The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5: Of the Wings of Atalanta

Using the Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes as a metaphor for the city of Atlanta, Georgia, Du Bois gives the people of Atlanta a choice: to honor the god of material wealth or the god of spiritual and intellectual wealth. In the myth the swift maiden Atalanta declares that she will only marry a man who can beat her in a footrace. Many fail, but clever Hippomenes tries to distract her by dropping three golden apples in her path. By the time she pauses to look at the third apple, he is able to overtake and seduce her, and both are cursed for profaning the temple of Aphrodite. Du Bois personifies the city of Atlanta as a maiden corrupted by the greed for gold, dubbing her "Queen of the cotton kingdom" and "the new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world." Using synecdoche (a part representing a whole), Du Bois alludes to the Three Fates of the ancient Greeks: Clotho, who spun the thread of life, Lachesis, who measured it, and Atropos who cut it. His allusion melds the image of the Fates with that of the booming textile mills in Atlanta, spinning and weaving cotton for the rest of the world.

Chapter 6: Of the Training of Black Men

After establishing the misplaced values of the city of Atlanta, Du Bois strives to make his case for the critical place of education in "Of the Training of Black Men." He outlines the historical development of Southern education and shows how limited and limiting it has been. Connecting to the themes of the previous essay, he sees the black man of Booker T. Washington's vision as never more than an industrial pawn. To counter this idea he protests the fact that in the South "an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black." He closes by pointing out that education is what allows black people to see "above the Veil," noting that this is, perhaps, why white America fears and distrusts the enterprise of educating African Americans.

Analysis

The penultimate stanza of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Howard at Atlanta" is the epigraph for Du Bois's essay "Of the Wings of Atalanta." The poem's title refers to Union General Oliver Howard (1830–1909), nicknamed "The Christian General" because of his evangelical faith and commitment to the welfare of African Americans. Appointed commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865, Howard was also the founder of the historically black Howard University in 1867. Whittier's poem, written two years later, praises Howard's optimistic vision of racial coexistence, saying "They are rising—all are rising—/The black and white together!" The overall nature of this "rising" seems spiritual and lofty, just as Du Bois's essay lifts up the value of higher culture and learning.

The musical notation beneath Whittier's poem belongs to the spiritual "O Rocks Don't Fall on Me," which imagines the Day of Judgment: "The trump shall sound, and the dead shall rise./ Rocks and mountains, don't fall on me./ And go to mansions in the skies./ Rocks and mountains, don't fall on me." As the trumpet in the spiritual invites the people to the "mansions in the skies," Du Bois in these essays is sounding a trumpet to invite bright African American minds to the mansions of higher education, encouraging them to refute the materialism that threatens to compromise the soul of Atlanta and of the whole nation.

Indeed, he sees education as not only a right to which African Americans should have access, but also the means through which the "problem of the color-line" can be most properly addressed. Du Bois argues that in uplifting African Americans, encouraging healthy contact between the races, and working to counter material greed, education for black people will serve the entire country.

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