The quote that begins this chapter is by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Du Boisthen announces: “This is the story of a human heart,” and introduces a black boy who lived “many years ago.” This boy faced three temptations—Hate, Despair, and Doubt—as he crossed the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Du Bois says that he first met Alexander Crummell at “a Wilberforce commencement season”; the two conversed, and Crummell seemed like a seer not of the past or future but of “the pulsing Now.”
Du Bois shifts into a different narrative style entirely in this chapter, one which resembles a parable or religious story. The fact that Crummell was a real person is confirmed by the fact that Du Bois mentions meeting him, yet the description of his character portrays him as something of a mystical figure. By referring to the three symbolic temptations and two valleys, Du Bois is able to describe several of the book’s more abstract themes.
Crummell was born during slavery, and his mother lived in fear “lest the shadows bear him away to the land of the slaves.” As he grew up, his life was cast over by the shadow of Hate, and he hated the world. However, he then met Beriah Green, “a crank and an abolitionist” who decided to bring Crummell to his school in Oneida County. Here, the students found sympathy with one another, and Alexander’s hatred of the world faded slightly. At the same time, he was haunted by the existence of slavery and decided to become a priest and work toward abolition.
Again, Crummell’s mother’s fear of the shadows taking her son away might seem like something out of a fairy tale. However, it was actually very common for free black people to be kidnapped and sold into slavery with no explanation or opportunity for recourse. Du Bois thus shows that many aspects of the African-American experience have an unreal, ominously fantastical quality.
Crummel was tempted by Despair upon finding that the Episcopal Theological Seminary would not admit a black man, and he briefly succumbed to despair. However, he found away to study for the priesthood in Boston, and his despair subsided as he planned to start a small congregation in which he would teach and inspire a community of black people. This dream came true in 1842 in Providence, and yet—despite Crummell’s hard work and dedication to his church—his congregation diminished, and he was confronted with the temptation of Doubt. To doubt his own purpose in life was even more terrible than the previous temptations of Hate and Despair.
“Souls” is filled with stories of black people who work with enthusiasm and dedication only to encounter a seemingly endless series of racist obstacles. Rather than simply saying that these people overcame the obstacles, Du Bois reveals the less obviously heroic and glamorous aspect of adversity—moments of bitterness, fear, and doubt. In doing so, he stresses that it is normal for black people to feel these things, even while it is also vital that they persevere.
Crummell admitted to the Bishop he had failed, and this Bishop sent him to Bishop Onderdonk in Philadelphia. Onderdonk agreed to accept Crummel into his diocese on the condition that “no Negro priest can sit in my church convention, and no Negro church must ask for representation there.” Crummell refused these terms, and eventually returned to work “in poverty and starvation” for a church in New York. Following this period, he traveled to England and earned a degree, before departing for Liberia. There, among the slave-smugglers, he “sought a new heaven and a new earth.”
This passage can be seen as a direct repudiation of another black leader, Booker T. Washington. While Du Bois acknowledges throughout the book that a certain degree of conciliation to white racists is necessary for the ultimate goal of advancement, he also advocates drawing a principled line. Crummell’s refusal to comply here is a direct contrast to Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise.”
Du Bois remarks on Crummell’s remarkable pilgrimage, and suggests that if the reader finds the riddle of the “temptations” and “valleys”hard to decipher, they should bear in mind that it is even harder for a young black boy. Yet Crummell triumphed over the three temptations and the two valleys, and eventually returned to America with his “unbending righteousness” intact. Du Bois speaks reverently of Crummell’s impact on the world, and argues that it is a shame that he found so little sympathy during his life. In death, Crummell is not widely known, a fact that Du Bois suggests is a great shame.
Crummell’s lack of fame speaks to the ongoing difficulty of achieving success as a black leader. Once again, Du Bois makes an insidious comparison to Booker T. Washington, whose immense fame he describes in detail. It is possible to infer that Du Bois believes Washington’s fame is the result of his appeal to whites, considering that Crummell, who is less popular with whites but a better leader, remains comparatively unknown.