The Souls of Black Folk

Second paper: A one-page, single-spaced essay on

               The Souls of Black Folk

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For years, I have based the essay assignment for The Souls of Black Folk on one of my favorite passages from the book. In arguing that Blacks, despite having been formally emancipated, are still not free, Du Bois writes this: “For this much all men know: despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free… That is the large legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the work it did not do because it could not” (p24; consult the text for the full quote).  I used to ask students to base an essay on one aspect of unfreedom discussed in that passage, showing the complexity of Du Bois’ analysis of it over the course of the text.


This time, I’m asking you to do pretty much the same thing, but with a passage of your own choosing. Please identify a passage you find highly significant—one that is essential to understanding the text as a whole. Write an essay arguing for the relevance of that quote to Du Bois’s overall project, drawing examples from different parts of the text. You must show the relevance of the quote to themes well beyond the one that Du Bois may have been discussing. That is, if your quote draws from one of his many discussions about education, you must apply it elsewhere.


Some ground rules:

The passage must be short—two or three sentences at most. In the case of my example, above, it’s a tad long and so I had to abbreviate it for the purposes of inclusion here. If yours is long, do the same. But you must be sure that if the passage is long, that it really is quite tightly focused on a single point. When you look at the original for my passage, you’ll see that, though long, it is simply stating that Blacks, though emancipated, are not free.


You may not use the passage I just quoted. I am also excluding the most commonly cited and well-known passages from the book because I would like you to think creatively. The excluded passages would be any and all of those referring to either the veil, or to his statement that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.


Your thesis should clearly state an interpretation—an analysis that is your own—that characterizes the utter significance of the quote. In other words, your thesis should answer the question, “What makes this quote sooooo awesome?” How is it that in these few lines, Du Bois managed to so utterly nail it? Your answer to that question must appear as the thesis (and then the introductory paragraph is over). Your singular goal is to show readers that unless they grapple with the profundity of the quote, they’re basically missing some devastatingly crucial aspect of Du Bois’ work.


Please work to introduce your quote to the reader elegantly. Remember that the purpose of an introduction is to set the tone for your essay, lay out the theme and announce the thesis.  Weave your quote into that structure, rather than just saying:  “My quote is “For this much all men know: despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free…”(24).  Don’t write as if you’re only doing so to fulfill the assignment. Write in order to be read. Write to persuade and edify.


Crucial historical point: please people, in the course of your essay, do not refer to the Emancipation Proclamation. I only warn you against this because students writing on this book commonly make mention of this proclamation in passing. However, it is a huge distortion of history to say that it (and Lincoln) freed enslaved people. What really freed them was the North’s ultimate victory over the South in the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. The EP was what we would now call an executive order; Black people were not empowered to just walk off of plantations because Lincoln declared them free. Also, the South had seceded from the nation. The Southern states were not recognizing his authority. The EP said nothing about enslaved Blacks in the border states, only the southern ones. So please please please, don’t make reference to the EP as having freed people. It’s historically wrong.


By the way, there are ten million web sites about this book. Do not consult any of them. Mobilize your own brain cells. Turnitin is really excellent at finding material—even phrases—lifted from the Internet. Essays that contain any material lifted from the Internet will receive a zero.


The essay must be one page, single-spaced, and must include a short introduction, a few body paragraphs, and a conclusion, and it must have a title, as always. Don’t forget to put page numbers in parentheses after every single quotation. Never put a page number into the body of your sentence. Only at the end (59). Just like that.








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