W.E.B. DuBois is one of the most prominent African American and civil rights activists in United States history. Author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he advocated for the advancement of post-emancipation African Americans through higher education, which he believed would help his people overcome the Veil of racism that continued to separate them from white American society both physically and psychologically. Part of his philosophy, that The final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man, (DuBois, Essay V, pg 61) is supported by countless practical and literary examples, including Homer’s Odyssey. DuBois would want us to read The Odyssey because it illustrates examples of individuals, cultures, and places that are shaped by a sort of training, or education that distinguishes them clearly from those that are not.
The best example of is the protagonist, Odysseus. He possesses noteworthy qualities like social skills, physical strength, cleverness, sensitivity, and confidence that contribute to his persona, but even he learned his fair share of lessons before becoming god-like. Odysseus tends to seek two things over the course of the poem: glory, and to return home. The first part of his journey was more focused on the former and the second on the latter. Time after time again, he realizes that glory is short-lived and begins to act with more patience, which provides him more and more success on his journey home by the end. Some of Odysseus’s characteristics, like recklessness and overconfidence, take away from his charm and heroism, but it is necessary for the reader to root for him anyway in order for the epic’s themes to be conveyed effectively.
Odysseus understands how others see him, and in many cases deliberates what to say and how his audience will interpret it before he speaks in order get what he wants from them. The first instance of this is just before he leaves the nymph Kalypso and makes a point to flatter her before defending his choice to leave her love and her island, saying Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know that Penelope can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature, (Book V. 215-217). Combined with one last night of being her suitor, this softens her and persuades her to help him build the raft that helps him escape.
The next example of Odysseus’s learned behavior is how, after washing up on the Phaiakian shores, he is very aware of his fearsome appearance before the young princess Nausikaa, and deliberates whether to approach her at a distance instead of the traditional knee-clasping supplication. Keeping in mind that he needs her to give him clothes and take him to the city, …in the division of his heart this way seemed best to him, to stand well off and supplicate in words of blandishment, for fear that, if he clasped her knees, the girl might be angry (Book VI. 145-147). Odysseus’s self-awareness helps him throughout his encounter with the Phaiakians, and earning their favor gets him a ship to finish his journey back to Ithaca.
He demonstrates a combination of many qualities at the climax of the poem by cleverly dressing as a decrepit beggar when he finally returns home. Instead of making a grand entrance as himself, he chooses the perfect moment to make his reveal and avenge his family and his home after all his years away, which is described in in Books XXI and XXII. Lines 412-413 in Book XXI, A great sorrow fell now upoon the suitors, and all their color was changed, and Zeus showing forth his portents thundered mightily, state that even Zeus sent some thunder as a divine sign that Odysseus would succeed in his secret plan to win Penelope’s archery contest and slaughter all the suitors. With carefully chosen words, self-awareness, and the patience to sacrifice instant gratification, Odysseus arrives at his final destination in the greatest fashion. Although the lives of black folk are very different from the lives of Homer’s characters, the characteristic human means of achieving goals are not. DuBois recognized that skills like knowledge of self-awareness and the wisdom to say the right thing can both be developed through higher education which the black folk lacked.
Odysseus’s endeavors were not always so successful; in many cases he lacked qualities like patience and humility that delayed his goal of homecoming. The most remarkable example of this is the time he and his men trespassed in the dwelling of Polyphemus, the cyclops, and were caught stealing his food. If Odysseus hadn’t wanted to linger and ask for hospitality from Polyphemus, they may have escaped unnoticed, but his greed made him careless. Polyphemus’s response to Odysseus’s request for gifts is Then I will eat Nobody [Odysseus] after his friends, and the others I will eat first, and that shall be my guest present to you, (Book IX. 369-379). They were lucky to escape thanks to Odysseus’s clever plan of gouging out the cyclops’s eye and leaving the cave clinging under the bellies of sheep. However, Odysseus indulged his thirst for glory once again at the end of the encounter by boastfully taunting Polyphemus and revealing his identity. As a result, angry Polyphemus gets his father Poseidon involved, and the curse that is set upon Odysseus and his men causes another ten-year delay in his journey home.
The ultimate lesson Odysseus and his men learned from these setbacks is that natural human desires like greed and gratification are not productive. Each undesired outcome, from in the land of the Lotus Eaters to Polyphemus to Circe developed a skill or value with the same underlying theme: giving in to temptations may be desirable in the moment but not conducive to long-term goals. In the same way, the education that DuBois advocated for teaches well-roundedness and advanced thinking rather than just knowledge. He knew that making higher education accessible could change black folk in more ways than one, just like the characters in The Odyssey were changed by their experiences. In turn, they could finally achieve their goals of equality after being equipped with the necessary tools.
Although The Souls of Black Folk and The Odyssey were written centuries ago and focus on completely different topics, the lessons and themes developed in their pages ring true with people of all backgrounds today. Odysseus and the other characters in the story didn’t go to a traditional school, but needed to be educated by experience and through practical acquisition of knowledge. DuBois saw the parts that make up a higher education as journeys like The Odyssey; without them, the black folk were a people without the confidence, knowledge, values, or skills they needed to thrive beyond the Veil.
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