"Only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understands, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn."
The African-American people yearned to learn. However, the condition to which they were born proved to be difficult for this group. While they devoted themselves to learning, it was difficult to process information presented to them. Thus, African-Americans in the 19th Century were hard-working people, but their oppressed position within society made even the ability to learn in school arduous.
"They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel like to be a problem?, they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town, or..."
Du Bois' work begins with this quotation. This quotation serves as a framework for the rest of the essays that exist within "The Souls of Black Folk." In it, Du Bois depicts the importance placed on his racial differences, and how he lives within the Veil. As a black man, he is often confronted by white people and asked how he feels about having his place in society. There is no adequate answer, however. In order to ease the hurt, whites often referenced "token" black men who were somehow different and good. This exacerbated the awkwardness within this exchange, since by referencing a token black man, they were indirectly also referencing how difficult it was to be both black and "good.”
"The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,--a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people."
Despite having reached freedom through Emancipation, the African-American had not yet been able to attain the absolute freedom that was supposedly granted. This quotation demonstrates that although the black man had been freed from slavery, he had not entirely been freed from captivity. Disappointment overshadowed all of the progress that the African-American may have made. Since this group, however, had been slaves for so long, it was difficult to understand what exactly they were striving to achieve with this newly gained freedom.
"So far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the... effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambitions of our brighter minds so far as he, the South, or the Nation does this we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men"
This quotation exemplifies Du Bois' sentiments on Booker T. Washington's analysis of the Negro people. While Du Bois hails Washington for his prominence and for his acknowledgment of the unfair treatment placed upon the Negro, he also realizes that Du Bois does not fully place the onus of the burden of injustice on the United Sates. Instead, he focuses on the Negro and on the stratification he faces. Du Bois argues that in order to have a full understanding and absolute freedom, the Negro will need to gain sovereignty and political representation. It is not only through education that one is able to excel, but also through democratic privileges. While Washington was a prominent theorist and figure in African-American history, this quotation demonstrates that Washington is actually removed from the African-American experience. He must not only fight injustice, but also call for the rights allotted to all people within modern society.
"Oh," thought I, "this is lucky", but even then felt the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I---alone."
In this excerpt, the author provides in anecdote about what happened when he attempted to secure a black school in the South. In order to open the school, he needed a certificate from the white commissioner, so he rode into town with a white man who was seeking to teach at the white school and met the commissioner. Upon arriving, he was welcomed and told that his request would be granted. He was then asked if he would like to stay for dinner, which surprised Du Bois, as he had never seen this level of openness from a white man. When dinner was served, however, Du Bois had to wait for the white men to eat, and ate after them, alone. Thus, he was confronted with the existence of the Veil. Although he thought that for a moment, he was above it, the reality of eating alone hit him: he would forever be in this relative racial position. While he had achieved a success and been granted the right to open a school, he still lived within a marginalized part of society due to nothing else but his race.
"My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly."
After ten years, Du Bois returns to the school where he taught to see what happened to the people and the actual institution. When he passes by the schoolhouse, he sees that it is closed and says that the reason it was no longer open was because of "Progress." This is one of the first mentions of industrialization in this collection of essays. As the country became more focused on industrialization and business, the importance of educating the African-American dwindled. Instead, this importance was placed on training a workforce and providing employment opportunities for all groups within the United States. In this particular quotation, Du Bois states that progress is ugly, not because the closing of the school is a sore sight to the eyes, but because this lack of access to education depicts a transition into a more capitalistic United States.
"Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success. Already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation. For every social ill, the panacea of wealth has been urged—wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of truth, beauty, and goodness, wealth as the ideal of the public school."
Du Bois was not entirely accepting of industrialization. In his essay on "Atalanta," he demonstrates his disdain with the Southern United States' new tendency to delve into industrialization. While the South was previously simple and the people thereof were devoted to religion and their work, industrialization was changing this and making it so that even the Southern United States was overcome for a desire for wealth. In this longing for wealth, the people began to forget what was truly necessary for prosperity: education, goodness, and beauty. Du Bois' disappointment in the creation of a Southern culture that preferred wealth to education was deeply rooted in history. As the African-American had recently gained freedom from slavery, it would be difficult for him to achieve this wealth that was predominating Southern society. This lack of focus on education would set an even stronger color-line boundary for this group, and create a different type of imprisonment for the African-American (the imprisonment of the mind).
"It is, then, the strife of all honorable men and women of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of the races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and imprudence and cruelty."
Throughout this work of literature, Du Bois tells a story of racial injustices and oppression. Despite how hard the Negro had worked, he was not able to achieve levels of success that were reflective of the work that he had done. In the future, however, Du Bois believed that these racial injustices may be eradicated and that privilege and success would be determined, not by skin color, but by virtue. This quotation demonstrates that while the author believes that it is necessary to place an importance on personal virtue and not on racial differences, he also realizes that these racist tendencies are so entrenched in American tradition that it would be difficult to ever achieve this. Despite the difficulties, these efforts needed to continue, so that the Negro could eventually compete on an equal level with the white man.
"Why was his hair tinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not the brown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue?—for brown were his father’s eyes, and his father’s father’s. And thus in the Land of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil."
When Du Bois' first-child is born, he is confronted with conflicting feelings of love, tragedy, and pride. He is in love with his child, and feels pride for what lies ahead for him. However, the child's "white features" reminds Du Bois that he will forever be different. In this particular quotation, he shares his disappointment with his son's gold hair. The hair color was not just a color, but also a symbol of everything that had led to the oppression of the black man in the United States, and throughout the world. The child, thus, would forever be marked with a symbol of oppression. This white feature was also a reference to the rape and misogyny that had occurred throughout the period of slavery in the United States. Although Du Bois' ancestry was mostly black, his child had inherited features that were slightly European. Someone in his family or his wife's, thus, had engaged, or been forced to engage, in sexual relations with someone of the white race. The child would forever remind the children of their history, of the pain and the struggle that the African-American slave had to endure, and of the difficulty he would face, despite having inherited this "white" feature.
"And yet the fire through which Alexander Crummell went did not burn in vain. Slowly and more soberly he took up again his plan of life. More critically he studied the situation. Deep down below the slavery and servitude of the Negro people he saw their fatal weaknesses, which long years of mistreatment had emphasized. The dearth of strong moral character, of unbending righteousness, he felt, was their great shortcoming, and here he would begin."
Alexander Crummell was a symbol of strength and passion for Du Bois, and Du Bois placed a certain emphasis on his importance because of how different he was to Booker T. Washington. While Washington had attributed the rise and fall of the Negro to the inconsistencies and lack of education within the Negro group, Crummell studied the characteristics of the Negro people, and their tendency throughout slavery. In order to provide a way for them to overcome this oppression, Crummell provided a positive attribute that would help them overcome this: strong moral character. Crummell's dedication to religion and his spread of faith would allow for the Negro people to also find himself within society and finally free himself.
The Souls of Black Folk Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Souls of Black Folk is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.