W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Contributing Editor: Frederick Woodard
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
"The Song of the Smoke" is a poem of celebration of blackness. It was written during a period of great social and political weakness of black people. List the attributes of blackness celebrated in the poem and suggest how each attribute contributes to a positive image. Consider why Du Bois may have felt it necessary to write of blackness in such exalted terms.
Ask students to characterize the effect of verbal repetition, rhythm, and variation of line length in the poem. How do these characteristics relate to the central metaphor, "smoke"?
"The Damnation of Women" is an expression of Du Bois's concern for the right of women to choose for themselves the life worth living. What is the basis for this belief? How does this belief relate to feminism? What role, in Du Bois's estimation, does economics play in the subordination of women? What specific details indicate Du Bois's appreciation for independent thinking and action in women?
Select an edition of the volume The Souls of Black Folk and peruse the beginning of each chapter. Find lines of poetry and a musical score. Consider the possible significance of these two art forms to the major theme of the book. Note that "Of the Sorrow Songs" contains comments on the music and names the songs.
The "veil" is one of Du Bois's most famous symbols. Consider possible meanings for it in "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," particularly at the beginning of the essay, where he boasts of living "above the veil."
Relate the section in "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" out of which the famous Du Bois passage on twoness comes (beginning with "After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and Roman" and ending with, "Shout, O Children!/Shout, you're free!/For God has bought your liberty!") to a reading of "The Unhappy Consciousness," a chapter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind. Then develop a list of supporting evidence to justify the probable influences of the Hegelian argument on Du Bois's thinking in his essay. Additional reading in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hegel's Dialectic: Five Hermeneutical Studies, translated by P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976) should provide excellent analysis of Hegel's ideas and method. See particularly Chapters 2 and 3.
Note throughout the essays collected here that Du Bois uses the terms Negro, black, and African-American almost interchangeably. On closer examination, you may discern a specific context that differentiates the use of each term. Develop a rationale for use of each term in a specific context.
"Of the Sorrow Songs" is considered one of Du Bois's most enduring statements on African-American folk art. Using the content of the essay, trace the evolution of the African song to a unique American folk expression.