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The Souls of Black Folk Discussion/ General Reflection

The Unknown's picture

Write down general thoughts/ questions/ concerns about "The Souls of Black Folk" (3 mins)

Every1 is divided into groups of three and each group picks at least one quote to analyze in-depth

In groups, each teams gets 5 minutes 2 answer these questions:

  • What is DuBois trying 2 say here?
  • Who is his audience?
  • What is the significance of this quote in relation to the larger text?
  • How does this quote relate to what has been said before?
  • What parts of this quote do you disagree or agree with?

      Please represent, as a team your thoughts, reactions, and interpretations of the quote as you choose

  • The next group/team to present must incorporate at least one obvious aspect of the previous group/s ideas, thoughts, reactions, and performance.
    • 5 mins 2 determine how 2 incorporate aspect

 Then come back as a collective for a larger discussion (time remaining)



     These are some of the quotes that stood out to me most throughout the reading. Please choose 1 or 2 to think about and take notes on to discuss in class. Please also feel free to bring in any of your own quotes.

  • “One ever feels his two-ness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, tow thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (8-9).
  • “Away back in the days of bondage they thought to see in one divine event the end of all doubt and disappointment; few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries” (10).
  • “If, however, the vistas disclosed as yet no goal, no resting-place little but flattery and criticism, the journey at last gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” (12).
  • “Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility” (14)
  • “Peremptory military commands, this way and that, could not answer the query; the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro problems of to-day” (16)
  • “But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking them” (20)
  • “And of that work it has been truly said that ‘no approximately correct history of civilization can ever be written which does not throw out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks of political and social progress, the organization and administration of the Freedom’s Bureau” (22)
  • “The very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and better men had refused even to argue,-that life amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments” (26)
  • “Almost every law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,-to make them the Slaves of the State, if not of individual owners; while the Bureau officials too often were found striving to put the ‘bottom rail on top,’ and give the freedmen a power and independence which they could not yet use” (30)
  • “Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there was scarcely  a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty” (33)
  • “In the backwoods of the Gulf States, for miles and miles, he may not leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh the whole South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary” (34)
  • “What the black laborer needs is careful personal guidance, group leadership of men with hearts in their bosoms, to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty. Nor does it require any fine-spun theories of racial differences to prove the necessity of such group training after the brains of the race have been knocked out by two hundred and fifty years of assiduous education in submission, carelessness, and stealing” (122)
  • “We argued, as we thought then rather logically, that no social class was so good, so true, and so disinterested as to be trusted wholly with the political destiny of its neighbors; that in every state the best arbiters of their own welfare are the persons directly affected; consequently that it is only by arming every hand with a ballot,-with the right to have a voice in the policy of the state,- that the greatest good to the greatest number could be attained” (126)
  • “I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that  a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world’s battles alone” (128)
  • “What is thus true of all communities is peculiarly true of the South, where, outside of written history and outside of printed law, there has been going on for a generation as deep a storm and stress of human souls, as intense a ferment of feeling, as intricate a writhing of spirit, as ever a people experienced” (131)
  • “Indeed, on the question of questions-he Negro problem-he hears so little that there almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence; the morning papers seldom mention it, and then usually in a far-fetched academic way, and indeed almost every one seems to forget and ignore the darker half of the land, until the astonished visitor is inclined to ask if after all there is any problem here” (132)
  • “Thus the temptation of Hate grew and shadowed the growing child,-gilding stealthily into his laughter, fading into his play, and seizing his dreams by day and night with rough, rude turbulence” (157)
  • “And if you find that riddle hard to read, remember that yonder black boy finds it just a little harder; if it is difficult for you to find and face your duty, it is a shade more difficult for him; if your heart sickens in the blood and dust of battle, remember that to him the dust is thicker and the battle fiercer” (163).
  • “He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been granted with a laugh” (169)
  • “If he but had some master-work, some life-service, hard,-aye, bitter hard, but without the cringing and sickening servility, without the cruel hurt that hardened his heart and soul” (171).
  • “Perhaps,’ said John, as he settled himself on the train, ‘perhaps I am to blame myself in struggling against my manifest destiny simply because it looks hard and unpleasant” (172)
  • “Every step he made offended some one. He had come to save his people, and before he left the depot he had hurt them. He sought to teach them at the church, and had outraged their deepest feelings” (175).
  • “And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song- the rhythmic cry of the slave-stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people” (180-181)
  • “The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words, and in it we can trace here and there signs of development” (182)
  • “Like all primitive folk, the slave stood near to Nature’s heart” (185)
  • “The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristic change when they enter the mouth of the slave” (187)
  • “Before the Pilgrims landed we were here, Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song-soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit” (189)

Personal Thoughts and Reflections

  • Black men’s contribution to United States’ history has been greatly misrepresented and erased
  • The “American Negro” does not want to lose his/her/their connection to his/her/their past in the process of improving him/her/ theirself è Denouncing/separating from one’s past
  • Stereotypes about black people are a combination of their own struggles and criticism
  • In order to question white people, one must understand their language and in some way ways acquire their voice
  • The issues that society struggles with might take on new meanings, forms, but they pervade in many ways.
  • W.E.B. Dubois claims that slavery was the cause of the civil war (16)
  • Army officers asked authority to assist them in shaping their own morality/ understanding of the place of black lives (18)
  • Often history focuses on southern racism and the benefits for African Americans of emancipation
  • After emancipation, ex-slaves or presumed blacks were free, but economically dependent and insecure
  • What were the significances, repercussions, challenges of emancipation- reorganizing society
  • The North argued for ex-slaves to own the land they worked on in the South (23)
  • The Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created to help integrate freed slaves into society, could not have succeeded  (26)
  • The white North, after helping free the slaves, wanted to use the former slaves for their own benefit: low-wage labor (27)
  • Freedmen officials were targeted by 2 extremes: those who demanded more social services 4 African Americans + those who wanted 2 return 2 slavery (28)
  • Du Bois thinks that the most important achievement of the Freedmen’s Bureau was creating free schools and elementary education 4 every1 in South
  • Very little aid from US gov 4 education + 2 help former slaves integrate in2 society (29)
  • Former slaves who fought in the Civil War were given $ (30)
  • 1 of the major roles of the FB was preventing violence against former slaves (30)
  • The White South wanted 2 continue slavery, former slaves wanted financial + physical security, so they could have more opportunities 2 prosper + become successful in “US” territory, society (30)
  • FB took on the weight of all evils of slavery, the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, + giving freed slaves an opportunity 2 participate in society (31)
  • Q of the right 2 vote vs. continuing slavery; if black ppl r freed, than they must be given the right 2 vote (33)
  • Southern stance on emancipation/ integration of black ppl in2 society (33)
  • Reasons 4 limits of success of FB + what FB should have done 2 give blacks more = opportunity in society (34)
  • Restrictions of FB were partially limited b/c of FB (34)
  • Struggles of “freed” slaves in the South after the passing of the EP (34)
  • DuBois supports the idea of the survival of the fittest: individuality (120)
  • Gentrification- racism (121)
  • Confrontation + interaction also worsens race relations, opportunities 4 black ppl çè If whites + blacks see each other it is in the news or b/c of violence/ conflict, the portrayal of each race often leads 2 negative stereotypes/ assumptions (121)
  • White ppl can not relate 2/ understand racism/slavery- lack of experience, privilege, blindness (121)
  • White inherent racism (122)
  • Brains of blacks have been destroyed by slavery, abuse, racism (122)
  • DuBois is anti-Semitic + blames black ppl’s struggles on Jews, especially the 1s in the South 4 exploiting black folk (124)
  • Black ppl should build their own communities, improve their own economic situations, education, understanding (125)
  • Great justification 4 national suffrage (126)
  • How white ppl viewed black suffrage (126)
  • He claims US can’t be a republic + not give black ppl the right 2 vote (127)
  • Taxation w/o representation (128)
  • Makes general statements about black ppl's struggles- most difficult challenges (131)
  • Silencing: little mention of black struggles, challenges (132)
  • Black womyn took care of white womyn’s children (133)
  • No exchange/ interchange of ideas btwn blacks + whites (133)
  • Media/ news does not accurately portray “black ppl” (133)
  • South is very steadfast in its ways (133)
  • Segregation (134)
  • White ppl blame black ppl 4 white ppl’s immoral + unjust society, natural tendencies, behavior (135)
  • Thoughts/ struggles of black children (156)
  • Episcopal church has no desire 2 end racism (159)
  • Black ppl began 2 be church leaders (159)
  • My struggle is not as difficult as many other ppl’s challenges (163)
  • Black + white ppl can not understand each other’s thoughts (167)
  • Boy grow up + begins 2 learn about the ways he is oppressed (169)
  • Work w/ morality + humility (171)
  • Finally there is an opportunity 2 achieve equity, equality, legitimacy, 2 end racism (173)
  • Teaching is also about giving ppl a platform 2 speak + express themselves (175)
  • Black ppl r told 2 remain in their subordinate position- maintain balance + “peace” in society (175)
  • Ironically, white ppl support + create systems that hinder black ppl’s access 2 a diverse thoughtful, + changing education (177)
  • Master demands affection from his servants (178)
  • Cumulative racism/ anger (178)
  • Cultural appropriation of slaves in2 white, US music (184)
  • Messages are veiled (185)
  • Common thread of black spirituals (185)
  • He paints the “Negroes” as almost god-like, super-humyn, better than average, superior (187)
  • How is this possible? (189)
  • Black ppl’s gifts 2 US (189)

Possible Directions for Paper:

- What are the literary advantages and disadvantages of characterizing and defending a group of people as "American Negroes" and dwelling on their similarities?

* Shared cultural experiences/ history/ struggles

- What is DuBois' main goal/ reason for writing this book? Who is his audience?

- How can one defend a group of people, justify their actions, and provide solutions/alternatives, which is part of what I see DuBois trying to do, without categorizing people?

-He often yearns for racial independence and self-sustainability, but race is a social construct, therefore how he determines who belongs to what race is somewhat arbitrary.

-How soes DuBois question and support/use individuality in his conclusions?


smalina's picture

Wow, so much here! It looks like you have a lot to weed through, and I'm sure your presentation in class made it more clear of what direction you're going in--and hopefully members of the class who were present brought up some interesting thoughts and ideas.

I'm struck by the questions you raise about Du Bois's generalizing: naming the "American Negroes" as a group, and his dreams for racial independence and self-sustainability for an identity group that you deem a social construct. It's certainly an interesting lens to use in entering the piece and Du Bois's thoughts. However, I wonder if your emphasis on the constructed-ness of race in some ways deligitimizes the experiences of those about whom Du Bois is speaking, who may be working to reclaim their racial identifier and imbue it with positive connotations. 

I've raised similar questions myself, in thinking about gender in particular--if gender is a social construct, then why do we continue to emphasize its significance? It struck me that it MUST be emphasized, in order to call out and deal with the injustices committed against the marginalized factions divided by this "construct." It makes me think of a book I read last semester by Beatriz Preciado, called Testo Junkie. Preciado quotes Teresa de Lauretis:

"It seemed to me that gender was not the simple derivation of anatomical/biological sex but a sociocultural construction, a representation, or better, the compounded effect of discursive and visual representations which I saw emanating from various institutions--the family, religion, the educational system, the media, medicine, or law--but also from less obvious sources: language, art, literature, film, and so on. However, the constructed-ness or discursive nature of gender does not prevent it from having real implications, or concrete effects, both social and subjective, for the material life of individuals. On the contrary, the reality of gender is precisely in the effects of its representation; gender is realized, becomes "real" when that representation becomes a self-representation, is individually assumed as a form of one's social and subjective identity" (Lauretis qtd. in Preciado, 108-09). 

I love this idea that identity "becomes real" when it becomes a mode of self-representation and reclaimation. How could we apply that here? While I see that there are problematic elements to the assumption that all black people in America have "the black experience" (and there are always silencing elements to these prominent narratives for those who don't experience them), there is certainly something to be valued here. 

abby rose's picture

  • Confrontation + interaction also worsens race relations, opportunities 4 black ppl çè If whites + blacks see each other it is in the news or b/c of violence/ conflict, the portrayal of each race often leads 2 negative stereotypes/ assumptions (121)
  • No exchange/ interchange of ideas btwn blacks + whites (133)
  • Media/ news does not accurately portray “black ppl” (133)

These bullets that you've pulled out of DuBois' text are hard to reconcile. I think that interaction among whites and blacks is a necessary component to combatting racism and these interactions are complicated when they are entered with stereotypes and prejudice in the background of everyone's mind. And when an encounter is entered into with those mindsets, it can be difficult to see an individual outside of the framework of their race. But it's not impossible, and it's murkier than that... I think there could and should be a more deliberate deconstruction of prejudices. But who wouldn't want that? The question I think is when can this deliberate deconstruction happen, who should it happen with, and how? How intentional does it need to be? Can it be? And who would have access to engage critically like this?