The Souls of Black Folk

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Themes and Colors
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon
Material vs. Psychological Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Exclusion vs. Belonging Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Souls of Black Folk, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Slavery vs. Freedom Theme Icon

Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk almost 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished chattel slavery across the US, yet the legacy of slavery was anything but over. Much of the book is dedicated to examining this legacy, and calling into question the extent that African-American people can truly be considered free. Du Bois also examines the way that the South is particularly shaped by the ongoing consequences of slavery, and argues that many Southern whites look back on slavery with a sense of nostalgia and longing.

Much of Du Bois’ analysis focuses on slavery’s economic legacy. In the years following Emancipation, the majority of black people in the South remained extremely poor. Many black “peasants” performed taxing agricultural labor on land they rented through payments in cotton, or were forced to enter unfair labor contracts in which they were exploited by employers, worked in appalling conditions, and received “indeterminate wages.” Although technically free, the environment in which black people found themselves was often practically indistinguishable from slavery. In the second chapter of the book, Du Bois examines how the promises of Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau remained unfulfilled, leaving former slaves and their descendants trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty.

The physical remnants of slavery also remained in the time Du Bois was writing; the plantations, slave barons’ houses, and slaves’ shacks were a visual reminder of how recent the era of slavery was. At one point, Du Bois describes a “ragged, brown, and grave-faced man” who points out a spot where dead slaves’ bodies were kicked aside by overseers, and tells Du Bois: “This land was a little Hell.” The traumatic legacy of slavery exists not only within people’s minds, but within the landscape itself.

Throughout the book, Du Bois is committed to interrogating the concept of freedom and what it means for black people who were liberated by the Thirteenth Amendment, but for whom life in the in the post-slavery era remains highly impoverished, restricted, and dominated by prejudice. His exploration of the psychological effects of racism are also crucial to his critical examination of what freedom means. Whereas in the past black people were imprisoned by slavery, following Emancipation they remain imprisoned by the psychological weight of the Veil. This psychological burden is so heavy that Du Bois confesses he felt a kind of jealousy of his infant son who died before growing old enough to experience the Veil’s effects—he died “free.”

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Slavery vs. Freedom ThemeTracker

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Slavery vs. Freedom Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk

Below you will find the important quotes in The Souls of Black Folk related to the theme of Slavery vs. Freedom.
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 1 Quotes

The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has explained that slaves used to believe they would be saved by a divine intervention, and when Emancipation finally arrived there was a brief moment when it seemed like this sacred justice had prevailed. However, the years following Emancipation have proven such optimism premature, if not entirely delusional. Although technically no longer slaves, black people are not really free at all. This is most obviously true of the rural Southern poor, whose lives often still resemble slavery. However, it is also true of even the most privileged and successful black people, whose existence is restricted by the presence of the color line and the Veil. By referring to the unresolved “sins” of America, Du Bois suggests that black people will not be free until there has been some sort of restorative or compensatory justice for the damage caused by slavery.

Chapter 2 Quotes

There was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification a duty.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has provided an account of the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was established in order to assist and support newly free black people in the transition from slavery. He identifies many of the Bureau’s flaws, but also points to the insurmountable obstacles it faced—particularly racist opposition from white people. Du Bois’ discussion of white people’s racist attitudes is generally rather moderate and reserved, but on this occasion he provides a much harsher diagnosis. Not only do almost all white people in the South think Emancipation was a “crime,” but they take it upon themselves to actively reverse it.

While this may seem a rather extreme assessment, historical evidence demonstrates that there was indeed widespread opposition to Emancipation among white people in the South, opposition that was mobilized in the backlash against Reconstruction and the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow era that followed.

Chapter 5 Quotes

For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged––wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the "cracker" Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued that hard work and entrepreneurship will be vital to the economic development of the South. However, he warns that over the past decades, white Southerners have become obsessed with wealth to the point that money itself is seen as a solution to every social problem. Du Bois’ concerns in this passage echo themes that have been central to political debates in the US throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Du Bois claims that although wealth is useful and can be a powerful tool in bringing about social progress, wealth alone will not lead to meaningful change. This is partly because racism is as much a psychological as an economic issue, and thus even if black people were in a better position financially, they would still suffer the effects of racist ideology.

Additionally, Du Bois is suspicious of the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself, as he perceives this to be a corrupting influence on society. Critical of capitalism, Du Bois believed that too much focus on profit corrodes moral values, and that people should instead be guided by knowledge and reason. This belief represents a major distinction between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who focused on entrepreneurship—rather than education—as the proper vehicle for African-American advancement.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The teachers in these institutions came not to keep the Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the defilement of the places where slavery had wallowed them. The colleges they founded were social settlements; homes where the best of the sons of the freedmen came in close and sympathetic touch with the best traditions of New England. They lived and ate together, studied and worked, hoped and harkened in the dawning light.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has explained that at the time he is writing, despite the protests of white people who claim that educating African-Americans is a waste of time and resources, many black people have graduated from Teachers’ Institutes, black colleges, and from the top universities in the country. Du Bois points out that this last category of student proves that black people are capable of excelling in the most challenging courses, and in this passage describes their experiences at these elite institutions. Du Bois paints a rather idyllic picture of the traditional university experience, conjuring an image of a progressive, inclusive, and supportive environment free of racism.

While the image of university Du Bois invokes is perhaps a little romanticized, it works to persuade the reader that allowing black students to receive a classical education at highly competitive institutions is a positive thing, rather than being risky or absurd. Du Bois’ emphasis on the harmoniousness of student life at New England universities is a stark contrast to the backlash against integration that would come in the later decades of the 20th century.

O Southern Gentlemen! If you deplore their presence here, they ask, Who brought us? When you cry Deliver us from the vision of intermarriage, they answer that legal marriage is infinitely better than systematic concubinage and prostitution. And if in just fury you accuse their vagabonds of violating women, they also in fury quite as just may reply: The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued that black people are perfectly capable of excelling at university, and if there is to be any racial, social, and economic progress in the South there will need to exist colleges to educate the black population. In this passage, he shifts from discussing education specifically to focusing on the general problem of racism, and particularly what he identifies as white hypocrisy. Du Bois’ tone in these lines is more directly accusatory than in other parts of the book, when he seems careful to maintain a more reserved, forgiving stance. Here he points out that even the concept of “black crime” arbitrarily singles out African-Americans as criminal when the evidence of white criminal activity against black people is arguably far greater.

However, it is probably Du Bois’ initial rhetorical question in this passage that is the most powerful. He laments the hypocrisy of white Southerners who exclude black people and resent their presence within society, while conveniently forgetting the fact that it was whites who brought black people there against their will in the first place. This paradox directly relates to Du Bois’ exploration of the unresolved duality of African-American existence, which forces black people to feel like strangers to themselves.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Yet even then the hard ruthless rape of the land began to tell. The red-clay sub-soil already had begun to peer above the loam. The harder the slaves were driven the more careless and fatal was their farming.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has described the landscape of the rural South, emphasizing its desolate, “forsaken” quality. He notes that in the poorest areas, only black people remain, as they are too impoverished to move. In this passage, he describes how the land was exploited during slavery, and in doing so draws a connection between the terrorizing treatment of the slaves and the ruthless treatment of the land. Both the slaves and the natural landscape suffered under violence and tyranny, and have been left worn down and desolate as a result. This parallel further suggests that it will take many years of support, nourishment, and careful planning in order to restore the land to full fertility again, just as such care is needed for poor black communities to thrive in the aftermath of slavery.

Chapter 8 Quotes

"Why, you niggers have an easier time than I do," said a puzzled Albany merchant to his black customer. "Yes," he replied, "and so does yo' hogs."

Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has been describing the poverty and destitution of the Black Belt, and explained that white employers refuse to improve the working conditions of the black laborers they employ, claiming that this would lead to disaster. In this brief anecdote, he describes a white merchant who claims that black people have “an easier time than I do,” to which his black customer replies that yes, and so do the man’s pigs. This is an important moment in the book, as there are not many instances in which Du Bois records an exchange between a white and black person where both speak their minds on the topic of race.

The result is revealing. On one level, it is possible to blame the white man’s racist views on ignorance, as he seems to genuinely believe that black people have it “easier.” On the other hand, as the black customer points out, this apparent ignorance relies on the willful decision to view African-Americans not as people, but more like animals. Such thinking was a legacy of slavery, during which slaves were classified as property (rather than people) and treated as akin to livestock. As this exchange between the merchant and customer shows, this treatment did not end with Emancipation.

Chapter 9 Quotes

War, murder, slavery, extermination, and debauchery––this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois opens the chapter by stating that his age is characterized by the effects of colonialism, which white people have justified because it brought “civilization” and Christianity to groups of people they deemed uncivilized. In this brutally ironic passage, he points out that the reality of colonialism was violence and tyranny, and emphasizes the hypocrisy of the fact that this was carried out in the name of Christianity. Many people in favor of colonialism argued that it was unfortunate that colonization often involved violence, but that this was a regrettable side effect of what was an essentially noble cause. Du Bois rejects this view by emphasizing that “again and again” colonialism took the form of deliberately tyrannical programs (such as systematic genocide and chattel slavery).

In any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued for the importance of suffrage as a tool for progress. He explains that during the French revolution, the prospect of universal suffrage seemed possible, but that this promise has disintegrated. In this passage, Du Bois argues that history has shown that it never works to have one stronger group of people governing on behalf of a weaker group. This is not just true of particular places and periods in time, but of “human nature” in general. By making this argument, Du Bois uses classical philosophical reasoning to suggest that black people in the US are treated unfairly.

Depending on the reader’s individual interpretation, this passage could appear more or less conventional. It may be the case that Du Bois is simply arguing for democracy. Having just invoked the French Revolution, perhaps he is claiming that the basic liberal values on which America was founded should be enacted properly by giving African-Americans the right to vote. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret this statement in a more radical way. Surely, in any capitalist country (note that Du Bois invokes capitalism with the phrase “modern free competition”) those who are in government will inevitably be “stronger, richer, and more resourceful” than those over which they rule. Is it possible that Du Bois is arguing that capitalism is incompatible with true political justice?

Chapter 10 Quotes

It is no idle regret with which the white South mourns the loss of the old-time Negro,––the frank, honest, simple old servant who stood for the earlier religious age of submission and humility. With all his laziness and lack of many elements of true manhood, he was at least open-hearted, faithful, and sincere.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has argued that at the time he is writing, black people are forced to live in a state of duplicity, with half turning to “radicalism” and the other half to “hypocritical compromise.” In this passage, he claims that white Southerners look back nostalgically at “the old-time Negro,” a figure who was perceived to be meek, obedient, and honest. Through his description of this stereotype, Du Bois subtly shows how it was constructed through a racist white point of view. The reason why white people preferred “the old-time Negro” was because he was totally submissive to them and didn’t agitate against his subservient role.

However, throughout the book Du Bois disproves the idea that black people are happy to be subservient to white people, arguing instead that black people should be considered full people in their own right, with rich, strong, and complex “souls.” The death of old black stereotypes is thus a good thing, as it indicates that black people are moving closer to their true selves instead of performing falsely in order to appease white people.

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.

Chapter 12 Quotes

The nineteenth was the first century of human sympathy,––the age when half wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves and millionaires and––sometimes––Negroes became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?"

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has introduced the life of Alexander Crummell, who was born into a free black family in New York in 1819. He explains that, learning about racism as a child, Crummell became resentful of the world. In this passage, Du Bois suggests that the 19th century was the first age during which people began to look at marginalized people in society and sympathized with them as people—in other words, recognized their shared humanity. By arguing that “Negroes became throbbing souls,” Du Bois is not referring to a transformation within black people themselves, but in the way they were perceived by whites.

Du Bois’ claim that the 19th century was the first point at which this happened on a large scale is certainly contentious. On the one hand, many would argue that—particularly among non-colonizing groups and during the pre-colonial era—people were not racially categorized in the same way, such that some people were considered more “human” than others. On the other hand, almost all human societies have deemed some within their society as social outcasts, and many have claimed that certain groups—particularly women and foreign tribes—were less human.

Du Bois’ choice of the 19th century as an era defined by human sympathy is thus likely to be less a definitive statement about the whole of history, and more a specific statement on the growth and eventual success of the abolition movement during this period. He suggests that it was only when white people started viewing slaves as people with deep and complex souls that any progress toward racial equality took place.

Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? He had out- grown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth of his life-work,––to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his… this, this seemed more than man could bear.

Related Characters: W.E.B. Du Bois (speaker), Alexander Crummell
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

Du Bois has told the story of Alexander Crummell’s early life, indicating that as a young man he was tested by three “temptations”––Hate, Despair, and Doubt. This passage describes Doubt, the final temptation, as the worst of all. While it is comparably easy to overcome hate and despair, the urge to doubt himself and his very race is something from which Crummell almost does not recover. All three temptations are brought about by racist incidents, but only doubt makes Crummell resent black people in particular, rather than the world and its racist nature. Du Bois uses this tale—which in many ways resembles a Biblical or mythic story—in order to warn the reader against falling into doubt, while simultaneously showing how easy it is for this to happen.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I'll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we'll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”

Related Characters: John Jones
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is taken from the fictional story of John Jones. At this point in his life, John has returned home to his community in rural Georgia, after being sent to Wells Institute to study and running into trouble while there. Back home, John asks the town’s white Judge if he can teach a class at the school for black children. The Judge is wary, and tells John that although he is “a friend” to black people, this friendship has its limitations. Over the course of this passage, the Judge’s tone switches from sympathetic to patronizing to sinister. These shifts in tone suggest that behind white people’s claims to compassion often lie viciously racist thoughts.

As the Judge’s words make clear, he is particularly threatened by the idea that black people—particularly intelligent, upwardly mobile people such as John—will try to “reverse nature” and fight back against oppression. Clearly, the Judge is only sympathetic to black people as long as they accept a completely subservient role in society. He considers the undoing of the racial hierarchy so dangerous that it justifies the violent genocide of the entire black community. His threat foreshadows the violent end John meets at the end of the chapter, and connect John’s story to the widespread lynching that occurred in the wake of Reconstruction.