Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Is the book a coherent whole or a set of disparate essays? Explain.
After examining the themes of each individual chapter of The Souls of Black Folk I feel that instead of the text hanging together as one entire body, it more reflects different viewing points on one particular topic. Obviously, the progress of the African American was the one unifying topic that ran throughout the finished book. I understand that Mr. Du Bois wrote all of these pieces as essays and was later asked if he would allow his essays to be collected into a book. I can easily see the differences of mindset between the chapters.
In chapter one Du Bois asks how the race should progress and in what directions now that they have been emancipated? In chapter two the aim is to understand and criticize the freedman’s bureaus and other emancipation agencies that were formed during that time. In the same way, Du Bois examines and criticizes Booker T. Washington’s views in chapter three. Chapter four completely switches gears by discussing the meaning of African American progress. Skipping ahead to chapter seven, Du Bois writes from a unique amalgam of cartographer and sociologist while discussing the various Cotton Kingdoms in Georgia. Chapter twelve examines a true human character in Alexander Crummel while in the very next chapter Du Bois creates two fictitious peripatetic young men both named John who are forever changed by their color and education. I would venture to say, and this is only a guess, that the forethought and afterthought, along with the chapter-opening sorrow-songs, were added as a coalescing element to the final form of the book.
Let us look for some type of grouping of these chapter topics. What we find is some observations, ideas and guidance in the form of chapters 1, 4 and 9. There are geographical studies in chapters 5 and 7. There are examinations of those living in chapters 3 and 12. Du Bois gives a directive in chapter 6. There are informative chapters in 8, 10 and 14. In my opinion the chapters that most fall from form are 11 and 13. Chapter eleven takes us to an extremely personal space with Du Bois. In this chapter we witness the birth and death of his child. The only consolation Du Bois offers is that he feels death for his child would be preferable to his life behind the Veil. “Better for this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you” (742). Of the many difficult things Du Bois describes in vivid detail in his novel, “Of the Passing of the Firstborn,” in my opinion, is the most heart-wrenching.
The chapter that seems to fit the least, or makes its most awkward debut in the novel, is chapter 13, “The Coming of John.” This, one supposes, is a fictional story of two young men, one black one white, both carrying the name of John. Both go off to school, and upon returning home their lives are changed forever. White John ends up raping black John’s sister, black John avenges his sister’s honor, killing White John, and in the end John Jones is hung for the murder. Not only does the chapter stand out as a fictional piece, which does not play the role in any other parts of the novel, it is also a somewhat odd mixture of intellect and pathos that makes no one happy in the end (not that this is the goal).
Question two: discuss philosophical differences between Du Bois and Washington
I find the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington interesting because these two vantage points give the reader a window into the multi-faceted struggle of the emancipated black race. Du Bois devotes Chapter Three in The Souls of Black Folk to discussing Washington’s “…programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights…” (699). As one can easily tell from the variety and depth of Du Bois’ writing, the man was highly educated and won a scholarship to Yale as well as a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin. Perhaps because he well understood the intellectual levels that could be attained by an African American, he seemed to sneer at Washington because he felt Booker T. had allowed commercialism to kill his fire for higher education. Further, Du Bois feels that Washington’s “…educational programme was unnecessarily narrow” (700). Du Bois chafed against the idea that the freedmen should study mostly industrial arts and concentrate on the accumulation of wealth; he felt everyone should be able to acquire the type of education that would take a student as far as their abilities and desires would take him. Du Bois solidly believed in college and university-level aspirations that were within the grasp of the new aged black man and he disagreed with anyone steering them away from such untapped possibility.
Du Bois also did not find value in Washington’s philosophy of submission to the white race. In one way, Du Bois felt that this submission “overlooked certain elements of true manhood” (700). Du Bois also felt that the idea of allowing the white man to believe he was still running the show was an outdated way of handling this new found freedom in America. Not only that, by working within the former paradigm of one race being submissive to the other, Washington was by default admitting that his own race was inferior. Naturally, if one believes they are equal to another they will not stand for any form of degradation or prejudice. Du Bois resides on the other side of the coin by believing that a man who demands respect will earn respect. This point is very poignant for Du Bois as he says that Booker T. Washington is to be especially criticized for his leniency on the white race. “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders…” (707) while white America stands back and analyze the scene from afar. Du Bois did not condone violence but felt the black race must insist on the “rights which the world accords to men… (708).
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Henry Gates, Jr. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.