The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapter 3 : Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others | Summary



In Chapter 3 Du Bois presents the problematic consequences of the ideas presented in the "Atlanta Compromise," Booker T. Washington's 1895 speech promoting conciliation and lowered expectations for African Americans in an era of great economic development in the United States. Washington advocated a focus on public schools and industrial education to create a skilled work force that he felt would be better poised to accumulate wealth within the African American sectors of society. His own Tuskegee Institute provided such training; Washington deemed institutions of higher learning unnecessary for African American progress at that time and discouraged academic pursuits as a waste of energy. Washington also encouraged African Americans to develop habits of self-restraint, conducting themselves with self-respect in an effort to earn the esteem of white people. He saw black protest and demands for civil rights as counterproductive to the advancement of the race and went so far as to ask black people to give up any quest for political power.

Writing 15 years after Washington's policy had had a chance to take root, Du Bois notices three regressive trends in African American status that correspond directly to the rights and privileges Washington had asked black people to give up: the disfranchisement of the Negro, the legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro, and the steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

Du Bois argues that without political rights, equality under the law, and the ability to develop its most exceptional minds, a people cannot truly be expected to make effective economic progress. He argues further that acquiring wealth and property is meaningless if one doesn't have the ability to defend one's rights with respect to that property. He also points out that it is fine to insist on developing one's character and self-respect, but neither of these is possible if one is simultaneously taught emasculating submission and the acceptance of civic inferiority. Finally, Washington fails to consider that without higher education for African Americans, the public schools and industrial schools would cease to have qualified teachers to fulfill their missions.

Du Bois is not without some praise for Washington. He recognizes the value of "Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses," and he is impressed with the sheer scope of Washington's influence on both sides of the color-line in such a divided nation. But Du Bois is unerringly American, holding up and demanding access to the values that founded his country: "By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'"


In the epigraph for this essay, Du Bois invokes the slavery and tyranny of ancient times with three lines from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," a long narrative poem by the Romantic British poet Lord Byron (1788–1824): "From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned! ... /Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not/Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?" The lines speak to the emasculation of African American men perpetuated by the new version of economic slavery that the South created, and which Du Bois describes in this chapter. They suit Du Bois's essay about Booker T. Washington, which is a rallying cry to African Americans, encouraging them to put Washington's advice into perspective and to keep striving for their highest ideals and goals. Many aspects of Washington's perspective on race advancement did not sit well with Harvard-educated Du Bois, and he saw elements of shortsightedness in this program. Du Bois is on a mission for freedom, and he refuses to be passive and compliant within a racist society.

Throughout this essay Du Bois scatters the names of numerous noteworthy black men and women. He does so to call attention to the importance of recognizing and cultivating extraordinary talent when it emerges in any society. These people were part of the Talented Tenth that Du Bois spoke of so often—those educated and cultured individuals whom he saw as crucial to the advancement of the race. He wants to build on their legacy and sees Washington's plan for racial uplift as anathema to the progress they represent.

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