The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapters 7–10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7: Of the Black Belt

Chapters 7 and 8 of The Souls of Black Folk were originally published as one article in World's Work, titled "The Negro As He Really Is." In the first, Du Bois writes as if the reader is sitting beside him on the train that carries him in the Jim Crow car through the heart of the "Black Belt" in Dougherty County, Georgia. Du Bois explains the history behind the fall of the "Cotton Kingdom" and its eventual replacement by the poverty and decay seen from the train. Old plantation houses lie in ruin, and the land is uncared for, with black tenant farmers struggling to eke out an existence. Du Bois imagines scenes from the history of the region, from its early native inhabitants who were "hushed" and "glided ... into the west," to the arrival of African slaves and the amassing of wealth on the cotton plantations, to the fall of the cotton empire—the "Egypt of the Confederacy."

Chapter 8: Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece

In "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece," Du Bois focuses on the economic reality that has kept the black tenant farmers in perpetual debt for generations. Connected to this hopeless situation is the moral decay that he observes in these impoverished communities. Du Bois provides detailed observations of the often deplorable living conditions of Southern black farmers resulting from the legacy of slavery and the contemporary tenant farming system. He examines slavery's legacy vis-à-vis its effects on the family structure of the Southern black population, as well as on education and crime, noting the ways that the current economic system perpetuates these problems.

Chapter 9: Of the Sons of Master and Man

The third of this group of essays, "Of the Sons of Master and Man," focuses on the history of the relationship between white and black society in the American South. Du Bois also describes features of different levels within African American society, and incorporates many statistics to back up his claims. He shows how because of segregation, "despite much physical contact and almost daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other." Thus, the color line keeps the best of both races from interacting, to the detriment of the entire country.

Chapter 10: Of the Faith of the Fathers

"Of the Faith of the Fathers" examines the history of African American churches, especially in the "Black Belt" of the South. Du Bois sees these churches as a microcosm of "all that great world from which the Negro is cut off by color prejudice and social condition." He finds it interesting that as a social institution, the black church "antedated by many decades the monogamic Negro home," making it, he claims, "the expression of the inner ethical life of the people." What troubles Du Bois is the extreme divergence of ethical tendencies characterized by African Americans in the North and South, the Northern group tending toward radicalism and the Southern group toward "hypocritical compromise." He notes that between the two extremes lies the majority of the African American population, and that the conflict between radicalism and compromise has begun to fracture the once unifying force of the black church.

Analysis

The literary allusion in the essay "The Quest of the Golden Fleece" is appropriate for two reasons: it is about a questing hero in search of gold and it is also about a cursed family. Du Bois draws a parallel between the wool fibers of Chrysomallus, the golden winged ram that Jason sought to complete his quest, and the cotton fibers that have brought gold to the textile industry in the South. Jason is the white Southerner in search of wealth, and his greed causes the crushing debt of the black workers forced into an endless cycle of toil without reward to line the pockets of profiteers. These four chapters demonstrate the tragic legacy of the slave system that propped up the booming cotton industry, from both economic and social perspectives, showing how contemporary segregation and discrimination perpetuates that legacy.

These four chapters also reveal in no uncertain terms the elitism that drives Du Bois's educational philosophy; and yet the thoroughness and compassion of his examination of the Black Belt never dehumanizes or undermines the value of his subjects. He strives always to give historical context and specific examples, which is what makes Du Bois such a formidable and persuasive voice in the field of sociology. The brief, intimate portraits of individual black Southerners that dot each of these chapters serve as reminders of the complex interiority of African Americans—as Du Bois notes, "we often forget that each unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul." The demonstration, defense, and uplift of that interiority—the souls of black folk—is the heart of Du Bois's project.

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