The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapter 4 : Of the Meaning of Progress | Summary



This personal essay is about the community where Du Bois held his first teaching position in the hills of rural Tennessee. Fresh out of school and ready for employment, Du Bois strikes out on the road in search of a town that needs a teacher. He encounters Josie, "a thin, homely girl of about twenty" who enthusiastically steers him to her town, telling him "that she herself longed to learn." The families send their children to the log-hut schoolhouse for lessons when they aren't needed for farming or other family chores, and Du Bois spends time with all of them. He writes, "I ... grew to love them for their honest efforts to be decent and comfortable." His attention is drawn most to Josie, however, whose promising mind, commitment to her studies, and ambition to go to school one day in the big city of Nashville make her stand out as one of the Talented Tenth for whom Du Bois advocates access to higher education.

In the latter part of the essay, Du Bois returns to this Tennessee town a decade later to find his old schoolhouse replaced by an ugly new structure and the lives of the people he had known much transformed. He makes his way around the town visiting the farms of his former students and is surprised to find out that Ben and Tildy, two students he never expected to amount to much, are among the most financially secure. What pains him the most is learning that Josie died after sacrificing her energy, money, and time to hold her family together despite their mistakes and misfortunes. As he considers this place that had worked its way into his heart ten years earlier, Du Bois writes, "How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real!"


The play Die Jungfrau von Orleans (The Maid of Orleans) by Friedrich Schiller is the source of this chapter's epigraph. Du Bois chose lines spoken by Johanna (Joan of Arc), at a moment in the play when she feels burdened by her conflicted soul because she finds herself inclined to go against her mission and spare the life of an English knight. The faithful heroism and kindheartedness of Johanna echoes in what Du Bois writes of Josie, the tragic heroine of his essay: "She seemed to be the center of the family: always busy at service ... faithful ... like her father. She had about her a certain fineness, the shadow of an unconscious moral heroism that would willingly give all of life to make life broader, deeper, and fuller for her and hers." Johanna's self-sacrifice is also echoed in the fact that Josie, once so full of love and life and promise, dies heartbroken and alone after giving everything to her family.

Du Bois tells us that the music accompanying this epigraph is from the spiritual "My Way's Cloudy," which he describes as "a song of groping." Its refrain speaks to the difficulty for African Americans to follow a clear path to their goals or destinations, littered as that path often is with obstacles of poverty, misfortune, and discrimination: "Oh brethren my way,/My way's cloudy my way,/Go send them angels down." What should have been a path to success, paved for Josie by the learning Du Bois made possible for her, ended up being another sad story of a black family beaten down by unfair laws and circumstance stacked against them. Even Du Bois himself, after visiting the town in which he had once been a schoolteacher, finds himself "sadly musing" as he "rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car."

His descriptions of the people he came to know and love in rural are observant and compassionate, and demonstrate Du Bois's deft intermingling of his personal voice with his sociologist's perspective. Here and in other essays, Du Bois uses this powerful rhetorical approach to draw the (white) reader in to the lives of black people.

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