The chapter begins with a verse by Algernon Charles 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 love for his wife. However, he also recalls staring at the child’s blonde hair uneasily, feeling that it was an ominous reminder of the Veil. Du Bois explains that the baby grew to be lively and strong, and that he and his wife were adoringly protective of him. However, the child then grew sick; Du Bois and his wife were struck by fear, sensing the “Shadow of Death.” Eventually, the baby died, and Du Bois describes the way “his little soul leaped like a star that travels in the night.”
Although much of “Souls” is written from a first-person perspective, this chapter is the most intimate by far. It might at first seem jarring for Du Bois to reveal such a deeply personal tragedy in the midst of his overview of the lives of African Americans. However, the description of his son’s life and death is an important demonstration of the emotional life of black people—a window into Du Bois’ own soul. Although his son’s death is not directly connected to racism, the story links Du Bois to the many black parents who lost children to white violence.
In the wake of the baby’s death, Du Bois is desperate to work, even as he feels despair at the cruelty of death in the midst of a world already so full of suffering. Du Bois describes his son’s 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 Bois and his wife felt unable to bury their son in Georgia and instead took his body north. In the midst of his grief, Du Bois could not help but be grateful that his son, who never grew old enough to experience the Veil, was “not dead… but free.”
Again, while Du Bois’ son does not die as a result of racist causes, his life and death are inherently affected by the issues of race and racism. The fact that even at their son’s funeral, Du Bois and his wife must suffer being called “niggers” by white people shows the vicious and merciless reality of a racist world. Du Bois’ final words in this paragraph emphasize the powerful point that it is arguably better to be dead than a black person alive in America, especially if one wants true “freedom.”
Du Bois notes that his son’s “otherworldly look” perhaps hinted that he would die before experiencing the reality of racism. He considers that it is possible that his son might have grown up and “borne his burden more bravely than we,” or even that the Veil would somehow be lifted within his son’s lifetime. For now, however, the Veil remains very real, and Du Bois dreams of one day escaping it and reuniting with his son in death.
The end of this chapter echoes the conclusion of an earlier chapter, in which Du Bois voices the thoughts of rural black people who wonder if the era they live in represents a “twilight” or not. Du Bois clearly feels cautiously hopeful that the world is becoming more progressive, but is also tormented by the uncertainty of the future.