The final chapter of W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk describes the songs (which he terms ‘Sorrow Songs’) which have been passed down through the years from the time of slavery. DuBois creates and celebrates African-American empowerment in a variety of ways in this chapter and, in doing so, shows how his ideas for empowering African-Americans were radically different from those of Booker T. Washing ton.
Firstly, DuBois is keen to stress the “rare beauty” and “real poetry” of the songs themselves. He says that in terms of culture, America has given the world very little of beauty, except the beauty of nature, because Americans have been too busy to engage in cultural activities (DuBois 178). He argues that the songs of the African-American slave experience are things of great beauty and a real contribution to world culture: he argues that the songs of slavery are the only genuine and original music to have emerged from America and calls it “the most beautiful expression of human experience” to come from America. (DuBois 178 – my italics) Dubois quotes with approval the opinion of Thomas Wentworth Higginson who said of the songs, “Never, it seems to me, since man first lived and suffered was his longing for peace uttered more plaintively.” (DuBois 186) He encourages the notion of empowerment through the true story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers who gained world-wide recognition for their singing and the beauty of the songs they sang. (Dubois 178 – 179)
He also argues that African-Americans have made a unique contribution to American life which they deserve to be proud of and which should be acknowledged by all Americans. He describes the songs as a “gift”, one that has made America unique: he argues that African-Americans have helped forge what America has become. (Dubois 187)
Furthermore, he acknowledges that slavery was a traumatic and appalling experience, but that the improvized creation of the songs shows that African-Americans were able to create something of beauty from such sadness and suffering – which in itself is an achievement. He admits they the music of a people who are unhappy (Dubois 179), but also asserts that through all the songs you can feel a hope and a faith in the ultimate justice of life. (DuBois 185) Therefore, although these songs are based on a difficult experience, they express deep optimism about the future.
DuBois himself writes so lyrically and beautifully about the songs that his own words and his expression give a sense of empowerment in themselves. He mixes short, simple sentences with long, complex ones. He gives a vivid sense of their personal and powerfully emotional appeal, which speaks to him of the difficult past, but also of a better future.
In all this, his ideas of empowerment are radically different from Booker T. Washington’s. Washington, according to Johnson and Watson (66), based his ideas for black empowerment on the idea that if they were trained to do manual work they would be essential to the American economy and be useful without rising too high in society. By contrast, DuBois wanted African-Americans to rise to the highest levels of society, if they were capable of it, as an example of African-American achievement. This chapter shows that principle at work because it celebrates the black contribution to American cultural life with the highest terms of praise. Washington actually wrote
The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house. (quoted by Johnson & Watson 68)
DuBois , W E B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Chicago: McClurg. Web.
Johnson, Keith and Watson, Elwood. ‘The W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T Washington Debate: Effects upon African American Roles in Engineering and Engineering Technology.’ Pages 65 – 70 in The Journal of Technology Studies. Web.