Modernism: Searching for the Light

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During the time of reconstruction in the south, African Americans had a very vague idea of what good the world had to offer them. This is demonstrated throughout W.E.B Du Bois’s novel The Soul of Black Folk, where he seeks to further explain the hardships that African Americans had endured, whilst looking at it through a more modernist lens. Du Bois uses specific examples that he had witnessed throughout his life to further convey his experiences concerning injustice in society, to both an audience that have been exposed to the wrongdoings as well as individuals that have likely never dealt with such burdens in their lives. When reading the novel, one is able to draw similarities from some of the stories he tells, to some of the most important philosophical texts, one of which being Plato’s Cave Allegory. The connection between the underlying themes in The Soul of Black Folk and The Allegory of the Cave elaborates on the process one is suppose to embark on in hopes of one day abolishing ignorance from their own lives and finding the light of goodness in life.

Individuals that sought to express their beliefs through the social changes that were partaking around them, were labeled as Modernists, which was seen as a fairly new term in the beginning of the 20th century. Modernism was not solely a literary movement, but a cultural movement as well, brought on by the industrialization and urbanization of society. Modernists wished to reinvent the style of their predecessors by creating new forms of literature that were, sometimes, controversial. Early Modernists wanted to escape the outdated arts of the 19th century, so that they could portray the the evolving world in which they lived. Du Bois does this exactly in his novel, The Soul of Black Folk, where he undermines the institution of slavery and its dramatic lasting effects. He was able to do so by taking a more modernist approach to the issue, by explaining what previous generations had done to African Americans, and how it is still affecting them to this day; even after the abolishment of slavery.

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To further represent this Du Bois fictionalized two characters in one chapter of his novel, “Oh The Coming of John”. He describes two boys, white and black, both named John and how their educational experiences differed based on the color of their skin. White John is able to attend school based off of privilege, where as black John is able to attend school based off his dedication and hunger for knowledge. Black John is oblivious to the world he lived in before attending college. It is not until he is forced to leave college due to lacking grades and disruptions that he gained a true passion for knowledge. He begins devoting his life to his school work, and as he does he develops a far better understanding of the world that he lives in.

As John neared the end of his education he began to take note of the way the world looked at him as a human being. “He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh.”(Du Bois 157) Du Bois uses “The Veil” throughout the novel to represent the oppressive acts used to keep African Americans discriminated against. John slowly, through his education, is finally able to see the world for what it is. He is shocked that he was unable to recognize the veil that had divided the country earlier throughout his life. Nevertheless, he is determined to use his newly found education for the good of all. On a larger scale the quote goes to show that, at the time, a number of African Americans were unaware of the acts being committed against them or they turned their head the other way by tolerating it, being that they were incapable of doing much to anything about it.

When looking at the quote used by Du Bois, it is important to take into contextualize it with the idea of revolution spreading about the world at the time. Brought about by the modernist movement, revolutions were sparked throughout the world, from Russia, to even the United States, with the women’s suffrage movement. It is important to realize that Du Bois did not advocate for violent revolutionary acts, but rather the idea of educating oneself to his or her maximum capabilities, so that African Americans would be able to defend themselves against injustice. At the time of the novels publication, the education of African Americans was viewed as an extremely taboo idea, this opinion was held by the majority of white individuals in America, who sought to keep African Americans disadvantaged in society. This is demonstrated when John returned home and wished to open up a school for his local community.

The whites of the town allowed for this to happen as long as he agreed to teach a set curriculum chosen by them. John chose otherwise and began teaching about European history and racial injustices within The United States. Consequently, his newly founded school was shut down. Du Bois’s purpose within this text was to depict to the reader that with a thorough education, one will be able to see The Veil that is dividing America. This modernistic thought process was a key stepping stone towards the revolution to overturn racial inequality in The United States.

There are many clear comparisons between Du bois’s chapter “Oh the Coming of John” and one of Plato’s most famous works, the “Allegory of the Cave”. John leaves his hometown thinking he has a general grasp of the world around him, but he soon comes to realize that this is far from the truth. “He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world..”(Du Bois 157), this quote describes John’s ascent out of the cave of ignorance, and towards the light of goodness. Although it was a rather slow process, John is on the right track to enlightenment. He wishes for nothing more than to share this newly acquired knowledge with his local community, but they are reluctant to accept it. This is because the individuals that he is trying to relay the information to, have not ever left the cave themselves. The fictionalized account of John and his journey for enlightenment is supposed to represent, on a larger scale, that African American communities around the country during that time period were reluctant to push towards equality due to the fact that they have not experienced anything but oppression. Plato emphasizes on the slow and troubling journey it takes to reach enlightenment, and his theory accurately explains the cause for long period of time between emancipation and the civil rights movement.

One of the underlying effect of the Modernist movement of the 20th century was focused on achieving racial equality in the United States. The new ideas brought about by Du Bois were able to build a foundation for what needed to be done in order to accomplish one’s goals in life. Modernism was able to show that innovation was a necessity in order to be able to advance as a society, and into a future of goodness and enlightenment.

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Modernism: Searching for the Light. (2022, May 13). Retrieved from

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