The chapter begins with a verse by the German writer Friedrich Schiller. Du Bois opens with the phrase “Once upon a time,” and goes on to recall a time 17 years before the time of writing, when he was a student at Fisk and spent a summer teaching in rural Tennessee. He describes the Teacher Institute he attended, in which white teachers had their classes in the morning, and black teachers at night. After training, the teachers went out “hunting” for schools, journeying across the land and asking each school individually whether they needed a teacher.
Although Du Bois led a much more privileged life compared to poor black people in the South, his experiencesarestill very much saffected by racism. The segregation of the Teacher Institute highlights the fact that racism is not only unjust but impractical. Similarly, the fact that Du Bois and the other new teachers had to find a school on foot portrays the Southern infrastructure as old-fashioned and disorganized.
Du Bois found a school through Josie, “a thin, homely girl of twenty,” whom he met while walking. Du Bois describes Josie’s family: her father was “a simple soul, calmly ignorant,” her mother was ambitious and energetic, and she had many siblings, some of whom had already moved away. Du Bois liked the family, finding them to be hard-working and honest. Some time after finding a school to teach at, Du Bois rode with a white teacher to the Commissioner’s house.At first he was pleased to be invited to dinner, however, the “awful shadow of the Veil” fell when Du Bois realized the white men would eat first, “then I—alone.”
Throughout the book, Du Bois describes positive aspects of negative situations. Josie’s family are poor and have a difficult life, but Du Bois is careful to illustrate their admirable qualities as well. On the other hand, Du Bois also frequently features moments of tainted joy and crushed optimism. For example, his own happiness at being invited to dinner at the Commissioner’s house turns to bitter disappointment when he is forced to eat after the white people.
Du Bois describes the school where he chose to teach as run-down and poorly furnished. Josie attended the school along with her siblings, and Du Bois mentions that she dreamed of studying at “the great school in Nashville.” Du Bois describes the rest of the students, recounting them by name and noting that some were beautiful, some plain, some smart, some lazy, and so on. Du Bois admits: “I loved my school,” and describes the time he spent teaching in idyllic terms. However, he explains that some of the elder members of the community were suspicious of “book-learning,” and that some children were taken out of school to perform agricultural work.
In this passage Du Bois again mixes positive and negative recollections about his time teaching at the school. One effect of this is to remind the reader how frequently black people’s success and happiness was marred by the ongoing consequences of slavery and the continuing problems of racism and poverty. Du Bois shows that even while the education of black children is vital, it is often met with resistance from both white and black people.
Du Bois recalls that on Friday nights he would stay with a farmer called Doc Burke and his family, in a home that was modest but “scrupulously neat” and welcoming. Du Bois goes on to describe other families who hosted him, as well as his time spent having conversations with Josie. Although Josie dreamed of going away to school in Nashville, it seemed unlikely that this would be possible. Josie was hard-working and resourceful, but the jobs available to her paid far too little money.
The black people Du Bois describes are dedicated and hard-working, with dreams of self-improvement. The neatness of Doc Burke’s home highlights the morally upstanding nature of his family and others like them. However, as Du Bois shows, these good qualities are not enough for poor black people to succeed in a racist world.
Du Bois spent two summers teaching at the school and living “in this little world.” He describes attending ceremonies at the local black church,during which he met people from “other worlds” and listened to “the mighty cadences of Negro song.” The community Du Bois inhabited was drawn together by a common experience of the cycle of life, poverty, hardship, and “the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity.”Older members of the community tended to view life with a kind of grim, fatalistic acceptance, whereas younger people who did not have firsthand experience of slavery and war struggled in vain against racism and injustice.
In the midst of a book that deals extensively with exclusion, Du Bois’ description of the “little worlds” he encounters in the South highlight the strength and joy to be found in belonging to small-scale communities. Although black people have to face the relentless burden of the Veil, this experience of exclusion becomes the basis of new forms of attachment, inclusion, and belonging.
Ten years later, Du Bois returned to Tennessee to find that Josie was dead. This was only one of many hardships her family had suffered—her brother was also in prison for theft. The old schoolhouse was gone and had been replaced with a new building. Doc Burke had managed to buy a hundred acres and a larger house, but remained in debt and was still working even in his elderly, frail state. Du Bois reflects on the cycle of life and death, observing that life is incredibly difficult for the poor, “and yet how human and real!”. He concludes that in such a context it is hard to know whether the world is experiencing a moment of “twilight” or “the flush of some faint-dawning day.”
The story of Josie and the community in which she lives ends on a bleak and tragic—if ambiguous—note. Earlier parts of the chapter betray hints of optimism and seem to suggest that things may actually turn out well for Josie and her family. However, this turns out to be far from the case. Du Bois’ final words in this chapter indicate the extent to which this feeling of disappointment and uncertainty about the future is characteristic not only of a single community, but of African-Americans in general.