The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Questions on W. E. B. DuBois

"A Litany of Atlanta"

  1. What experiences prepared the Massachusetts-born DuBois to write about the American South? What event precipitated the writing of "A Litany of Atlanta"? Do you think "A Litany" protests something wider than a particular incident?
  2. Why does DuBois write his prayer/poem in the form of a "litany"? On what familiar models is it based, and how do these lend the poem resonance and authority? What is the effect of the refrains?
  3. Who is the "we" of the poem's narrative voice? Does it shift? What is referred to in the lines in st. 3, "When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed"? For what does he blame the outbreak of alleged crime?
  4. How does the speaker use shifting line lengths and balanced passages to reinforce his points? What is the sequence of ideas? How do the language and cadences reflect his mounting sorrow and horror? At what point of the poem does the speaker seem most angry?
  5. Whose death is specifically mentioned in the poem? Why does the poem include so few details about individual victims?
  6. On p. 611, why does the speaker reject the notion that God may be white? What thoughts does he consider blasphemous?
  7. What does he mean in the stanza, "Whither? North is greed and South is blood; within, the coward, and without, the liar. Whither? To death?" How does the speaker here use balance and questioning to enforce his thought?
  8. What is the "cup" and the "red and awful shape" to which he alludes? The star in the East? How does the use of metaphors extend the speaker's message?
  9. How does the poem end? Can it be said to provide closure for the issues it raises? What is the purpose of such an ending?

"The Song of the Smoke"

  1. Scan the poem (that is, determine the stressed and unstressed beats in each line, count the number of stresses for each line, and note the rime pattern). How is the poem's rhythm appropriate for its message?
  2. What is the "smoke"? How does it shift meaning from stanza to stanza? What effect does it have on black and white persons?
  3. Are there lines in the poem which seem to celebrate blackness? Is the "Smoke King" evil? If so, what is the relation between the idea of the Smoke King and DuBois's defense of his race?
  4. Are there paradoxes or contradictions at the heart of this poem? If so, do they convey a message?

"The Souls of Black Folk"

  1. "The Forethought"--What does DuBois intend to show in his book? What metaphor does he use to describe the experiences of African Americans? Why does he include a bar of music in each section?
  2. What is his relation to the lives he describes? Is this the attitude one expects of a sociologist? What is the source of the terms, "bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh"?
  3. "I. Of Our Spiritual Strivings": In discussing his topic, what is gained by the use of autobiography? How did the young DuBois respond to hostile attitudes towards his race? What kinds of metaphors does he use? (Many, such as "the prison-house" and the veil, are from Victorian poetry.)
  4. What does he mean by the African-American's "second-sight" and "double-consciousness"? Is this an advantage?
  5. What special problems exist for the black craftsman? For the minister or doctor? For the intellectual? Has it been possible to satisfy unrecnciled ideals?
  6. What history does he give of the past hopes of African-Americans since the Civil War? What has limited their outcome? What does he think is needed for the future?
  7. What special qualities and contributions does DuBois think African-Americans can give to American and world culture?
  8. How many races does DuBois think comprise humanity? Are there advantages to this view? Does it raise any problems? Where do you think he would place Native Americans in this dichotomy?
  9. Comment on the section's style. What are some poetic and rhetorical features of DuBois's use of language to convey emotion? Are there ways in which his essays resemble sermons?
  10. What role do women play in DuBois's view of "the Negro" and "the white man"? Do you think he speaks primarily to African-American readers, to European-American readers, or to both? How do you know?

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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56