The Souls of Black Folk

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John Jones Character Analysis

Du Bois dedicates a whole chapter to the story of John Jones, a fictional character arguably representative of late 19th century Southern black men as a whole. John grows up in Altamaha in Southeast Georgia, and begins the story as a hard-working and cheerful young man unaware of the reality of racial oppression. The black community in which John grows up sends him to Wells Institute, where he struggles as a student and grows embittered as he learns the truth about racism and comes to feel the presence of the Veil. John returns to his hometown with hope of helping the black community, only to be shunned by both black and white people. At the end of the story, it is hinted that he is about to be lynched. John’s story can be interpreted in multiple different ways, and Du Bois leaves the central message deliberately ambiguous. On one level, the story is a kind of bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale), a story of a young black man moving from a place of innocence to crushing awareness of racism. It is unclear, however, what moral the reader should take away from this tale. John’s story ends in bitterness, failure, and a violent death, yet this narrative is arguably not a warning against pursuing knowledge and striving for justice, but rather an honest—and pessimistic—exploration of what it means to be a black person in the US.

John Jones Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

The The Souls of Black Folk quotes below are all either spoken by John Jones or refer to John Jones. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Signet Classics edition of The Souls of Black Folk published in 2012.
Chapter 13 Quotes

“Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I'll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we'll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”

Related Characters: John Jones
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is taken from the fictional story of John Jones. At this point in his life, John has returned home to his community in rural Georgia, after being sent to Wells Institute to study and running into trouble while there. Back home, John asks the town’s white Judge if he can teach a class at the school for black children. The Judge is wary, and tells John that although he is “a friend” to black people, this friendship has its limitations. Over the course of this passage, the Judge’s tone switches from sympathetic to patronizing to sinister. These shifts in tone suggest that behind white people’s claims to compassion often lie viciously racist thoughts.

As the Judge’s words make clear, he is particularly threatened by the idea that black people—particularly intelligent, upwardly mobile people such as John—will try to “reverse nature” and fight back against oppression. Clearly, the Judge is only sympathetic to black people as long as they accept a completely subservient role in society. He considers the undoing of the racial hierarchy so dangerous that it justifies the violent genocide of the entire black community. His threat foreshadows the violent end John meets at the end of the chapter, and connect John’s story to the widespread lynching that occurred in the wake of Reconstruction.

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John Jones Character Timeline in The Souls of Black Folk

The timeline below shows where the character John Jones appears in The Souls of Black Folk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 13: Of the Coming of John
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
...Wells Institute and the black students who attend it. He points out a single student, John Jones, who is “never on time” and has a charming, honest smile. Jones came from... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
For one reason or another, Jones didn’t come back for many years, yet the people in his community still spoke with... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Having become painfully aware of the existence of racial oppression, Jones grows bitter, and his words bear traces of sarcasm. However, he enthusiastically accepts an offer... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Arriving back home, John is unrecognizable to his community, and they to him. At church, he tells the community... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
John goes to ask the white Judge if he can teach at the black school, and... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
John, dejected and embittered, vows to go North again, telling his mother “I’m going to be... (full context)