The chapter begins with a quotation from the Biblical Song of Solomon. Du Bois describes arriving by train at a place south-west of Atlanta, “the centre of the Negro problem.” Georgia earns this title partly because more black people live there than in any other state, and also because it fought to retain the slave trade with particular zeal. Du Bois addresses the reader, explaining that “if you wish to ride with me you must come into the ‘Jim Crow Car.’” He says not to worry, as there are usually a handful of white people in the Jim Crow Car, although there are never any black people in the white car.
In this passage, Du Bois subtly contests some widely-held misconceptions about racism and segregation. As his passage about the Jim Crow car demonstrates, segregation is not absolute; his words suggest that Jim Crow is less about keeping the races absolutely separate and more about restricting the opportunities and services available to black people, and allowing whites to avoid black people if they choose.
The train stops in Albany, “the heart of the Black Belt.” Du Bois describes the bitter battle to seize the land from the Native Americans, and describes Albany as a usually quiet town that on Saturdays is flooded with the “black peasantry.” Although he describes these people as “simple” and “uncouth,” he adds that their activities are pleasant and harmless––they go shopping, talk with friends, drink but do not get drunk, and rarely fight. Du Bois claims that Albany is in many ways a typical Southern town.
Again, Du Bois’ discussion of poor rural black people can at first appear elitist. However, it is important to remember that he is writing in a context in which such hierarchical racialized class distinctions were more deeply embedded into culture than is the case today. Du Bois avoids overstating his own affinity to poor black people as well.
Moving his attention across the state, Du Bois compares the contemporary landscape to what existed in the past, pointing out that the plantations have now been divided up between former slave-owning families, Jews, and African Americans. He notes that the land is neglected and thus not as fruitful as it could be. Indeed, the whole area feels “forlorn and forsaken,” with many buildings falling apart. Only black people remain, as they have no choice but to stay. Du Bois describes them as weary and working hard to pay off debt and the rent of their land. He also mentions some black people who were tricked out of money and land in the aftermath of slavery.
Du Bois describes the South as defined by a disappointment so strong that it is even reflected in the physical landscape and disposition of its population. Note the contrast of this image to the idea of Emancipation as a rapturous liberation described earlier in the book. For centuries, slaves had longed for freedom and imagined that it would bring an end to their suffering. In reality, however, the abolishment of slavery brought neither peace nor freedom for black people in the South.
Du Boiswrites that the Black Belt is rich with history, but that its story is rarely told. He recounts tales of the Osceola, “the Negro-Indian chieftain,” of the slaves brought to the area and the enormous amount of cotton they were forced to harvest. He mentions an elderly man who describes the area as “a little Hell” and recalls slaves dropping dead in the middle of work, only to have their bodies kicked aside. Du Bois describes slave masters who abandoned their plantations to the overseers, a “blue-eyed quadroon” whose dark-skinned husband works in the field, and five houses of prostitutes, two black and one white.
Throughout the slavery era and beyond, whites generally did not consider the lives of black people as worthy subject matter for the historical record. This prejudice, combined with slaves’ illiteracy, meant that the life stories of slaves were passed down through oral history, turned into rumor, or forgotten. In this chapter, Du Bois attempts to reverse this trend by recording the lives of people in the “Black Belt.”
Du Bois describes a young black man of 22, who before the fall of cotton was successfully renting and farming land. After the fall, however, he was forced to rent land and a mule at an exorbitant rate; Du Bois exclaims, “Poor lad!—A slave at twenty-two.” He mentions that after the war black convicts worked on the land that the young man is now renting, and were violently mistreated. Du Bois explains that, despite working fervently, the young man grows more indebted each year. There is little joy among black people in the area, who are generally very poor and live in fear and resentment of the violence white people exert over them.
Du Bois uses the example of this particular young man to demonstrate how the general black population of the rural South remain in a situation that is not substantially different from slavery. Rather than being imprisoned by the structural system of slavery, black people are instead imprisoned by debt, poverty, and violence. Slavery is thus both an actual, specific system (sometimes called “chattel slavery”) and a broad, variable set of conditions that restrict people’s freedom.
Du Bois moves on to a neighboring area, where more white people live as well as African Americans. He meets a rich black farmer, and points out that much of the land is now owned by Russian Jews. Du Boisconcludes the chapter with another story of a black couple who bought land from a white man, who then cheated them out of it and didn’t pay them for work they’d done. After all this, the sheriff then came to confiscate their furniture; when Du Bois points out that furniture is exempt from confiscation, the man replies that the sheriff took it anyway.
In the South, black people have such low social status that even if they do everything right—including working hard, following the law, and appeasing white people—it is almost impossible to succeed. As Du Bois shows in the final passage of this chapter, black people have no recourse for the mistreatment they suffer, as the justice system is just as discriminatory as the behavior of ordinary white citizens.