This chapter begins with another passage by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Du Bois describes the streets surrounding 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 Southeast Georgia, where the local white people admired his work in the fields but resisted his mother’s desire to send him to school, arguing education would “spoil him—ruin him.” However, Jones went anyway, and the black community he left behind daydreamed of the wonderful things that would happen on his return. The white people, on the other hand, remained disapproving.
Having spent most of the book combining history, sociology, political analysis, and memoir, Du Bois again switches genre here by including a fictional story. This is a distinct contrast to a book whose explicit message is the promotion of knowledge and truth. However, the story of John Jones shows that certain truths can only be conveyed through fiction. While Jones was likely not a real person, his story is realistic, and in a way he comes to symbolize Southern black youth as a whole.
For one reason or another, Jones didn’t come back for many years, yet the people in his community still spoke with excitement about “when John comes.” At the Institute, meanwhile, the faculty worried about him, because he “did not know how to study” and was always getting into trouble. As a result, he is suspended. Jones begs the Dean not to tell his mother and sister, promising to work for a term before returning to the Institute. The Dean agrees, and Jones works very hard and “grew in body and soul.” His increased maturity and understanding of the world, however, cause him to feel the presence of the Veil for the first time.
Here Du Bois returns to his exploration of the downsides of knowledge. While John lived in Georgia, he was cheerful and carefree, a picture of blissful ignorance. While studying at Wells Institute is supposed to be a positive and empowering experience for John, the transformation it provoked is largely negative. John is disconnected from his family and community, struggles to perform well at the Institution, and is burdened with a new understanding of racism and injustice.
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 from the Dean to go North to sing with the Institute’s quartette. At a concert hall, white people around Jones make racist comments about him, but Jones is so hypnotized by the beauty of his surroundings that he doesn’t notice. Eventually, Jones is asked to leave by a young man, whom Jones recognizes as “the White John.” He rushes off, feeling foolish, and writes a letter to his mother and sister telling them he is coming home. On the train, he wonders if his misfortune is his own fault for “struggling against” his “destiny.”
Many of the episodes in John’s life are ambiguous and puzzling, and scholars have debated their meaning since “Souls” was published. John’s changing feelings about the world, his encounter with “the White John,” and his uncertainty about his own decisions do not lend themselves to a single interpretation. Overall, Du Bois emphasizes that intelligent black people are burdened with self-doubt, confusion, and other feelings that arrive from racism and social exclusion.
Arriving back home, John is unrecognizable to his community, and they to him. At church, he tells the community of his plans to help them prosper by building an Industrial School and encouraging philanthropic programs. He urges unity across denominations, but then an elderly man steps up to the pulpit and induces a frenzy, and John realizes that the congregation believe he is “trampling on the true Religion.” Leaving the church, his sister asks if everyone who studies ends up unhappy, and John replies that they do.
John is not able to replace the sense of community he had back home when he moves away, yet when he returns home he finds these ties have been severed irrevocably. When he then attempts to encourage his community to build new ties and create a greater overall sense of unity, he is attacked. Leaving home thus permanently severs John’s sense of belonging to his community.
John goes to ask the white Judge if he can teach at the black school, and the Judge tells him that although he is a “friend of your people,” African-Americans must remain “subordinate.” If they try to “reverse nature,” the Judge promises he will lynch every one of them. He asks John if he intends to teach his students about freedom or equality, or if he will accept white rule. John agrees to “accept the situation” and the Judge says he can take the teaching position. However, the Judge soon hears that John refuses to accept the unjust position of black people in town, and shuts down the black school, telling John and his students that they must disperse.
The conversation with the white judge is a direct parallel to Alexander Crummell’s encounter with the bishop. John makes the opposite decision to Alexander, and agrees to comply with the judge’s racist demands (thereby aligning himself with Booker T. Washington).Whereas this benefits John in the short term, eventually his class is shut down anyway. This turn of events suggests that compromising with racism will never turn out well.
John, dejected and embittered, vows to go North again, telling his mother “I’m going to be free.” He goes to sit in the forest, where he hears noise in the distance. White men ride toward him on horses, whose eyes are “red with fury.” John wonders if they have a rope, and stands. The story ends: “And the world whistled in his ears.”
The tragic end of John’s story emphasizes the connection between freedom and death, suggesting that for John—like for Du Bois’ son—his only chance of experiencing true freedom will come in death.