U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk

This week and last in my Paideia course, I had the opportunity of choosing my own “open unit” text. This summer when asked, I looked around for a shortish, important text that I knew fairly well and choose The Souls of Black Folk.  I remembered from it his mind-blowing description of double consciousness, “two-ness” and The Veil that I had encountered as an undergrad. I remembered how many other books and memoirs have referenced those concepts. I remembered the debate with Booker T. Washington and the heart-rending discussion of the loss of his first-born. Seemed like a great text to introduce to undergrads.

What I forgot is how hard it would be for freshmen to read the text. Du Bois has a very florid, Victorian style and uses words that the freshmen are not familiar with.

So how am I dealing with these difficulties? I tried to listen to this roundtable with David Levering Lewis on How to Teach The Souls of Black Folk, but I found the sound trying. It seemed like it would be a great resource, so it is too bad about the sound. Then I decided to focus on a few key concepts (especially as I had to develop paper topics for last Friday’s class. Their rough drafts are due this Friday and their final drafts due next Friday. With a library day Monday and presentations on library day Wednesday, last Friday was the first day we really started to delve into the text.

So…major concepts. Double Consciousness. The Veil. Library day I had them search for books and articles in groups that used the concepts. My point was that they were long-lasting and significant ideas that have persisted for a century and more. And that many African Americans still feel like they live with double consciousness and life within the Veil. In order to encourage the understanding of these concepts as conflict for the individual, but also a powerful insight–“gifted with second sight”–I called it a super power. One of my few black students pointed out that it is educated black people who have the super power. I thought that was perceptive, particularly because I think that educated black people, who move between white and black worlds more frequently, experience double consciousness more than black people who live primarily within black communities (even though whites still intrude in the form of tv and institutional power structures). One of my white students seemed affronted that Du Bois was suggesting blacks had this insight into the white and black sides of the Veil while whites do not.

I brought in some contemporary reactions to Double Consciousness and The Veil from this book, which is a collection of interviews and memoir responses to Du Bois’s work. That somewhat helped open up the two concepts, although one class did better with it than the other.

The next thing I did was break them up into pairs and have them take on individual chapters. That allowed me to walk through the room and work with some of the struggling students on what their chapter meant. I told them to go to the back of the chapter first, as Du Bois tends to flourish in the beginning and explain by the end. We went through sentence by sentence and that seemed to help.

Monday I had the groups report on their findings. They seemed to get the main points when the text was divided up in this way. I even had a couple of students say they loved the lyricism and symbolism of certain chapters.

Here are the topics I decided to offer for their papers. Too many, I know, but so far at least one student has picked each one of them……

  1. Souls of Black Folk was written in 1903, almost forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. How had life for African Americans changed and stayed the same according to Du Bois?
  2. What was the “Veil” in Du Bois’ formulation and how did he use it throughout the book?
  3. What was Du Bois’ theory of education? Do you agree with him about the importance of a liberal arts education?
  4. Explain the debate between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. Which man do you agree with and why?
  5. What was “Double Consciousness” to Du Bois? How did he experience it? How have others experienced it?
  6. What did the “Sorrow Songs” mean to Du Bois? Why does he start each chapter with one?

P.S. I’d not thought before about how odd “Of the Coming of John” is in the context of Du Bois’ great apologia for the liberal arts education. Here is a fictional piece about a young man profoundly changed by a liberal arts education, but there is no where he can fit–the north rejects him as much as the south. He finally returns to the small Georgian town of his birth, where he commits murder to save his sister from rape. The last sentence is “The world whistled in his ears”–he is lynched. How does that fit into the notion that the liberal arts educated Talented Tenth would help solve the “race problem”?

The After-Thought

             Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful dead to reap the harvest wonderful. (Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare.) Thus in Thy good time may infinite reason turn the tangle straight, and these crooked marks on a fragile leaf be not indeed

The End

Someone should write a book about white people and race and title it “Ears Tingling with Truth.”

    10 Thoughts on this Post

    1. especially since you mention “The Coming of John,” I wonder if *Souls* wouldn’t be a good object for students to think about the uses of fiction and form or genre more generally. certainly this is one thing i find fascinating about it. why insert a fiction into this book? what is it doing there? what does it tell you that an essay–the other essays–do not? in some ways you’re already asking with the sorrow songs, so maybe it can be presented as a simple pendant to that question?

      in any case, i think i would try to explain the relation of Du Bois’ defense of liberal arts and “The Coming of John” in terms of the different kinds of truth that fictions can give you–or, maybe, different kinds of access to the same truth? a universal truth?

    2. Lauren: I’ve only ever read, or been exposed, to snippets from *The Souls of Black Folk*. As such, this discussion on teaching the book is extremely helpful to me. It sounds like a book that cannot be read today, by the common person or college student, without some professional guidance. True? Can it be read without a professor on hand?

      I ask, in part, because this is The Book cited by many African-American critics (esp. Gates, Jr.) of the canon, as it existed in the late 1980s, as one that should have been included. Their arguments emerged after both the Stanford Debates and the publication of the 1990 edition of Britannica’s *Great Books of the Western World*.

      When are your students’ papers due? Will you reflect on them here? – TL

      • Hmmmm good question. There are chapters in the book that are history and sociology and if you have a good vocabulary you can follow them. But the most important chapter, the first one, is a challenge for white readers. They need to put themselves in the position of a black person. I eagerly tried to do that in undergrad so I think that’s why I connected to the book. But I think it’s taken me years of study to appreciate the full implications of the meaning of double consciousness.

        Ack I’m late. More later.

      • Thanks Lauren. I look forward to whatever feedback from students you feel you can give here (in an abstracted, generalized way that of course protects their FERPA rights).

    3. Of course The Souls of Black Folk can be read by the common person and the college student alike — as much as Emerson or William James can be. Indeed, DuBois’s text should be read along with those two authors.

      Stylistically, I would not call DuBois’s prose florid, nor even Victorian. His prose is stately, measured, balanced and sonorous — it fairly sings from the page, and it rewards reading aloud. Stylistically, he is closer to Emerson than to James, though the deepest well he draws from in terms of prose style is, I think, the King James Bible. (Of course, that’s a spring that fed Emerson and James too.)

      I wish I had encountered DuBois’s text earlier in my academic career. As it is, I am on my second time through Souls at the graduate level, and very glad for that.

      I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.

      If we are going to ask undergraduates to read anything at all, we might as well ask them to read this. I am so glad that Lauren is doing just that.

      • Of course there’s “reading” and there’s READING. I was referring to the latter—actually getting a fair amount out of the reading: ideas, concepts, allusions, aesthetics, etc. Most importantly, to me however, is that it seems that book is definitely accessible via a deeper book-group-style reading where the text is discussed and its meanings chased after. – TL

      • Thanks Lauren. I have a feeling that your description and mine are pointing to the same thing: a kind of discourse that is not part of the everyday experience of most undergrads. However, you’ll be able to help them through the text. And it’s possible that students at a Lutheran SLAC might find it easier to acclimate to DuBois’s style than the undergrad population more generally.

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