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 constantly late but has a charming, honest smile. Jones came from the small town of Altamaha in 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. Inconvenience and cost prevent John from visiting home on holiday breaks; he stays and works in Johnstown instead. Meanwhile, his sister, Jennie, goes to work in the kitchen of the local white Judge.
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.
The Judge also has a son named John, who was a childhood playmate of John Jones. Like Jones, the “White John” has left Altamaha—he now attends Princeton University. The Judge believes that college is essential for the White John’s transition into manhood. The Judge’s wife asks Jennie how her brother is, echoing the sentiment that being sent off will “spoil him.” Jennie wonders if this is true. Few people in town think about both Johns like this—instead, the black people think of John Jones, while the white people think of the White John. These two halves of the town seem entirely divided in their concerns as they separately ponder what will become of their respective Johns.
It’s clear that despite growing up together, John Jones and the “White John” now have divergent lives. Whereas a college education is deemed indispensable for the White John, white people like the Judge and his family espouse their community’s general opinion that education wills somehow “spoil” black people like John Jones. This attitude implies that white people in the South perceive educated black people as a threat to their own relative power and privilege. With this in mind, there are clearly social and legal barriers preventing black people from reaching the same level of education or positions of influence that white people have the opportunity to achieve. Additionally, the fact that the townspeople are divided on racial lines exposes the legacy of slavery that still exists in Southern towns like Altamaha in the late 19th century (when the story takes place) and suggests that there is lingering hostility between white and black communities.
At the Institute, meanwhile, the faculty worry about John Jones because he “[does] not know how to study” and is always getting into trouble. As a result, he is suspended. John begs the Dean not to tell his mother and Jennie, promising to work for a term before returning to the Institute. The Dean agrees, and John works very hard and “[grows] 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, as it appears that John’s lack of opportunities as a child meant that he wasn’t properly prepared for college. John is also 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, John 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. In New York City, John wanders around the city and winds up at a concert hall, where he decides to see a show. In the hallway of the theater, John runs into a fair-haired young man and his date. The man ignores John but begins making condescending, racist comments to his date. He recalls that a black childhood friend of his was “named after [him].”
The white man’s comment that his black friend was named after him implies that this is actually the “White John” and that the childhood playmate he’s referencing is John Jones. The fact that the two young men’s paths happen to cross is significant, as it only further emphasizes how different their circumstances are despite both happening to be in New York at the same show. Whereas Jones is struggling in school and came to the city in an attempt to remedy his personal struggle with internalized racism, the White John is seemingly thriving and is here on a carefree excursion with his date. And even though Jones is no longer in the segregated South, he still faces casual racism from people like the White John. This contrast between two young men, former friends from same small town, demonstrates how significantly racial oppression and unequal opportunity can shape a person’s life path.
In the theater, the fair-haired man notices that the black man he ran into in the hallway (John) is sitting directly beside his and his date’s two reserved seats. He complains about John to an usher, though John doesn’t notice any of this because he’s so enraptured by the beauty and elegance of the concert hall and the other audience members. His reverie is interrupted, however, when the usher asks him to leave. As John stands up, he recognizes that the man who requested he be escorted out is the fair-haired man from the hallway—none other than the “White John” he knew as a child. The White John seems to recognize John Jones for the first time, too, and he starts to raise his hand to wave before stopping himself and sinking into his seat. Jones rushes off, feeling foolish, and he writes a letter to his mother and Jennie telling them he is coming home. On the train, he wonders if his misfortune is his own fault for “struggling against” his “destiny.”
This chance encounter between John Jones and the “White John” once again emphasizes just how divergent their lives have become since childhood. Whereas the two Johns were once playmates, race has clearly become a dividing factor both in how society treats them and in how they regard each other. The ease with which the White John is able to have Jones thrown out of the concert hall suggests that even relatively liberal places like New York City are still haunted by the U.S.’s legacy of slavery and that black people are generally regarded as inferior in the North as well as the South. Jones’s humiliation shows just how devastating this racist atmosphere can be on an individual’s psyche, and his self-doubt suggests that he has internalized the racism he faces to the point that he believes he’s “destined” to be a second-class citizen who will never find acceptance or success.
Arriving back in Altamaha, John is unrecognizable to his community, and they to him. At church, he tells the black 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 believes he is “trampling on the true Religion.” Leaving the church, Jennie asks John if everyone who studies ends up unhappy, and John replies that they do.
John is unable to replicate 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 because they believe he is “tramping on the true Religion”—essentially, challenging the internalized beliefs and status quo that the black community has accepted as their lot in life. 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 town’s new black school, and the Judge tells him that although he is a “friend to 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.
The conversation with the white Judge is a direct parallel to Alexander Crummell’s encounter with the bishop. It seems that John’s disheartening experiences at the Institute, as well as the humiliating racism he experienced in New York, has disillusioned him to the point of accepting his “subordinate” status as a black man in a Southern town. The Judge is clearly being racist and manipulative when he claims to be a “friend” to black people like John, but John makes the opposite decision to Alexander and agrees to “accept the situation” that the Judge demands (thereby aligning himself with Booker T. Washington).
A month after the black school opens, the White John returns home as well. His family, along with the entire white half of town, is thrilled—the Judge even hopes that his son will become the mayor of Altamaha, then a legislative representative, then governor of Georgia. The White John scoffs at the idea of staying in such a forgettable town surrounded by black people, though the Judge retorts that that’s exactly what he himself did.
The contrast between the White John and John Jones is again made obvious here: the White John’s success at Princeton has allowed him to return to a supportive community with high expectations for him, whereas Jones’s absence at the Wells Institute has left him alienated from and rejected by the black community. Whereas the White John has the potential to rise through the ranks of local and state leadership, Jones must reconcile himself to being a schoolteacher who’s “subordinate” under the Judge’s thumb. Further, the fact that the White John is the one who has the opportunity to govern the black population of Altamaha (and potentially of Georgia), despite his scorn for them, shows how racial oppression lends itself to keeping power in the hands of the white majority.
As the Judge and the White John talk, neighbors begin to wander by, and the local postmaster comments that John Jones is causing trouble at the black school by giving lectures on topics like French Revolution and equality. The White John asks who Jones is, and the postmaster replies that he’s talking about the “little black John” who used to be the White John’s playmate. The White John, concealing his anger, shares how Jones tried to steal his date’s seat at the concert hall. Incensed, the Judge rushes over to the black school, where Jones has managed to increase the attendance and to make a bit of progress with his students. The Judge storms in and announces that the school is now closed because Altamaha’s white residents oppose having their tax money spent on the rebellious lies that Jones is teaching. Jones and his students must disperse immediately.
The fact that the postmaster still refers to the adult John Jones as “little black John” suggests that the white community still judges Jones primarily by his race rather than by his personality or accomplishments, and that he is still insignificant and even infantile and their eyes. However, this view is challenged by the Judge’s furious reaction to Jones’s subversive curriculum—in the same vein as the community’s belief that education would “spoil” Jones, the Judge seems to believe that teaching black schoolchildren about equality could provoke an uprising or a demand for equal rights. His closure of the school is thus a self-serving move to ensure that the black community in Altamaha remains oppressed, uneducated, and subservient.
Meanwhile, the White John wanders around the house in the wake of the Judge’s sudden departure. He goes out into the field and bitterly reflects that there are no girls around who are worth pursuing. However, just then, he notices Jennie walking around the grounds. The White John brushes off his initial interest with a laugh, thinking to himself that he never noticed how physically attractive “the little brown kitchen-maid” is. He calls hello to Jennie and asks why she hasn’t kissed him since he’s been home, and she stares back at him in shock and confusion. The White John attempts to grab Jennie’s arm as she passes by and then chases after her through the woods.
The White John’s predatory treatment of Jennie reveals another sinister underpinning of his racism. His interest in Jennie takes on a fetishizing quality, as he thinks of her as a “little brown kitchen maid” whom he is physically attracted to but who is inferior to him on every level. Especially given the fact that Jennie is the family’s hired help and is therefore under the White John’s authority, the unequal dynamic between them is disturbingly similar to that of a master and a slave. The White John’s attempts to grab and chase Jennie imply that he will try to sexually assault her when he catches up to her; his desire to cruelly dominate and abuse Jennie in this way seems to be a way of channeling his pent-up rage that’s fueled by racism and sexism. Notably, the ease with which the White John makes the leap from ideological racism to racially-motivated violence suggests that even seemingly nonviolent racists have the potential to do great harm if they’re given the opportunity and power to do so.
Having been ordered by the Judge to close the black school, John Jones begins walking toward home to meet Jennie and break the news to her when she gets home from work. On his way there, he decides against it and instead resolves to move away, find work, and send for his mother and sister later on. John hurries up a path toward the seaside, where the sea is silent and the air is still. Suddenly, he hears a distressed cry from the woods and feels as though he’s been awoken from a dream. He sees Jennie struggling in the White John’s arms. John grabs a fallen tree branch and wordlessly beats the White John to death “with all the pent-up hatred of his great black arm.”
Du Bois’s description of Jones having woken up from a dream upon hearing Jennie being assaulted more broadly implies that Jones is waking up from the “dream” or delusion of being able to get ahead in a racist society in which the cards are stacked against him. This is further emphasized by his brutal murder of the White John “with all the pent-up hatred of his great black arm,” as this implies that in killing the White John, he is also symbolically taking a stand against everything the White John represents: racism, unequal opportunity, and unearned privilege and entitlement. In this way, Jones’s murder of the White John (like the White John’s assault of Jennie) takes on a kind of slave/master dynamic in which the oppressed rises up against the oppressor.
After gazing down at the surreal sight of at the White John’s “white and still” body lying beneath the pine trees, Jones hurriedly walks back to the house. When he arrives, he informs his mother that he’s going north again so that he can be free. Then, he walks back out to the woods and sits on a tree stump, where he sees that the White John’s body has been removed, leaving a pool of blood behind. John remembers playing in these same woods with the White John as children, and he wonders what his other old friends would think of him if they knew what he’d done.
Given that Jones goes back to the woods rather than fleeing town, it’s clear that he has no real intentions of going north. The removal of the White John’s body in Jones’s absence implies that someone else has discovered what’s happened, which portends serious consequences for Jones if he’s charged with the crime. Lynching was a common punishment for black criminals (as well as innocent black people, as they were often framed and rarely given fair trials) during this time, and it seems that in deciding to stay in Altamaha rather than returning to the North, Jones has accepted this violent fate.
Suddenly, John is distracted by the starlight above, which makes him think of the luxurious gold ceiling in the concert hall. He thinks he hears music, but then he realizes it’s the sound of an angry mob approaching on horseback. Still sitting on the stump, John looks out at the sea, smiling, and turns his eyes toward the pathway in the woods from which the sound of horses galloping grows closer. He hums “The Song of the Bride” to himself and watches as the mob’s shadows become visible. The angry men come sweeping in on horseback, and Jones sees the Judge among them looking old, raggedy, and furious. Jones pities him and wonders if he’s the one who’s brought a noose. As the mob crowds around him, John stands, closes his eyes, and turns toward the sea once more.
Again, John’s passivity and mocking attitude toward the ominous sound of approaching horses suggests that he’s already accepted he’ll be killed by the vengeful white mob. John’s tragic fate, and his resignation to it, symbolizes Du Bois’s belief that all African Americans are doomed to be lynched, whether literally or metaphorically, by the racial oppression inherent to late 19th- and early 20-century U.S. society. In this way, Du Bois sends the disturbing message that under the status quo, John can never be free in life—his only path to freedom is through death.