The chapter begins with a passage by William Vaughn Moody. Du Bois asks the reader if they have ever seen a cotton field “white with the harvest,” and compares the look of the cotton to the Golden Fleece from the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Du Bois discusses changes to the “Cotton Kingdom,” including the revolutionary presence of the cotton mill and debates over whether or not the Black Belt is still the center of cotton production. Du Bois argues that black people are not studied enough, and that white people wrongfully presume they “know it all” when it comes to the lives of African Americans. To counter this trend, Du Bois will examine the lives of the black farm laborers who work in the Black Belt.
Du Bois’ work serves as a reminder that much of the plight of African Americans was defined by economic circumstances. Although willful discrimination was a major factor in the poverty and exploitation of black workers in the South, equally important were issues such as industrialization and changes in the price of cotton. Du Bois suggests that these economic (or material) conditions must be examined alongside psychological factors in order to truly understand the lives of black people in the South.
In 1890, 10,000 black people live in the Black Belt, along with 2,000 whites. Du Bois notes that “the country is rich, but the people are poor,” and that debt dominates life in the area. Slavery and Emancipations, combined with the impact of war, left a legacy of financial disaster. Du Bois notes that the black laborers in Dougherty County, where his focus lies, live in the same cabinsthat existed during slavery. The cabins are overcrowded, run-down, and poorly ventilated, which has a negative effect on the productiveness of the workers who reside in them.
Although Du Bois does not say so explicitly in “Souls,” he was critical of capitalism, believing that it was the root cause of many aspects of racial injustice. Even when the law technically gave black people the chance to own land, gain wealth, and achieve social mobility, in reality most black people were excluded from these opportunities by the issues of poverty, poor labor conditions, and debt.
Due to economic hardship, the black families in the area are smaller in size than they used to be, and few young people are married. Du Bois notes that it is common for couples to separate, and laments the “easy marriage and easy separation”—a legacy of slavery—that is common within African-American communities. He refers to the ease with which marriages are broken as an “evil,” and points out approvingly that the black church is making strides to end this tendency. However, Du Boisalso argues that in many cases, couples split due to economic pressures and other factors beyond their control.
From a contemporary perspective, Du Bois’ attitude toward marriage may seem conservative. However, it is important to bear in mind that slavery systematically disrupted black people’s efforts to build stable, supportive romantic and family units. Black people had been denied the chance to have autonomy over their own social attachments for centuries, and this continued after Emancipation due to economic stress.
Du Bois explains that all but about 10% of the black population of Dougherty Country is very poorly educated, and about two-thirds cannot read or write. However, illiteracy is only part of the story. During slavery, information about economics, government, and other fundamental aspects of society was deliberately hidden from black people, and the consequences of this are still strongly felt. Du Bois argues that when we talk about groups of people in broad terms, it can be easy to forget about each person’s individual soul, and to really consider the vast range of emotion felt by each person.
In this passage Du Bois emphasizes the point that black people’s “ignorance” is not due to innate genetic or cultural deficiencies, but to the systematic denial of educational opportunities. His discussion of black people’s “souls,” meanwhile,reminds his presumably white audience of the dignity, depth, and potential to be found in each black person, no matter how much they have been forced to suffer or how many opportunities have been withheld from them.
Having said this, Du Bois then returns to portraying the black community of Dougherty County in broad, statistical terms. He explains that the vast majority of the population work as farm laborers, that child labor is a significant problem in the county, and that 94%of people work—both men and women. Du Bois describes meeting a former slave who complains about the fact that he cannot afford his rent, and that the only way to make money is to own land. The man protests that the “world called him free,” but that his reality is “a mockery of freedom.” Although poor black workers in the South might legally be free, the reality of their lives is often indistinguishable from slavery.
Note how the condition of black people in the South differs from the “normal” white family structure of the time. At the turn of the century, middle- and upper-class white families were still defined by strict gender roles, with women staying at home to take care of the children and household. In the black communities Du Bois describes, everyone works, regardless of gender and often regardless of age. Material racism thus had a significant impact on the family structure and social conditions of black people.
Cotton is the currency of the Black Belt, and it is a currency “bound to bankrupt the tenant.” Many black people are in debt from which they can never hope to recover; this is partly the result of a racist belief among white employers that unless they are bound by debt, black people will not work at all. Thus the poorest black workers in the South remain in a form of slavery, and “the Thirteenth Amendment is sadly broken.” These workers’ ignorance of the broader labor market leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
Du Bois shows how the system of cotton farming was established to benefit landowners while dooming tenants to poverty. No matter how hard black cotton farmers worked during this period, there was little they could do to escape debt and actually profit from their labor. Cotton farming is thus one of the clearest examples of material racial injustice.
Du Bois also describes the aggressive harassment and violence black people are forced to face in the Jim Crow South. He notes that much of this is written into Southern culture, but not into law. Du Bois says that black people can find greater safety by living in communities that have a large black population; however, this also means that people stay living in communities where there is little hope for economic growth. Du Bois argues that it is a mistake to view black people as lazy, when in fact they are generally dedicated and enthusiastic workers, but he suggests that they perhaps lack the greed that can motivate people to aggressively pursue opportunities to make money.
Throughout the book, Du Bois emphasizes the ways in which black people in the South must constantly choose between facing the lesser of two evils—whether poverty and violence, ignorance and bitterness, or debt and destitution. As a result, racist ideology ascribes negative characteristics to black people, claiming that they are inherently unintelligent, lazy, or criminal. Du Bois implies that if the reader understands the choices black people are forced to make, they will see these characteristics as false.
Du Bois explains that white employers refuse to improve the working conditions of black people, claiming that such a move would be disastrous and blaming the dilapidated Southern landscape on “Negro freedom.” Indeed, Du Bois argues that both white and black men blame their problems on the other, such that a mutual understanding becomes impossible. White men refuse to acknowledge why black men would want to seek better opportunities and quality of life.
Here Du Bois illustrates the way that racism is constructed through fear. Just as many white people delayed the abolition of slavery because they feared the vengeance of freed slaves, so do white employers in the post-Emancipation period fear the consequences of improving the labor conditions of black people. As Du Bois indicates, this fear is largely irrational.
Du Bois explains the different socioeconomic classes that exist among black people at the time he is writing. At the bottom is the “submerged tenth,” sharecroppers who are “entirely without capital. Above them are metayers (tenant farmers) and semi-metayers, who pay rent in cotton. Above this, 5% are “money-renters,” and only 6% actually own any land. The system of renting through cotton leaves workers extremely vulnerable to exploitationand in an impoverished, “wretched” position. Du Bois suggests that the money-renters are often more intelligent than the metayers, and are in a better position because they have been able to negotiate fairer arrangements for themselves.
Although Du Bois claims that the tenants who manage to pay rent with money are more intelligent, elsewhere in the book he has shown that intelligence and understanding of the modern economy are largely due to luck. For the majority of black people in the South, education and information about the economic system in which they live is simply not available. Thus even black workers with innate intelligence and skill are forced to accept bad (and often illegal) employment contracts and conditions.
Du Bois notes that tax records suggest that there are no black landholders in Dougherty County, but that it’s possible there were some whose land was under white patron’s names, a practice that began during slavery. In total, only 185 black people have owned land in the county since 1875; collectively, they have owned 30,000 acres, yet only half of this is currently under black ownership. However, given all the obstacles that the black community of Dougherty County have faced, Du Bois holds that this is impressive. More privileged people cannot fathom the “soul-sickening battle” these black communities in the South face. Du Bois concludes the chapter by noting that the very few families who have been able to achieve a degree of financial security through land ownership tend to move to the cities.
Here Du Bois introduces another problem that impacts the economic development of black communities in the South: as soon as black people accumulate enough wealth and resources for social mobility, they tend to move North and/or to cities. This means that rural black communities remain trapped in cycles of poverty, violence, and injustice. This problem continued into the 20th century with the “Great Migration” of African Americans to the North and West, and is arguably still an issue in today’s world.