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W. E. B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk–Chapter 4

June 13th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

In chapter four Du Bois reflects on his time teaching at a black one-room schoolhouse in rural Tennessee. As such, most of the chapter is simply taken up with recounting what life looked like for an itinerant black school teacher in rural Tennessee in the late 19th century:

There came a day when all the teachers left the Institute and began the hunt for schools. I learn from hearsay (for my mother was mortally afraid of firearms) that the hunting of ducks and bears and men is wonderfully interesting, but I am sure that the man who has never hunted a country school has something to learn of the pleasures of the chase. I see now the white, hot roads lazily rise and fall and wind before me under the burning July sun; I feel the deep weariness of heart and limb as ten, eight, six miles stretch relentlessly ahead; I feel my heart sink heavily as I hear again and again, “Got a teacher? Yes.” So I walked on and on—horses were too expensive—until I had wandered beyond railways, beyond stage lines, to a land of “varmints” and rattlesnakes, where the coming of a stranger was an event, and men lived and died in the shadow of one blue hill.

Sprinkled over hill and dale lay cabins and farmhouses, shut out from the world by the forests and the rolling hills toward the east. There I found at last a little school. Josie told me of it; she was a thin, homely girl of twenty, with a dark-brown face and thick, hard hair. I had crossed the stream at Watertown, and rested under the great willows; then I had gone to the little cabin in the lot where Josie was resting on her way to town. The gaunt farmer made me welcome, and Josie, hearing my errand, told me anxiously that they wanted a school over the hill; that but once since the war had a teacher been there; that she herself longed to learn,—and thus she ran on, talking fast and loud, with much earnestness and energy.

In order to set up the school, Du Bois had to speak to a commission. He rode with a white teacher to make his visit, which he describes below:

I secured the school. I remember the day I rode horseback out to the commissioner’s house with a pleasant young white fellow who wanted the white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and the water jingled, and we rode on. “Come in,” said the commissioner,—”come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do. Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?” “Oh,” thought I, “this is lucky”; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I—alone.

Once he starts teaching at the school, Du Bois quickly gets to know many of the families of his students—something made easier by the fact that they took turns housing him. That said, he continually comes back to one family he was particularly fond of who he describes just before his meeting with the commissioner:

Next morning I crossed the tall round hill, lingered to look at the blue and yellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas, then plunged into the wood, and came out at Josie’s home. It was a dull frame cottage with four rooms, perched just below the brow of the hill, amid peach-trees. The father was a quiet, simple soul, calmly ignorant, with no touch of vulgarity. The mother was different,—strong, bustling, and energetic, with a quick, restless tongue, and an ambition to live “like folks.” There was a crowd of children. Two boys had gone away. There remained two growing girls; a shy midget of eight; John, tall, awkward, and eighteen; Jim, younger, quicker, and better looking; and two babies of indefinite age. Then there was Josie herself. She seemed to be the centre of the family: always busy at service, or at home, or berry-picking; a little nervous and inclined to scold, like her mother, yet faithful, too, 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. I saw much of this family afterwards, and grew to love them for their honest efforts to be decent and comfortable, and for their knowledge of their own ignorance. There was with them no affectation. The mother would scold the father for being so “easy”; Josie would roundly berate the boys for carelessness; and all knew that it was a hard thing to dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.

Du Bois teaches at the school with mixed results. It’s hard to see how any other outcome would have even been possible. Attendance was spotty, the building was in disrepair, supplies were scarce, support from home limited given that most of the parents had not attended school.

Ten years later, Du Bois returned to Tennessee for a reunion with his class at Fisk University. He takes the final portion of the chapter to describe what happened to his former students. The story of Josie, his obvious favorite, summarizes the angst and ambiguity of Du Bois’s feelings about progress:

The ten years that follow youth, the years when first the realization comes that life is leading somewhere,—these were the years that passed after I left my little school. When they were past, I came by chance once more to the walls of Fisk University, to the halls of the chapel of melody. As I lingered there in the joy and pain of meeting old school-friends, there swept over me a sudden longing to pass again beyond the blue hill, and to see the homes and the school of other days, and to learn how life had gone with my school-children; and I went.

Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply, “We’ve had a heap of trouble since you’ve been away.” I had feared for Jim. With a cultured parentage and a social caste to uphold him, he might have made a venturesome merchant or a West Point cadet. But here he was, angry with life and reckless; and when Fanner Durham charged him with stealing wheat, the old man had to ride fast to escape the stones which the furious fool hurled after him. They told Jim to run away; but he would not run, and the constable came that afternoon. It grieved Josie, and great awkward John walked nine miles every day to see his little brother through the bars of Lebanon jail. At last the two came back together in the dark night. The mother cooked supper, and Josie emptied her purse, and the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silent, yet worked the more. The hill became steep for the quiet old father, and with the boys away there was little to do in the valley. Josie helped them to sell the old farm, and they moved nearer town. Brother Dennis, the carpenter, built a new house with six rooms; Josie toiled a year in Nashville, and brought back ninety dollars to furnish the house and change it to a home.

When the spring came, and the birds twittered, and the stream ran proud and full, little sister Lizzie, bold and thoughtless, flushed with the passion of youth, bestowed herself on the tempter, and brought home a nameless child. Josie shivered and worked on, with the vision of schooldays all fled, with a face wan and tired,—worked until, on a summer’s day, some one married another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, and slept—and sleeps.

He concludes the chapter on this melancholic note:

My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. 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! And all this life and love and strife and failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?

Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.

The Ambiguity of “Progress”

It’s somewhat remarkable that the chapter was written in 1903. It has echoes, after all, in later writing by black American authors. Consider this excerpt from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

I also thought of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work on mass incarceration. One of the distressing patterns of American history is that “progress” for African Americans is often ambiguous in the ways Du Bois is describing. You can see real gains, but what often happens is that the ground gained makes other problems more apparent. To take a more recent example, you have a thing like redlining because you have more black Americans buying and owning their homes. Home ownership is great, but for black Americans this “progress” comes with a host of other complicating evils that create ambiguity.

Du Bois is dealing with something similar, albeit 100 years ago: The school is larger, attendance during sessions is better, but only because women like Josie work themselves literally to death. Is that progress?


Chapter four is a bit of an odd one relative to the rest of the book because it is so narrative driven and because there isn’t an argument that offers some kind of resolution to the problem Du Bois is describing. That makes it hard to summarize. What we can say is that attempts to reduce racial injustice in America down to one concrete thing will fail for the reasons Du Bois is describing here. It seems that every time one manifestation of this injustice is ended, new forms pop up in response to the new norms that follow abolition of the old evil.

As a white Christian, one place my mind goes as I read this is that the problem here is human sinfulness and so repentance is an essential part of addressing the problem. But I also think that can be a cop out to excuse not thinking about harder questions, such as how political and economic norms in the USA have historically hurt non-white Americans. So there is also in this chapter a call to become better students of policy, political economy, and the like. White evangelicals, for many reasons, tend to think of good work in fairly pietistic terms. But this sort of approach to the work can cause us to miss how politics and economics drive many of these issues. There’s more that can be said about this, no doubt, but this is where we will stop for now.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).