The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois Character Analysis

As well as being the author and narrator of the book, Du Bois also plays a prominent role as a character within his own narrative. Much of the book consists of first-person accounts of Du Bois’ own experiences, and particularly those experiences that helped develop his awareness of the issues of race and racism. Although Du Bois narrates his own story non-chronologically, overall the book provides a comprehensive account of his life from childhood onwards. Born to a fairly affluent free family in Massachusetts, Du Bois attended an integrated school and describes becoming aware of the Veil for the first time when children in his class exchanged greeting cards and a little white girl refused to accept his card. Rather than becoming embittered—as other figures such as Alexander Crummell and John Jones are tempted to do—Du Bois resolved to work hard academically in order to overcome the effects of racism. On some levels, this plan succeeded. Du Bois had an immensely successful academic career, becoming the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard and eventually taking a professorship at Atlanta University, where he wrote The Souls of Black Folk. However, Du Bois makes clear that his academic success and other fortunate experiences in his life, while positive, are still overwhelmed by the constant presence of the Veil. Like other intelligent, well-educated black figures in the book, Du Bois remains keenly aware of the plight of those less fortunate than him even as he achieves great personal success. Indeed, he uses his position of influence in order to try and help black people who do not have the same resources or power in society, focusing on those worst off—the rural poor in the South. Despite his professional success, however, Du Bois’ life was not untainted by personal tragedy. His first child, a son named Burghardt, died in infancy, an event he chronicles in the chapter entitled “Of the Passing of the First-Born.” In this chapter, Du Bois reveals his own vulnerabilities and expresses some of his more cynical thoughts about the nature of racial justice and progress. Although he claims it is possible that race relations may have improved over the course of his son’s lifetime, he also suggests that the only time African-Americans can achieve true freedom is in death.

W.E.B. Du Bois Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

The The Souls of Black Folk quotes below are all either spoken by W.E.B. Du Bois or refer to W.E.B. Du Bois. 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.
The Forethought Quotes

The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Line
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 1 Quotes

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,––an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Related Symbols: Double Consciousness
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

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The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 2 Quotes

There was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification a duty.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 3 Quotes

History is but the record of such group-leadership; and yet how infinitely changeful is its type and character!

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4 Quotes

I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughts together; but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in various languages.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 5 Quotes

For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged––wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the "cracker" Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6 Quotes

Above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

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The teachers in these institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. The colleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped and harkened in the dawning light.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

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O Southern Gentlemen! If you deplore their presence here, they ask, Who brought us? When you cry Deliver us from the vision of intermarriage, they answer that legal marriage is infinitely better than systematic concubinage and prostitution. And if in just fury you accuse their vagabonds of violating women, they also in fury quite as just may reply: The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 7 Quotes

If you wish to ride with me you must come into the "Jim Crow Car." There will be no objection,––already four other white men, and a little white girl with her nurse, are in there. Usually the races are mixed in there; but the white coach is all white.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

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Yet even then the hard ruthless rape of the land began to tell. The red-clay sub-soil already had begun to peer above the loam. The harder the slaves were driven the more careless and fatal was their farming.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 9 Quotes

War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery––this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

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In any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

One can see in the Negro church today, reproduced in microcosm, all the great world from which the Negro is cut off by color-prejudice and social condition.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

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It is no idle regret with which the white South mourns the loss of the old-time Negro,––the frank, honest, simple old servant who stood for the earlier religious age of submission and humility. With all his laziness and lack of many elements of true manhood, he was at least open-hearted, faithful, and sincere.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 11 Quotes

Why was his hair tinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not the brown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue? –For brown were his father's eyes, and his father's father's. And thus in the Land of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker), Burghardt Du Bois
Related Symbols: The Color Line, The Veil
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 12 Quotes

The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,––the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves and millionaires and––sometimes––Negroes became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?"

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

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Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? He had out- grown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth of his life-work,––to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his… this, this seemed more than man could bear.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker), Alexander Crummell
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

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W.E.B. Du Bois Character Timeline in The Souls of Black Folk

The timeline below shows where the character W.E.B. Du Bois appears in The Souls of Black Folk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Forethought
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Du Bois introduces the book, explaining that it contains reflections on the meaning of being black in... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Du Bois briefly summarizes the book’s contents. Two chapters deal with the legacy of Emancipation. One examines... (full context)
Chapter 1: Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
The chapter begins with Arthur Symons’ poem “The Crying of Water.” Du Bois explains that people in “the other world”—the world of white people—seem perpetually curious about what... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Du Bois didn’t immediately feel the need to destroy the veil, but instead dedicated himself to working... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Du Bois characterizes black people as “a sort of seventh son,” cursed to live behind the veil.... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...American history has been shaped by the struggle to overcome the state of double consciousness. Du Bois emphasizes that this does not mean eradicating either the African or American side of black... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Du Bois examines how this “contradiction” manifests itself in the lives of different African American figures—the craftsman,... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
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...but all the prejudice and hardship they were forced to endure. However, at the time Du Bois is writing—forty years after Emancipation—it is clear that this has not been the case. America... (full context)
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Du Bois describes black peoples’ struggle to access education as unimaginably difficult, and notes that the goal... (full context)
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...of Emancipation—freedom, political power, and education—have failed to be realized, even though at the time Du Bois is writing they are needed more than ever. Du Bois argues that African Americans also... (full context)
Chapter 2: Of the Dawn of Freedom
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After a opening with a poem by James Russell Lowell, Du Bois begins this chapter by repeating the statement that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is... (full context)
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...fuel. This made each newly freed black person the “ward of the Nation,” a relationship Du Bois portrays as especially tense given the power dynamic present during slavery. The first Commissioner of... (full context)
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...a court of law when necessary, and helping freedmen draw up contracts with their employers. Du Bois identifies two major challenges the Bureau faced: firstly, the distribution of land to freedmen required... (full context)
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The climate of the South at the time was tumultuous; Du Bois describes it as akin to “waking from some wild dream to poverty and social revolution.”... (full context)
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...the dream of “forty acres and a mule” for every freed slave was not realized. Du Bois argues that the Bureau’s greatest success was in the area of education. Although there was... (full context)
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...people sought their own violent “revenge” on black people through beatings, rape, and lynching. However, Du Bois argues that although it is easy from a contemporary perspective to criticize the Bureau, at... (full context)
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Du Bois summarizes the work of the Bureau, arguing that it successfully put to use over $15... (full context)
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...particular matters so much as to the fact that it existed in the first place. Du Bois argues that had the Bureau not faced such widespread opposition from Southern whites, it could... (full context)
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Du Bois compares the premature death of the Bureau to that of a young person, and emphatically... (full context)
Chapter 3: Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
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...the phrase: “Know ye not / who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”. Du Bois then opens by claiming that the rise of Booker T. Washington is “the most striking... (full context)
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...Overall, Washington’s “singleness of vision and oneness with his age” made him highly successful, and Du Bois describes his widespread fame as akin to a “cult.” (full context)
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Du Bois admits that it is tempting not to criticize Washington, both because he achieved so much... (full context)
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Du Bois examines the history of African-American leadership, beginning with those who led slave uprisings and revolts... (full context)
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Du Bois criticizes Washington for withdrawing pressure for African-American civil rights at exactly the point when this... (full context)
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Du Bois criticizes this group of highly-educated black people for not vocalizing their oppositiontoWashington. He argues that... (full context)
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Du Bois presents his own modifications of Washington’s arguments. He claims that “slavery and race-prejudice are potent... (full context)
Chapter 4: Of the Meaning of Progress
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The chapter begins with a verse by the German writer Friedrich Schiller. Du Bois opens with the phrase “Once upon a time,” and goes on to recall a time... (full context)
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Du Bois found a school through Josie, “a thin, homely girl of twenty,” whom he met while... (full context)
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Du Bois describes the school where he chose to teach as run-down and poorly furnished. Josie attended... (full context)
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Du Bois recalls that on Friday nights he would stay with a farmer called Doc Burke and... (full context)
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Du Bois spent two summers teaching at the school and living “in this little world.” He describes... (full context)
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Ten years later, Du Bois returned to Tennessee to find that Josie was dead. This was only one of many... (full context)
Chapter 5: Of the Wings of Atlanta
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...Greenleaf Whittier, which includes the lines: “All are rising— / the black and white together.” Du Bois describes the city of Atlanta, lying “gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia.”... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that hard work and prosperity are the correct path to a better future for... (full context)
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Du Bois draws a parallel between the “death” of two figures: the honest, deferential slave, and the... (full context)
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Du Bois describes a cluster of beautiful, stately buildings: Atlanta University. This is where he lives, and... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that the biggest mistake made by the founders of Atlanta University was thinking that... (full context)
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Du Bois claims that the South is especially in need of universities at the moment, as the... (full context)
Chapter 6: Of the Training of Black Men
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...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... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that the racism of the South must be addressed seriously; it cannot be “laughed... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Du Bois identifies a problem with industrial schools—that they can treat people as no more than workers,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Du Bois admits that fifty years ago it would have been difficult to prove that black people... (full context)
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Du Bois says that if white and black people are to live alongside each other in a... (full context)
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Du Bois makes an impassioned argument that if white Southerners object to black people’s presence among them,... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that black colleges have three functions: to “maintain the standards of popular education,” help... (full context)
Chapter 7: Of the Black Belt
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The chapter begins with a quotation from the Biblical Song of Solomon. Du Bois describes arriving by train at a place south-west of Atlanta, “the centre of the Negro... (full context)
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The train stops in Albany, “the heart of the Black Belt.” Du Bois describes the bitter battle to seize the land from the Native Americans, and describes Albany... (full context)
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Moving his attention across the state, Du Bois compares the contemporary landscape to what existed in the past, pointing out that the plantations... (full context)
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Du Bois writes that the Black Belt is rich with history, but that its story is rarely... (full context)
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Du Bois describes a young black man of 22, who before the fall of cotton was successfully... (full context)
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Du Bois moves on to a neighboring area, where more white people live as well as African... (full context)
Chapter 8: Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece
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The chapter begins with a passage by William Vaughn Moody. Du Bois asks the reader if they have ever seen a cotton field “white with the harvest,”... (full context)
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In 1890, 10,000 black people live in the Black Belt, along with 2,000 whites. Du Bois notes that “the country is rich, but the people are poor,” and that debt dominates... (full context)
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...are smaller in size than they used to be, and few young people are married. Du Bois notes that it is common for couples to separate, and laments the “easy marriage and... (full context)
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Du Bois explains that all but about 10% of the black population of Dougherty Country is very... (full context)
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Having said this, Du Bois then returns to portraying the black community of Dougherty County in broad, statistical terms. He... (full context)
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Du Bois also describes the aggressive harassment and violence black people are forced to face in the... (full context)
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Du Bois explains that white employers refuse to improve the working conditions of black people, claiming that... (full context)
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Du Bois explains the different socioeconomic classes that exist among black people at the time he is... (full context)
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Du Bois notes that tax records suggest that there are no black landholders in Dougherty County, but... (full context)
Chapter 9: Of the Sons of Master and Man
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...Browning describing the way that people conduct their lives in intense proximity to each other. Du Bois describes this as a “world old phenomenon,” specifying that different races have always lived in... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that in the future, people ought to protect “the good, the beautiful, and the... (full context)
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Although Du Bois often speaks of the color line, it is usually impossible to draw an actual geographical... (full context)
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...South areaffected by the legacy of black people’s training as slaves, not as modern workers. Du Bois argues that, following Emancipation, it was the duty of someone (who exactly this should be... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that suffrage is one of the most important tools for working toward economic justice.... (full context)
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Du Bois claims that the question of suffrage is intimately tied with the problem of crime within... (full context)
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...As a result, the two groups are highly estranged from and intolerant of one another. Du Bois argues that this total separation of the races has been disastrous, as the problem of... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that although most Southern white people are deeply Christian, their behavior toward black people... (full context)
Chapter 10: Of the Faith of the Fathers
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...by the Victorian Scottish writer William Sharp, writing under the pen name of Fiona Macleod. Du Bois then returns to his days as a rural schoolteacher, describing one Sunday night far from... (full context)
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Du Bois claims that studying African-American religious practices is the only way to understand how those people... (full context)
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Du Bois describes the black church as the center of African-American social life. He explains how churches... (full context)
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Du Bois turns to the history of the black church, describing how African slaves initially practiced “nature-worship,”... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that Christianity was a uniquely appropriate faith for black slaves, who had been subjugated... (full context)
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In order to understand the contemporary black church, Du Bois says, it is important to remember that African-Americans live a “double life” inherently colored by... (full context)
Chapter 11: Of the Passing of the First-Born
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The chapter begins with a verse by Algernon Charles Swinburne. Du Bois writes in the first person, recalling the extraordinary moment when his son (Burghardt) was born.... (full context)
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In the wake of the baby’s death, Du Bois is desperate to work, even as he feels despair at the cruelty of death in... (full context)
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Du Bois notes that his son’s “otherworldly look” perhaps hinted that he would die before experiencing the... (full context)
Chapter 12: Of Alexander Crummell
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The quote that begins this chapter is by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Du Bois then announces: “This is the story of a human heart,” and introduces a black boy... (full context)
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Du Bois remarks on Crummell’s remarkable pilgrimage, and suggests that if the reader finds the riddle of... (full context)
Chapter 13: Of the Coming of John
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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... (full context)
Chapter 14: Of the Sorrow Songs
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The chapter begins with a verse from a Negro spiritual. Du Bois writes that as he has been writing this book, the Sorrow Songs sung by slaves... (full context)
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Du Bois tells of a man born in New York who served in the Freedmen’s Bureau, founding... (full context)
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Du Bois argues that the spiritual is the “articulate message of the slave to the world.” He... (full context)
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Du Bois names the songs with which he begins each chapter of the book, claiming that the... (full context)
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...a belief that justice will come, if not in this life then in the next. Du Bois wonders if this hope is justified. He notes that in the era in which he... (full context)
The Afterthought
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...that they hear his cry and that the book will not fall into the “wilderness.” Du Bois hopes that “the ears of a guilty people [will] tingle with truth,” and that human... (full context)