The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapter 13 : Of the Coming of John | Summary

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Summary

The single fictional chapter in this volume tells a story about two boys named John, both of whom grow up in the same small Southern town of Altamaha. The white judge's son John grows up playing with a black boy named John Jones, a respectful, good-natured, hardworking field hand. The judge's son goes to Princeton, making his father extremely proud, while the black community comes to the train station to see John Jones off to prep school. The white townspeople disapprove of a black boy seeking an education, and they say, "It'll spoil him—ruin him."

The people in Altamaha wait for the two Johns to come home, which neither does for several years, both of them finding life outside their limited town more interesting. John Jones has difficulty following the rules and norms of the boarding school, and he is suspended for the rest of the term. Determined to prove himself, he goes to the city to get a job and returns to school with a more serious work ethic. He graduates from the prep school and heads to college, growing into a man and becoming aware of and embittered by racial prejudice.

While in New York City to sing with a group from his school, John Jones gets swept up in a crowd of people and lands at a theatre performance of the German Romantic opera Lohengrin, sitting next to the Judge's son John. This John sees only that a black man is seated near him and asks the usher to remove him and refund him the money for his ticket. John Jones questions his decision to have struggled against his "manifest destiny" and decides to return home. When he arrives in Altamaha, the people barely recognize him. His friendliness is gone, and when he speaks at the church barbecue organized in his honor, his language is too erudite and none of the people gathered understand what he is saying. His little sister asks him that night, "Does it make everyone unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?" He tells her that it does but that he isn't sorry he has learned them.

John Jones decides to ask the Judge if he might teach at the black school in the town. The Judge sits him down and makes him promise that he will not "try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks' heads." John agrees. A month after the school opens, the Judge's son returns to Altamaha filled with contempt for his hometown. His father, who had hopes that his son would one day become the mayor of the town, is dismayed by John's desire to return to New York. When the Judge hears rumors that John Jones is not obeying Jim Crow etiquette in his classroom, he takes his frustration with his son out on John, firing him and closing the school. As John Jones is walking home, dejected and filled with anger, he sees his sister being sexually assaulted by the Judge's son. This is the last straw, and John Jones kills the young man with a tree branch, tells his mother he is going away to be free, and goes and sits on a tree stump waiting for the lynch mob to come for him.

Analysis

There is much irony in the fact that as John Jones sits waiting for his death he is humming what most refer to now as "Here Comes the Bride," or "The Song of the Bride" from Wagner's Lohengrin. This emphasizes how thoroughly altered John has been by Western higher education. He has become so elevated through his learning that he can no longer be understood by his own people, as we see at the church picnic, and here, what brings him comfort as he faces his untimely end is not the music of his own people—the "sorrow songs" to which Du Bois dedicates the next essay—but instead the strains of a foreign composer's bridal chorus. The disjointedness of this image speaks to the twoness Du Bois mentions throughout this book, and while Du Bois himself may never have faced a lynch mob, few of the feelings written into John Jones's character seem unfamiliar to their author.

The second stanza of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's ballade, "A Romance of the Ganges," is the epigraph for this short story. The themes of abandonment, longing, and betrayal are established with this choice, and the death knell of the story's conclusion is foreshadowed in the tune of this accompanying spiritual: "You may bury me in the East/ You may bury me in the West/ But I'll hear the trumpet sound in that morning./ In that morning my Lord,/ How I long to go/ For to hear the trumpet sound in that morning." It is subtly implied that this is the song John might have been singing at the end if he had never ventured off to the land of ideas. Had he never left, perhaps he would still be somewhat happily engaged with rural life in his little Southern town, but Du Bois shows in this story how profoundly human it is to want and seek knowledge. Even John Jones's little sister, after her brother confirms that learning leads everyone to unhappiness, tells him, "I wish I was unhappy, —and—and I think I am, a little, John."

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