The Souls of Black Folk

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Burghardt Du Bois Character Analysis

Burghardt is the infant son of W.E.B. Du Bois. He dies as a baby, and his brief life and death are chronicled in the chapter entitled “Of the Passing of the First-Born.” Although Burghardt does not play a substantial active role in the narrative, his appearance carries important symbolic significance. Because he dies before he can grow up to understand and experience the reality of the Veil, Burghardt remains in a permanent state of innocence and freedom, such that his father feels a perverse sense of relief over his fate. Du Bois also makes a point of mentioning Burghardt’s light-colored hair and blue eyes, mixed-race features that he suggests may have foreshadowed Burghardt’s tragic fate. The implication of this observation is that Burghardt particularly contains the violent legacy of slavery within himself, somewhat like the “tragic mulatto” figure of the American literary tradition. The Souls of Black Folk is dedicated to Burghardt and to Du Bois’ daughter, Yolande, who grew up to become a teacher.

Burghardt Du Bois Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

The The Souls of Black Folk quotes below are all either spoken by Burghardt Du Bois or refer to Burghardt Du Bois. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Signet Classics edition of The Souls of Black Folk published in 2012.
Chapter 11 Quotes

Why was his hair tinted with gold? An evil omen was golden hair in my life. Why had not the brown of his eyes crushed out and killed the blue? –For brown were his father's eyes, and his father's father's. And thus in the Land of the Color-line I saw, as it fell across my baby, the shadow of the Veil.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker), Burghardt Du Bois
Related Symbols: The Color Line, The Veil
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

Switching to a highly personal mode, Du Bois has told the joyful story of the birth of his first son, Burghardt. Seeing his wife’s love for the baby, Du Bois came to adore him, but could not help but be disturbed by Burghardt’s complexion. For Du Bois, Burghardt’s blond hair and blue eyes are a reminder of the sexual violence of slavery—the mass rape of slave women by white men, and the mixed-race children born as a result. Although both Burghardt’s parents are black, his features are evidence of the white genes that are inevitably mixed into his parents’ lineage.

Du Bois laments this both as a reminder of the violence in black people’s past and as an ominous indication of the tragedy in his ill-fated son’s future. Note that this is a deliberate reversal of the symbolic meaning of blond hair and blue eyes in the white European tradition, which denotes ideas of innocence and purity. To Du Bois and other descendants of slaves, whiteness represents a violation of purity through oppression and sexual violence.

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Burghardt Du Bois Character Timeline in The Souls of Black Folk

The timeline below shows where the character Burghardt Du Bois appears in The Souls of Black Folk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 11: Of the Passing of the First-Born
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...Swinburne. Du Bois writes in the first person, recalling the extraordinary moment when his son (Burghardt) was born. He describes his sense of wonder in holding the baby, and his deep... (full context)