The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk Summary and Analysis of "Of the Wings of Atalanta"


Like in many of his other essays, Du Bois opens up his personal analysis with a poem by a prominent author. This time, he chooses to begin with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Howard at Atlanta.” In the poem, the author describes how the city is now free from slavery, and how both African-Americans and whites are beginning to co-exist and rise together. Du Bois is able to provide a foundation for the discussion of Atlanta by engaging the reader in this way.

In the essay, Du Bois begins by explaining how Atlanta came to be. Seemingly out of nowhere, a city was erected in the middle of the country. It was stated that previously, Atlanta was also a quiet area, similar to all of its surroundings. The people of Atlanta put their faith in the future, holding on to dreams of wealth in the hopes that they would succeed. This was how the city became one laden with factories and shopping areas, and how progress came to be in that area. This was when the country took notice of Atlanta, when people throughout the United States began to provide praise for these successes. He compares the city of Atlanta to the Greek myt hof Atalanta: Atalanta is the story of a goddess who would only marry someone who could outdo her; she did not want love, but wealth. Du Bois contends that if the city of Atlanta is not named after the goddess, it should be.

He further stated that Atlanta was doing a disservice to the South, as it was leading that part of the country to believe that wealth and materialism were the cornerstones of success. This widespread idea had begun to replace old-fashioned Southerners with selfish workers, and ridding the South of its beauty. With the rise of Atlanta, Southerners believed that wealth was the solution to all of their problems: slave feudalism, the third estate, and the facilitation of employing black serfs were all attainable with wealth. The South went far enough to base the public school system on wealth, as well. This was the future not only of Atlanta, but also of the world, and of the Black World, within and beyond the veil.

The importance of wealth began to seep into the Negro world, despite the white Southerner’s inability to place importance on the plight of the Negro. The Negro, Du Bois argues, will remain forgotten, regardless of the wealth that he is able to accumulate. Although the black man was striving to self-realization, it was impossible since the so few people knew that this group faced the problem of the veil.

This study of race and the veil, Du Bois contends, is waiting for a scholar to study it. However, due to everyone’s insistence on acquiring wealth, this is nearly impossible. Within the Negro community itself, people of high social stature were relegated into lower positions due to their lack of wealth. Thus, teachers and preachers were less important than farmers and gardeners who were making more money. This marked the beginning of the end of the submissive Negro, and the start of the negro who strove for wealth.

Du Bois believes that the way to rid society of this need for wealth is to promote education. Philosophical and theoretical analysis, as taught by Plato in Ancient Greece, would be the only way that students would be able to rid themselves of a need for money. Even the most elite universities, however, had developed schools with an incorrect vision. Instead of realizing that different groups of people had different needs, and thus different abilities, institutions of higher learning promoted their schools to all indiscriminately. There was a need for artisans and scholars, and these schools failed to see this.

The author states that education is the best option instead of seeking wealth. He provides arguments, anecdotes, and examples that prove why gaining either an industrial or an academic education helps to position the Negro in superior positions within society. Although he states that some students can only be artisans or technical students, he makes it clear that higher education is what provides the best opportunity. Universities teach skills and theory to its students, but what it should ultimately accomplish is developing the Negro into a man.


W.E.B. Du Bois continues his study of industrialization with "Of the Wings of Atalanta.” After Emancipation, the United States began to focus on careers and wealth and dive away from education. This left the South in an odd position: it was without a legitimate public school system, yet it proposed wealth as a form of ultimately gaining success. Influenced by north industrialization, Atlanta becomes the center of the Southern United States, and many flee here in order to live, work, and make money.

He prefaces the essay with a soul song that talks about the merging of two races. The ideal way that blacks and whites live in the poem is just that: an ideal. The sentiment in this poem is a somber, yet hopeful, one. Throughout the institution of slavery and before it, blacks lived with this hope: a hope that would never dissipate, and would keep them strong despite difficulties. However, Atlanta's industrialization has ultimately rid these groups of these ideas of merging.

Before the rise of Atlanta, preachers and teachers held the ideals of African-Americans. They taught African-Americans, they provided religious guidance, and they performed social service. While these prominent positions in African-American society had not been fully obliterated, industrialization, according to Du Bois, would make this happen. Not even the university could provide the adequate social education necessary for the success of a race.

According to Du Bois, universities existed not only to produce teachers or teach people how to make money. Instead, they existed to create a class of people that would understand real life and be able to critically analyze it through an education lens. Du Bois' contention, however, was somewhat elitist. As an educated African-American who had graduated from university, he was in a much more position social position than many of his African-American counterparts. Thus, his thoughts about what a university should or should not do did not necessarily carry much merit with the rest of the African-Americans.

Much in the same way as Du Bois had criticized Washington for his incorrect analysis of the Negro race, it is also possible to do so for Du Bois. Du Bois had been raised in "good" schools in Western Massachusetts, and eventually allowed to graduate from Ivy League schools. Very few African-Americans at the time could achieve this feat. Although he constantly argues that the veil is what propelled him to this level of success, his privilege is what led him to realize that the veil existed. If he had not been in an integrated school, he would not have been able to even analyze the veil. While Du Bois provides analyses on the progress of the Negro people, he fails to analyze his own position within African-American society.