The Souls of Black Folk

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The Color Line Symbol Analysis

The Color Line Symbol Icon

Du Bois begins his argument by declaring: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and he repeats this statement several times throughout the book. The color line refers to the divide between races, often invisible but sometimes physical. The line is inherently hierarchical, ensuring that white people receive better treatment, services, and opportunities, while black people receive the inferior version—or nothing at all. The color line was instituted and solidified by slavery, yet has survived Emancipation and taken new forms. Jim Crow segregation, for example, is a particularly distinct way in which the color line is enshrined in the law and custom of the South. However, although the color line may seem overwhelmingly powerful and unbreakable, Du Bois suggests that it might be unstable. There is only so long that two races can live alongside one another in close but highly unequal proximity before the line between them is broken.

The Color Line Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

The The Souls of Black Folk quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Color Line. 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.
The Forethought Quotes

The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Color Line
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois opens the book with this statement, and emphasizes its importance by repeating it several times. Although it may appear simple and perhaps obvious, in reality it presents a challenge to much mainstream thought at the time Du Bois was writing. As he will show later on, many white people considered racial inequality and exclusion to be a fringe issue that did not directly affect them. Others held that race relations in the US were not currently a problem; slavery had ended, and some whites claimed black people had proved themselves inferior and “not worth saving” in the decades following Emancipation. Even whites who did not hold such overtly racist views tended to support segregation, even while they may have also advocated philanthropy and education dedicated to uplifting black communities.

In contrast to these views, Du Bois argues that race relations are the fundamental issue of the 20th century not just to black people, but for everyone. Considering The Souls of Black Folk was written in 1903, Du Bois not only claims that the color line is the most important issue at the time he is writing, but will continue to be far into the future. While this may seem cynical, Du Bois insists throughout the book that he is simply assessing the situation in a realistic, pragmatic way. Finally, Du Bois emphasizes that segregation itself—manifested in the concept of the “color line” dividing the races—is an inherently racist system standing in the way of justice and progress.

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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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The Color Line Symbol Timeline in The Souls of Black Folk

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Color Line appears in The Souls of Black Folk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Forethought
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...of interest to them because “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line .” He asks that the reader forgive any of accuracies, and describes the book as... (full context)
Chapter 2: Of the Dawn of Freedom
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...by repeating the statement that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line .” He presents this as a global problem, rather than one that solely affects the... (full context)
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...repeating its first claim, that the “problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line .” (full context)
Chapter 9: Of the Sons of Master and Man
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Although Du Bois often speaks of the color line , it is usually impossible to draw an actual geographical line indicating racial segregation. Poor... (full context)
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
...irreconcilable with their religious beliefs. He argues that, contrary to the opinion of many whites, the color line thwarts the drawing of accurate “lines of crime.” People must accept that racial prejudice causes... (full context)
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
...life as “perfect,” explaining that he was loved by everyone and that he “knew no color-line.” At the child’s funeral, however, white people glanced at the procession and exclaimed: “Niggers!”. Du... (full context)