The chapter begins with a quotation from the medieval Persian mathematician, philosopher, and poet Omar Khayyam. Du Bois states that since the first slaves arrived in the US, there have been three “streams of thinking” about race. The first “stream” favors the idea of human unity and co-operation across races. The second, which Du Bois describes as an old Southern way of thinking, holds that black people are in a category between humans and animals—potentially “lovable within [their] limitations,” but doomed to always be behind the Veil. The third mode of thought is that of black people themselves, who yearn for freedom and equality but are sometimes forced to wonder if the second way of thinking is correct.
Note that whenhe describes the “three streams of thinking,” Du Bois places all black people into one stream. At first this may seem strange, as if Du Bois is suggesting that all black people have the same thoughts and opinions. However, what Du Bois is actually showing is that the development of ideas about race and racism is completely out of the hands of black people. Indeed, white people do not treat black people as authorities on themselves, but more like objects to be studied. By writing “Souls,” Du Bois challenges this view.
Du Bois argues that the racism of the South must be addressed seriously; it cannot be “laughed away” or erased by changes to the law, and it should not be ignored. The only solution to racism can be found in education, reason, and culture. Similarly, the hopes and ambitions of black people must be taken seriously. Currently, education is tasked with addressing all three streams of thought at once; it must help people realize their potential, “stamp out” prejudice, and support those who live behind the Veil.
Throughout the book, Du Bois argues that racism must be taken seriously and not ignored, no matter how powerless people feel to fight it. His argument that racism can be undone by education and reason would come to be challenged by later black writers, however, who pointed out that education can also be used to reinforce, rather than challenge, racist ideas.
Education in the South must provide a way forward for “two backward peoples.” Du Bois examines the history of Southern education since the civil war. In the first years following the war, education was in a state of chaos and uncertainty. There then followed ten years of constructive change, when—among other achievements—universities for freedmen were founded. However, the quality of these universities was varied and often rather poor, and the quality of schooling for black children was low. At the same time, the industrial revolution took over the South. Industrial schools were thus also founded, and became prominent in the decade beginning in 1895.
It would certainly have been controversial for Du Bois to claim that Southern whites were “backward people” at the time he was writing. While this assertion was frequently made about African Americans, most white people thought of themselves as an inherently advanced, civilized race. Du Bois rejects this idea, suggesting that intelligence, ability, and morality are developed through education, as opposed to being innate cultural or genetic qualities.
Du Bois identifies a problem with industrial schools—that they can treat people as no more than workers, a means of increasing material prosperity. He argues that this line of thinking originated in slavery, but has not disappeared after slavery’s end. Education that allows for the fulfillment of dreams and ambitions is treated as “the privilege of white men” (and white men only). Du Bois describes the South as being racially divided into “two separate worlds” at every level of life: schools, workplaces, churches, culture, transportation, hospitals, and jails. This separation is so absolute that it “absolutely precludes… sympathetic and effective group-training and leadership” across the races.
Du Bois points to the fact that for most of the period that black people have lived in the US, they have been seen to have only instrumental value, meaning they were only valued as workers who could make money for plantation owners. For Du Bois, it is therefore unsurprising that in the post-Emancipation era, white people (and even some black leaders like Washington) advocate industrial education for black people, as this will train them to be workers and little else.
In spite of the “sneers of critics,” Teachers’ Institutes were founded and quickly trained 30,000 much-needed black teachers. Du Bois quotes an article from a white Southern newspaper arguing that providing classical education to young African Americans ended up being “a waste of time, efforts, and money,” because black people simply robotically repeated the information they were supposed to learn. While Du Bois dismisses this argument as unreasonable, he concedes that there arevalid concerns surrounding the state of black higher education that need to be addressed.
The claim of “critics” that Teacher’s Institutes for black people were a waste of money is arguably even more sinister than it first appears. Of course, many whites did hold the view that black people were not intelligent enough to benefit from a traditional education. On the other hand, remember that slaves were banned from even learning how to read and write. Clearly, many whites thought that education would lead black people to challenge their oppression, and thus the status quo.
Du Bois admits that fifty years ago it would have been difficult to prove that black people were capable of succeeding in a “modern college course,” but now over four hundred African-Americans have graduated from top universities, including Harvard and Yale. Du Bois writes that he personally knows many black graduates, and that he has never encountered a more selfless, devoted, and determined group of people. He says that they are mostly “conservative, careful leaders,” who are not “agitators.”
From a contemporary perspective, Du Bois’ assurance that black university graduates are not “agitators” seems strange and—depending on one’s definition of an agitator—not particularly accurate. However, bear in mind that Du Bois is largely writing to persuade a white audience that black people should be afforded the right to a traditional education.
Du Bois says that if white and black people are to live alongside each other in a harmonious fashion, there will be a need for black colleges to exist. It would not be sustainable for all black people in the South to be lumped together in the same socioeconomic class, with no mobility or diversity. Moreover, there is an obvious demand among young black people for higher education.
Du Bois’ argument for giving black people the right to higher education is nuanced and multifaceted, designed to appeal to a range of audiences with very different ideas and reservations about the consequences of an educated black population.
Du Bois makes an impassioned argument that if white Southerners object to black people’s presence among them, they should stop and remember who brought them there; if they complain about black crime, they should look to the widespread evidence of white-on-black rape (in the form of mixed-race people) and of the greatest crime of all: slavery. Du Bois admits that of course not all black people are honorable, but that there is more danger in “half-trained minds” than in those who have received a proper education.
Again, Du Bois oscillates between different perspectives and arguments for why black people should be given access to higher education. At times this tactic of persuasion seem somewhat conciliatory to whites, but at others he makes a more forceful case, such as when he points out the hypocrisy of white people who complain about black crime.
Du Bois argues that black colleges have three functions: to “maintain the standards of popular education,” help improve the situation of black people, and improve co-operation and relations across the races. He concludes by claiming that it is only through being well-educated that he is able to ever find himself “above the Veil.”
Du Bois compellingly argues that black colleges are good for white as well as black people. This is because a society dominated by racial prejudice and exclusion is ultimately harmful to everyone, even those whose interests it supposedly serves.