record of success. In what arenas was the Bureau successful and unsuccessful?

3. Booker T. Washington was a skilled diplomat who bridged Negro and white agendas at a sensitive moment in history, yet DuBois argues that his “Atlanta Compromise” slowed rather than helped blacks’ progress. Define this compromise and why it hurt blacks, according to DuBois.

4. DuBois writes of the “little world” in Tennessee, where he was a schoolteacher, and of the “veil” separating the black community there from the rest of the nation. Why was he living in a “little world” and what does he mean by the “veil” of separation?

5. DuBois makes a link between the myth of Atalanta and the temptations of life in Atlanta, the Georgia city seen as the cultural capital of the South. Why does he make this comparison? What does it say about the city in general and blacks in particular?

1. W. E. B. DuBois uses these terms to point out the hypocrisy of the black man’s status as an American. How can a freed slave take on the identity of a Negro (here synonymous with slavery and lack of civil rights) and also be an American (by definition, one entitled to the freedoms upon which America was founded)? He calls the quest for the Negro to define his black identity and his American identity a “double” one, for the two definitions have in the past been at odds with one another and continue to be so, even following emancipation.

2. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided basic medical care and set up a fledgling economy in which Negroes could work in a “free market,” choosing among employers or buying and farming their own land. The Bureau fostered free education, an effort bolstered by the migration of school teachers to the South, and it provided a court system to oversee trials. However, the bureau could not secure the black vote. During its early years, the Negro, while able to achieve more economic power than before, still remained subordinate and segregated financially and judicially.

3. Booker T. Washington proposed that the Negro agenda and national agenda shared the common goal of economic development. However, his “Atlanta Compromise” suggested the Negro accept a separate (inferior) social status in exchange for access to capitalism. This proposition, DuBois writes, meant that blacks gave up the pursuit of some essential freedoms—civil rights, education—to focus exclusively on others. Washington’s stance became a justification for the nation to shirk its responsibility to a population it had mistreated. Indeed, it even invited blacks to blame themselves for their plight.

4. DuBois implies that the results of the “socially separate but economically equal” notions that resulted from Booker T. Washington’s ideas have taken hold in the small black community where he taught. There it was easy for a community to enjoy their successes, to live behind a “veil” separating their world from whites’ and avert their eyes from the greater freedoms enjoyed on the other side of that veil. Complacency was a risk of this attitude, he indicates, as is forgetting how recent slavery was in U.S. culture.

5. In mythology, Atalanta was a maiden who was seduced by golden apples into giving up her honor. DuBois argues that the promise of material progress in the city of Atlanta creates a sense of false progress, for money alone does not represent advancement. Alone, the “golden apples” of money may represent society’s corruption. Blacks’ access to financial power moves them away from their spiritual growth—for elementary and higher education, for spiritual understanding—and teaches them to be derivative of the city’s material values.

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Chapters 7-10: Questions and Answers