The Souls of Black Folk


W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk: Metaphors 5 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 1: Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Explanation and Analysis—Sturm and Drang:

Toward the end of Chapter 1, Du Bois bemoans the fact that, in his day and age, the bright ideals of the past—Black education and advancement, equal rights, civic responsibility—have largely gone by the wayside as the grim reality of stubborn systemic racism has set in. He employs metaphor to detail his feelings on the matter:

So dawned the time of Sturm and Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks our little boat on the mad waters of the world-sea; there is within and without the sound of conflict, the burning of body and the rending of soul; inspiration strives with doubt, and faith with vain questionings.

This metaphor conveys the tumultuous nature of Black Americans' predicament in Du Bois's eyes—constantly embroiled in disaster and unable to breathe long enough to find their way through the storm. Interestingly, Du Bois chooses to refer to the "storm" and "stress" undergone by the modern Black community as "Sturm" and "Drang"—respectively, the German counterparts for both words. This is an unsubtle way of revealing Du Bois's level of education to his audience: an audience which, ironically, would consist primarily of his white, wealthy, and literate schoolfellows, and exclude his mostly illiterate Black subjects.

Chapter 2: Of the Dawn of Freedom
Explanation and Analysis—Fly in the Ointment:

In Chapter 2, Du Bois gives an overview of the Freedmen's Bureau's efforts to assist recently liberated Black Americans during the Reconstruction era, immediately following the Civil War. In an excerpt from this section included below, Du Bois utilizes both metaphor and idiom to emphasize for the reader just how ineffective these efforts were:

The agents that the Bureau could command varied all the way from unselfish philanthropists to narrow-minded busybodies and thieves; and even though it be true that the average was far better than the worst, it was the occasional fly that helped spoil the ointment.

In the above metaphor, Du Bois attempts to diagnose what went wrong with Reconstruction, stating that certain thieves operated as "flies" in the "ointment," spoiling the project of Reconstruction for all those benevolent actors who hoped to make a difference. Likening these "thieves" and "narrow-minded busybodies" to flies helps emphasize just how much of a nuisance these men were: buzzing around the heads of those well-meaning members of the Freedmen's Bureau, distracting them from their task of enacting meaningful change for the benefit of the Black community. Du Bois's use of a popular idiom in this passage simply underscores his point, rendering the obstacles faced by the Freedman's Bureau understandable to anyone who has ever had a fly spoil something.

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Chapter 3: Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
Explanation and Analysis—Contradicting Washington:

Over the course of Chapter 3, Du Bois dismantles Washington's pacifying rhetoric, observing the very real damage it can inflict in the long term. To emphasize the ever-evolving, extended nature of this damage, Du Bois employs the following metaphor:

We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white.

In the above passage, Du Bois compares the current trajectory of this rhetoric to seeds that would germinate into a "harvest of disaster." Tracing this metaphor's narrative from start to finish reveals its effectiveness: at the outset, a seed appears rather nondescript, just as Washington's tactics of appeasement appear harmless—desirable, even. As the seed develops into a plant, it grows larger and larger; and over time, several such seeds beget a harvest of fruit far greater than one might expect from such small objects. Du Bois asserts that, like seeds, Washington's politics of appeasement will blossom into a bountiful "harvest of disaster," resulting in the "industrial slavery" and "civic death" of Black men and their future children. Du Bois extends this disaster to encompass Black and white children alike, observing that the continued oppression resulting from Washington's stagnant pacifism harms Black people directly and society generally.

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Chapter 5: Of the Wings of Atlanta
Explanation and Analysis—Black People as Children:

Toward the beginning of Chapter 5, Du Bois situates the entire "race" of Black Americans in an inferior position to their white counterparts, using an infantilizing metaphor to do so:

In the soul-life of the land [the Black man] is today, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, half-forgotten; and yet when he does come to think and will do it for himself, — and let no man dream that day will never come — then the part he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race-childhood.

Du Bois expresses his concern at the prospect of Black people "learning" bad habits in their "race-childhood," focusing on earning money and acquiring material goods as opposed to learning for the sake of knowledge. Unfortunately, Du Bois infantilizes his fellow Black Americans in this passage, playing into themes of primitivism and barbarism generally used to stereotype and discriminate against people of color. In Du Bois's mind, the entirety of Black America must learn from their "parent," white Americans, who have developed as the "more advanced" race by comparison. To modern readers, this rhetoric is troubling; and it is very thinly veiled eugenic reasoning, at that.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Flower of Freedom:

Du Bois takes care to imbue Chapter 5 of The Souls of Black Folk with a multitude of literary references and a generous smattering of figurative language. One particular simile stands out, nestled within a broader allusion to the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes:

Must this, and that fair flower of Freedom which, despite the jeers of latter-day striplings, sprung from our fathers' blood, must that too degenerate into a dusty quest of gold, — into lawless lust with Hippomenes?

In the above passage, Du Bois uses simile to compare the freedom of formerly enslaved Black Americans to a flower—one that, after growing out of the bloodshed and pain of their forefathers, will wilt (or "degenerate," a term taken from eugenic writing) should Black Americans make wealth and material prosperity their goal. Du Bois worries that his comrades would choose money over true freedom. The quest for material wealth, he asserts, is misleading and will not accomplish the end goal of lifting all Black Americans out of abject poverty. Rather, the focus should be on career development, education, civic participation, and the strengthening of the family—all things Black people were denied before Emancipation, and prevented from developing in the period immediately following the war.

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