Du Bois begins the book by arguing that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” thereby claiming that black people’s exclusion from white society is the most important issue facing 20th-century America. Both a physical and metaphorical barrier, the color line prevents black people from accessing the institutions, spaces, and opportunities available to white people; this exclusion is both created by and fuels the psychological and social issues of the Veil and double consciousness.
Throughout the book, Du Bois explores the negative effect of Jim Crow segregation on the quality of services and opportunities available to black people. The violence to which black people in the South are subjected (and the impossibility of prosecuting white people for this violence within the Southern justice system) means they tend to self-segregate for their own safety. However, this exclusion then increases the cycle of economic hardship, as black communities tend to have poor resources and opportunities for work and education. Du Bois is careful to show that “exclusion” from white people can also be a good thing, though—as well as providing physical safety, it can also create mental and emotional safety, as takes place within black universities—but he also emphasizes that this exclusion damages black communities by cutting them off from resources they need in order to maintain a decent quality of life.
At the same time, Du Bois also pays attention to the ways that black people form communities that foster a sense of belonging in the midst of a country determined to exclude them and designate them as inferior. Schools, universities, churches, families, and political organizations are all spaces in which African Americans create their own sense of belonging, and that provide support for those in need. Du Bois’ writing on African-American spirituals also demonstrates the importance of this genre of music for creating support, strength, and a sense of belonging within the black community. While racism led many whites to belittle spirituals as a simple, vulgar genre, Du Bois counters this view, arguing that spirituals are the most beautiful form of expression to come out of America, and emphasizing the power of spirituals to create a sense of community. Spirituals are especially significant due to the way they allow black people to connect with the lives of their ancestors. While slavery systematically worked to erase black genealogy and history, the spirituals passed down over generations of slaves forms a connection between the present-day black community and those who preceded them.
Exclusion vs. Belonging ThemeTracker
Exclusion vs. Belonging Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk
The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,––an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
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.
I have called my tiny community a world, and so its isolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding; from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all, from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity. All this caused us to think some thoughts together; but these, when ripe for speech, were spoken in various languages.
Above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.
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.
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.
If you wish to ride with me you must come into the "Jim Crow Car." There will be no objection,––already four other white men, and a little white girl with her nurse, are in there. Usually the races are mixed in there; but the white coach is all white.
"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."
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.
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.
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?"