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
1. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established shortly after emancipation to coordinate efforts to help blacks transition from life on plantations to life in a democratic society. Yet its formation was time-consuming and complex. Many politicians disagreed about its place within the U.S. government, the length of its charter, and its general purpose. Outline the history DuBois gives of the Bureau’s formation, and discuss the debates about where the Bureau was to operate within the U.S. government. In what ways were these debates symbolic of the national consciousness about the extent of the “Negro problem” in America? What does it mean for a black person to be the “ward of the nation” under Bureau protection?

2. Education and literacy were of central importance to the advancement of blacks in society in post-Civil War America, and yet education couldn’t overcome many fundamental problems that blacks encountered. In what ways did the Freedmen’s Bureau help foster a system of education for blacks? In what ways was the system unable to overcome some of the hurdles to black education? Address the widespread poverty faced by blacks in the Tennessee community where DuBois taught, and the fact that many children had to work to help support their families.

Chapters 7-10
1. Following emancipation, the black community faced many challenges when it came to establishing a viable lifestyle under the newfound “freedom.” In what ways were these challenges external, i.e. the responsibility of the United States government? In what ways were these challenges predictable, or the result of blacks’ historical lack of access to education, capital, the vote, and civil rights? Address the role of education, farm labor, whites’ social attitudes, and the legacy of Booker T. Washington in crafting your answer. Could the black population have done anything to better their situation under the new regime? Could the U.S. government or its Freedom Bureau taken particular measures to better prepare the newly-freed slave for life and work beyond the plantation? If so, what would these measures include?

2. Despite all the freedoms introduced for blacks following emancipation, blacks were not allowed to vote until well into the twenty-first century. DuBois wouldn’t live long enough to witness that success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the first black voters. Yet he observed that voting would be one of the most important ingredients for blacks to achieve true freedom and full participation in a democracy. Discuss the ways in which blacks’ freedoms after emancipation—economic, educational, and civil rights—are nonetheless useless when blacks lack the vote and a role in the country’s politics. Why is the right to vote such an important ingredient in a democratic society?

Chapters 11-15
1. Alexander Crummell and John Jones both share a happy or sheltered childhood followed by an education that engenders optimism and a broader understanding of how the world could be. But white racists thwart their education. Compare and contrast their trials as they work to establish their new, educated identities in emancipated American society. How does Crummell’s trouble seeking a post in a church parallel Jones’s trouble succeeding at teaching in his hometown?

2. Society may say that blacks and whites aren’t equal, but spiritual beliefs can’t be curbed or contained by the strictures of a racist society. In what ways does DuBois address the sacredness of the souls of black folk? How does Alexander Crummell struggle with this idea, and how does John Jones come to see that there are larger questions to ponder than what is expected of one?

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