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.”
Slavery vs. Freedom ThemeTracker
Slavery vs. Freedom Quotes in The Souls of Black Folk
The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
“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.”