The Souls of Black Folk by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

Introduction

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an African American writer who is known for his collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk. This work can be treated as a sociological history, as it reveals issues and disparities associated with race and racial discrimination. “Of the Coming of John” is a unique work because it focuses on the plight of the diverse American population. Du Bois develops his work and uses numerous stylistic devices to reveal how different blacks and whites are. He creates two characters named John to increase the feeling of equality between human beings but emphasizes that the color of their skin determines their future regardless of their characteristics and deeds. His writing is based on the use of symbolism, which allows the author to speak about a whole community that is personified in one character. Thus, Du Bois reveals a critical gap between African American and European American populations, referring to symbolism to make his readers look for connotative meaning associated with the lives of two Johns, which proves that American society cannot reach meritocracy because blacks remain deprived and discriminated even after the abolition of slavery.

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Du Bois’ perception of the situation in the country supports the notion of an imagined community. This idea, developed by Anderson, presupposes a combination of “actual inequality and exploitation” that can be observed along with people’s desire to be part of a tightly-knit society and experience the feeling of belonging (7). In this way, “Of the Coming of John” reveals both tight connections between two races as well as a discrepancy between their opportunities in life. The black community in this work is represented by servants and individuals who cannot even realize how limited they are because of the dominance of whites. Nevertheless, they live side by side with European Americans and seem to be similar to them. Thus Du Bois uses literary symbolism to show that meritocracy remains a dream for Americans because blacks are not free and equal to whites since they suffer discrimination and deprivation. To support this point, this paper will analyze the names, descriptions, words, thoughts, and actions of the characters named John. Finally, the concluding discussion will identify whether the thesis has been confirmed or not.

Power of Names

Du Bois pays much attention to the racism that is evident in America even after the abolition of slavery. In this work, “Of the Coming of John,” the author emphasizes that skin color is the major reason that the population of the USA is divided. To support this idea, the author creates two characters and discusses their lives. What is interesting about them is that they turn out to be opposites of each other, although their relationship is not that of the protagonist and antagonist. These are two Johns who live in the same city and seem to have similar opportunities. However, the realities of America in the 20th century make them very contrasting individuals. Blackmon discusses the life of Americans in the same period, but he focuses on the positive emotions between a black bride and a groom (13). His characters have ordinary names (Henry and Mary) that bear no connotation, which proves that they are not symbolic.

The main character of the story is the Black John. This young man has African roots, which affects the color of his skin and suggests that Du Bois provided him with the name for a purpose. First of all, the author wants his readers to differentiate this character from others. Thus he adds a kind of surname so that he is not just “John,” and the possibility of confusing the discussion of his life with the life of another John is minimized. In the same way, the White John obtains his name and can be easily differentiated from the rest of the characters who appear in “The Coming of John.” The function of differentiation is the easiest to recognize while analyzing the story.

Secondly, with the help of names, Du Bois allows his readers to understand the characters’ race and their background. By calling him “Black,” the author wants to underline that the man is African American and that he differs from European Americans. Due to their initial knowledge, readers can imagine the protagonist and add some characteristics that are not mentioned by the author to his description. For instance, some people may think of the most typical physical traits of African Americans and imagine a particular haircut, physical constitution, or facial features. As a result, they can understand the author’s message better and become involved in the plot, which makes them more interested and enthusiastic to read the story to the end. By using “White”, Du Bois also encourages his audience to think of the most typical European American, who has fair hair, skin, and eyes. Also, people may think of his arrogance or desire to be better than others. Thus the author selects names that have connotations and that expand the perception of the characters.

Finally, with the help of names, Du Bois makes his characters symbolize the whole community. In particular, the Black John represents all blacks, who are also known as African Americans, while the White John speaks for all European Americans. One person symbolizes an ethnic group, which provides the author with an opportunity to discuss particular cases and provide concrete examples instead of giving only general information. Even though Blackmon’s characters have different names, they seem to represent the whole community as well. The author introduces them as “a man” and “a woman, a slave girl no more,” which makes them look rather ordinary but representative (Blackmon 13). In this way, both Du Bois and Blackmon use their characters as symbols to encourage their readers to analyze the texts and think of the ways the meaning of a particular trait, event, or action can be extended.

As the two main characters in “Of the Coming of John” have the same name, the author can emphasize their similarities as human beings. However, additional differentiation is observed through the emphasis of their ethnic background. Adding the race of the characters to their names, Du Bois makes his readers realize that the population of the USA is divided and that individual achievements are not significant. In this way, he hints at the absence of meritocracy and shows that domination is based on the color of people’s skin.

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Symbolic Descriptions

“Of the Coming of John” is full of extended descriptions that provide readers with an opportunity to use their imaginations actively and create the world developed by Du Bois in their minds. The author uses a wide range of stylistic devices to make his work more colorful and to simplify perception. Due to the use of symbolism associated with the main characters, he can reveal the situation in the USA, showing how the black and white communities differ even though all their representatives remain Americans.

The Black John is described as “a long, straggling fellow” who is “growing straight out of his clothes,” but looks “perfectly awkward” (Du Bois 743). The author uses contrasting epithets and inversion while describing his protagonist to show that despite being an ordinary representative of his country, the man is different from its dominating population. The characteristics mentioned by the author make his readers imagine an unkempt black man who does not look attractive but manages to make people perceive him positively due to his character. In personalizing the whole black community, John reveals that the very appearance of African Americans puts them in a lower position than whites. They have more problems with finances, which can be perceived by the discussion of clothes and is supported by Margo’s work (1). The same issues are faced by Blackmon’s characters, who suffer from the transformation of social order, as it is not clear whether slavery is overcome because they remain affected by poverty and injustices (17).

Moreover, John’s “half–apologetic roll” reveals that African Americans are on a lower social level, but they remain good-natured (Du Bois 743). In this way, the author presupposes that all members of this community are treated neutrally or even positively if they do nothing wrong. However, Blackmon mentions that blacks believed that people who stand their ground and fight for equality are good, while the whites thought positively only of those who work for them and help them to become prosperous (170; 393). Thus “Of the Coming of John” does not seem to provide a strong argument about the nature of blacks. However, the author’s considerations can be used to initiate discussion of this issue, as they encourage readers to think of the ways blacks are perceived by others and of how they position themselves.

The Black John appears as a diligent student who is eager to work hard to become wise, while The White John obtains education because he has an inborn privilege. In this way, readers can understand that African Americans have limited opportunities. They need to do their best to obtain the things that are available to European Americans. Blacks are obliged to do more than others are generally expected to do to overcome the residual effects of slavery because the mind of the American population changed slowly after abolition. This fact is supported by Blackmon, who mentions that the way people perceived a black man did not change significantly until World War II (9). Even though some alterations were made on paper and the rights of the blacks were said to have improved, politicians turned out to be unable to bridge the gap between the two races in one step. The development of meritocracy is a time-consuming process that cannot be accomplished when the influence of racism is pervasive. As long as the population of the USA has different inborn abilities and privileges, it is not possible to reach equality.

The idea of an imagined community and kinship can be applied to the distinction made between the American majority and minority that is revealed in “Of the Coming of John.” On the one hand, the USA is perceived as a melting pot that unites people of diverse backgrounds, providing them with the opportunity to have equal rights and duties. On the other hand, these groups of citizens are separate because of their ethnic roots. European Americans tend to oppress other populations, which causes numerous issues and conflicts. Individuals with the same backgrounds gather into imagined communities, demand freedom, and assert their rights (Anderson 6).

In the story, Du Bois speaks about two contrasting communities as well. Based on his discussion, it is possible to speak about the future of American society. African Americans share a mutual history of slavery and oppression and focus on it instead of their backgrounds. As a result, if even one black person who lives in New York is negatively affected by a member of the majority, the whole community of African Americans is ready to support that individual. In the case of European Americans, a similar tendency can be observed, as they tend to share the same views of interaction between different races and a feeling of supremacy. Nevertheless, blacks are often more focused on nationalism because their group is less numerous. Thus the USA can be treated as a country of imagined communities, which leads their representatives to focus on nationalism, claiming that they have a common kinship, although it too is imagined. In this way, meritocracy remains a dream as well, and this fact can be altered only if Americans become truly equal regardless of their race.

Word Use

Du Bois often repeats the words “black” and “white” in this story because he wants his audience to feel the contrast between two American communities. The way the author develops and organizes his text affects readers’ perceptions, and he realizes this. If the author only wanted to speak about the relationships between the American majority and minority, he could use the words “African Americans” and “European Americans.” However, such an approach would lead readers to focus on the similarities of these communities and perceive them as equal parts of a whole. The use of informal terms and even somewhat offensive words emphasizes the presence of racist ideas. Kendi (6) and Blackmon (169) work in the same manner and underline that years of assimilation does not make Americans forget about racial discrimination and those times when blacks and whites had to have different schools, businesses, and even churches.

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America is a country that has turned into a home for people of various ethnic backgrounds, so it is not surprising that it is treated as a diverse nation. To support this idea, Du Bois speaks about “the white folk” and “the black folk” (743). These folks seem to symbolize imagined communities because their members cannot get to know each other face to face or even hear from all fellow members due to the size of these groups of people (Anderson 6). Nevertheless, all of them believe that they belong to the same community, as they share similar interests and identities.

Due to his education, Black John manages to understand the real state of things, and he perceives the discrepancy between his community and European Americans. “He had left his queer thought-world and come back to a world of motion and of men. He looked now for the first time sharply about him, and wondered he had seen so little before” (Du Bois 745). With these words, the author suggests that blacks are provided with pseudo-freedom and pseudo-knowledge. Moreover, they have no opportunity to alter this situation without leaving their community, because the quality of their education is worse (Margo 2). The Black John realizes that the existing hierarchy is not going to change, but his family and neighbors cannot perceive this correctly. As a result, they do not fully accept him. The cases of alliteration in this sentence ([h] and [d]) create a shocking effect that emphasizes that while education seems to benefit African Americans, it also alienates them from their community. As a result, educated blacks cannot find their place among the rest of the population. Thus it is not surprising that Du Bois calls studying an experience that made John “unhappy” (Du Bois 749).

Thoughts and Actions

Du Bois calls attention to the fact that whites believe that they are meant to be the dominant community, while blacks should not even try to become more powerful. Blackmon appreciates the author’s desire to make it possible for educated African Americans and European Americans to interact but considers it idealistic (272). “Of the Coming of John” expresses a similar idea, as it is revealed that The Black John had to be diligent to receive a chance to study at an unknown school, while The White John attended the best university in the country because he was the son of a judge.

Du Bois discusses the issue of inborn privilege as one of the major elements that limited African-Americans. In particular, this situation is expressed in the Judge’s speech when he claims that he will “make a man” of the White John by sending him to college, while he considers that it is “too bad” that the Black John obtains education away from home because “it will spoil him” (Du Bois 743). The use of short sentences and repetitions shows that Du Bois wanted to draw the readers’ attention to this fact. Moreover, he added that education turned out to be “a hard struggle” (Du Bois 745). This word combination sounds rather abrupt and sharp, which allows the readers to understand the feelings of the protagonist during this process. He said, “things did not come easily to him”, revealing that John faced problems not only with particular topics or subjects but with everything connected to studying (Du Bois 745). Thus in comparison to the whites, African Americans appear to be not only limited in their opportunities to receive knowledge, but also in their ability to perceive it. Nevertheless, they are willing to become educated, as John’s sister states, “I wish I was unhappy,” meaning that she wants to understand the real situation in America (Du Bois 749).

The absence of meritocracy in American society can be seen in the fact that John is the only individual from this community who is educated enough to understand what is happening in the world around him. Moreover, Black John faces numerous social injustices, standing symbolically for the rest of the African American community. In trying to eradicate these issues and to benefit his community, he faces the negative consequences of prejudiced views: “every step he made offended someone” (Du Bois 749). This hyperbole shows that John was treated poorly regardless of his actions and their influence on others. After killing a person in self-defense, he is not able to prove his innocence because of his negative position in society. The color of his skin made others focus on his action instead of its cause and rationale. Du Bois shows that African Americans are subject to prejudice, which prevents them from becoming equal to whites. Eventually, John realizes that he cannot accept the injustices of his community: “I’ll go away,” he said slowly; “I’ll go away and find work, and send for them. I cannot live here longer” (Du Bois 751). As John symbolizes all blacks, it means that they are firm in their desire to alter their lives for the better.

The author ends the story by stating: “and the world whistled in his ears,” which seems to be a complex idea that can be interpreted by readers in different ways (Du Bois 752). As the men are coming for John, he tries to calm himself and escape. Looking out over the sea, the protagonist focuses on the melodious sounds of waves, trying to avoid men’s voices that are less melodious and positive. Therefore African Americans try to survive in an imagined society that has no meritocracy by separating themselves from whites and focusing on positive experiences that can be obtained within their community. The Sea is personified, and it appears to become a protector that silences the sounds associated with John’s enemies, who come on horseback. Thus the Sea may represent those European Americans who are not biased by racism.

The main character faces the “coiled twisted rope” and a storm “burst round him” (Du Bois 752). Here, the storm reveals the emotional atmosphere that changes and becomes hostile as the men come closer. The world’s whistling may reveal the beginning of an attack, which means that John is injured and captured. However, it is also possible that the Sea manages to protect him and that John hears the wind when he jumps into the water. Leaving the ending open, Du Bois allows his readers to make the final decision and determine John’s fate. In this way, with the help of symbolism, he also shows that soon, African Americans will eventually have a chance to either become truly equal to European Americans, or they will be suppressed and marginalized.

Conclusion

Thus it can be concluded that, in this work, Du Bois skillfully uses literary symbolism to discuss American society as an imagined community and show that it can only dream about meritocracy because African Americans are subject to discrimination and deprivation. The author believes that the possibility to improve this situation still exists, but blacks need to cooperate with whites who have positive outlooks to achieve this change. “Of the Coming of John” emphasizes that nonwhite Americans are marginalized regardless of their characteristics. People’s race determines their opportunities and their future. Minorities face injustice even if their actions are without flaw. The analysis of the names, descriptions, words, thoughts, and actions described by Du Bois shows that he successfully utilizes symbolism to speak about the life of the Black John as the whole African American community.

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Nowadays, people are looking for a way to fulfill their need for collective belonging. Although focusing on their identities, individuals are afraid of remaining alone. Nations provide them with an opportunity to avoid such concerns, as citizens are treated as people with common kinship, which makes them feel related. As a result, nationalism rises, and people become eager to do everything possible to support their community. In this way, an imagined kinship that shapes an imagined community is created. This may be advantageous, as Americans can choose the nations that they are willing to become closer to and can share their national identity. However, it is important to remember that an imagined community presupposes that its members are not properly united and meritocracy is absent, while imagined kinship makes Americans separate from the rest of the world.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2006.

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, “Of the Coming of John.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Valerie Smith, Norton, 2014, pp. 742-52.

Kendi, Ibram. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2017.

Margo, Robert. Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950: An Economic History (National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development). University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, April 10). The Souls of Black Folk by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-souls-of-black-folk-by-william-edward-burghardt-du-bois/

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