Du Bois offers an explanation of the text. His overall goal is to inform the reader as to the “strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” He states that the “problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He acknowledges that some of the material has been printed before and expresses gratitude for permission to reprint each in the text. He presents the purpose of each chapter and how each is preceded with “a bar of the Sorrow Songs,” the “haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past.”
I. Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Du Bois says that there is an unasked question among black people: How does it feel to be a problem? Instead of actually asking, people will say to him, “I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?” Du Bois recalls the first time that he noticed that he was different, when one of his elementary classmates refuses a card from him. He then describes being “shut out from their world by a vast veil.” He says that afterward, he had no desire to tear down or pass through that veil, but instead, he held everyone on the other side (white society), in contempt and lived “above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” He describes being pleased by earning better grades and running faster than the other children. His contempt, however, fades as within several years, the white students have opportunities that he does not.
Du Bois describes the other black students, who are less affected by the differences, who either become flattering and subservient to white society or develop hatred for it. He then describes how he and the black students are metaphorically imprisoned by white society. He states that there is a unique existence for black people, that they live in a “double-consciousness,” that black people will always look at themselves from the perspective of white society. He elaborates on the challenges that black individuals face working under “double aims,” trying to appease white society and escaping white contempt, while trying to stay true to his/her own people.
After Emancipation, black society attained progress through voting rights and education. The end of slavery, however, did not solve many of the problems and prejudices Du Bois describes the challenges that black people face, 40 years after Emancipation from slavery, that “the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.” Du Bois states that education “changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect.” Beyond knowledge, education helped black individuals to reshape how they looked at themselves. Education further helped black people understand all the obstacles that they faced, including financial disparity with white society, an overall lack of education and skills, and prejudice.
Du Bois finishes the chapter with a solution. He says that black society must develop, “not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic.” He states that many elements of American culture, from music to folklore, are already heavily influenced by black society. He argues that the best way forward is to not only adapt to American ideals, but also to influence the ideals of America so that they include and reflect those of black society.
II. Of the Dawn of Freedom
Du Bois reiterates that the “problem of the color line” is the problem of the twentieth century. He says that this essay will be primarily concerned with the period of 1861 to 1872. Du Bois points out that the Civil War was primarily fought over slavery, despite Congress and the President at the time stating otherwise. Indeed, Du Bois identifies the different procedures for handling escaped slaves depending on the state or region where they were recaptured as a central issue during the war. He lists various dates and points throughout the war and describes Edward Pierce, of Boston, who was tasked with studying the conditions of slave refugees.
Shortly after Pierce started an experiment, to convert slaves to “free workingmen.” Still, more had to be done to find productive work for the growing number of refugee slaves in other locations like Washington, New Orleans, and Vicksburg. The next attempt was to enlist the able bodied into the military and find work for the others. Du Bois mentions several Freedman’s Aid societies (American Missionary Association, National Freedmen’s Relief Association, American Freedmen’s Union, Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission), “in all fifty or more active organizations, which sent clothes, money, school-books, and teachers southward.” Du Bois notes that their work was needed, as the conditions for freedmen were terrible and steadily growing worse.
The creation of a labor force out of the freedmen suffered further difficulties, as many stood idle and for those that worked, pay was not always guaranteed. Du Bois talks about the eventual solution of opening confiscated estates and employing vast amounts of freedmen, determining payroll, and even building schools, all within large communities that he describes as, “strange little governments.” He also discusses Sherman’s raid through Georgia, which ended with tens of thousands of freedmen being granted land to work under “Field-order Number Fifteen.”
Du Bois then writes about the legislation that leased land to freedmen (under the Treasury Department) which was a relief to the military effort, but within the same year, the army was again given control. Several more attempts failed in Congress to establish a proper department, but in 1865, the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands” was formed. The Bureau was given the ability to issue rations and clothing, as well as the lease and sale of 40-acre parcels, to ex-slaves. Du Bois says, “[t]hus did the United States government definitely assume charge of the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation.” The wellbeing of freedmen became a national concern, as opposed to an element of crisis during the war.
Once Oliver Howard was assigned as Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, he discovered that a large amount of corruption had appeared “under the guise of helping the freedmen, and all enshrined in the smoke and blood of the war and the cursing and silence of angry men.” The lack of oversight and opportunity of the war had created many terrible systems for the freedmen. Howard installed commissioners in each of the seceded states that were entirely in charge of the issuing of rations, ensuring that freedmen were able to choose their employers, and to establish schools, the institution of marriage, and record keeping. The Bureau encountered two major problems, the inability to establish confiscated lands in the South for freedmen, and the challenge in actually applying all of the systems established by the Bureau, as it was hard to find qualified individuals. Du Bois states, “thus, after a year’s work, vigorously as it was pushed, the problem looked even more difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning.”
Du Bois discusses the next period in history, in 1866, where Congress voted to maintain and enlarge the Freedmen’s Bureau, but President Johnson vetoed it as unconstitutional. A modified form of the bill was passed on July 16, giving the Freedmen’s Bureau its final form. Du Bois goes on to discuss the extremely difficult task that the Freedmen’s Bureau had and the unsettled racism that perpetuated in the South. He argues that while the Bureau, which ultimately became a vast labor bureau, had great accomplishments, it was doomed from the start.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was unable to deliver on the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau was “in the planting of free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes of the South.” The greatest failing of the Freedmen’s Bureau was in its judicial system, which was set up so that freedmen would not have to suffer the Southern court system(s). The separate judicial system of the Freedmen’s Bureau created more animosity and conflict between whites and freedmen. Du Bois contends that the Freedmen’s Bureau was as successful as it could be, considering the circumstances and obstacles, yet is blamed for every mistake and evil of the time.
Eventually, the government wanted to stop regarding the freedmen as a ward that they were responsible for and instead empower the freedmen with the right to vote. Du Bois points out, though, that “Negro suffrage ended the civil war by beginning a race feud.” The Freedmen’s Bureau ceased to be and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, giving black men the right to vote, was put in its place. Du Bois argues that even with the right to vote, many blacks in the South were still not free, due to segregation, unfair judicial practices, economic instability, and restricted privileges.
III. Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others
Du Bois starts by discussing the successes of Booker T. Washington. He states that the Atlanta Compromise was his greatest success. It was an agreement that saw Southern blacks agreeing to work for and accept white political rule in exchange for basic education and due process of law. Du Bois also points out that Washington was met with success in the North, able to connect with Northern Whites, despite having been born in the South. Du Bois acknowledges the success and prosperity of Washington, who he labels as the “one recognized spokesman” of black people, but states that there is still room for criticism of Washington.
Du Bois offers that the largest problem with Booker T. Washington’s work is that it relies on “adjustment and submission.” Du Bois has difficulty accepting that the success of Washington’s program “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.” He believes, while appreciative of the success of Washington, that work such as the Atlanta Compromise cannot be supported as it is a policy of submission. Du Bois states that in, “the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.”
Du Bois claims that Booker T. Washington has asked black people to give up three things: political power, the push for civil rights, and higher education for black people. Du Bois says that the result of these requests is loss of rights, the creation of an inferior class for black people, and loss of resources and aid for higher education. He believes that Washington’s efforts have mostly created industrial labor workers, despite the need for more black teachers, which require higher education. He says that the request for black society should be the right to vote, civil equality, and the education of young black people based on their ability. He states that the peace that Washington brokered with the post-war South was traded for the “industrial slavery and civic death” of Southern black men.
VI. Of the Meaning of Progress
Du Bois starts with a narrative passage about finding work as a teacher after graduating from Fisk University. Traveling eastward from town to town, he eventually finds a small rural town with a single-room log schoolhouse. The school was rather crude, especially compared to Du Bois’ expectations of a New England schoolhouse, but he thoroughly enjoys teaching there. He also describes visiting homes after school each day to talk to parents of students that have not attended regularly, having missed classes due to work necessity at home, or parents who have doubts about “book-learning.” Du Bois describes the individuals in the small town and how intimately he knew each of their families, regularly staying at different houses in the community. He teaches at the small town for two years before moving on.
Du Bois then recalls returning to Fisk University ten years later, and how he desired to revisit the small town where he was a teacher. The town has seen little progress. There is a new school building with a proper foundation, but it still has the same crude interior. Some of his students have inherited their parents’ work while others have died. Du Bois states that “death and marriage had stolen youth and left age and childhood there.” After leaving the town, Du Bois wonders how progress can be possible, considering that one of his most eager students has died and the town has not changed. The chapter ends with him “sadly musing” and riding to Nashville in the Jim Crow car of the train.
V. Of the Wings of Atlanta
Du Bois describes Atlanta, Georgia using comparisons to mythology. He recounts the myth of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, and how Hippomenes placed golden apples on the path to distract Atalanta and win (so that Atalanta would marry Hippomenes) Du Bois states that there is a valuable warning in the story, that one should not be tempted into “thinking that golden apples are the goal of racing, and not mere incidents by the way.” He warns of a shift in priorities. He states that the success and rise of Atlanta further motivates individuals into trying to attain wealth instead of civil rights and equality.
Du Bois extends the analogy to discuss the lack of higher education opportunities available to blacks in the South, both for artisans and “college men.” He states that the “need of the South is knowledge and culture,” which is often placed behind the pursuit of wealth. He believes that a proper system of higher education, both trade schools and developed universities, are the best way to achieve progress. He states that the goal of the education system and the society itself should be to improve the quality of life. “And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living—not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.”
VI. Of the Training of Black Men
Du Bois continues to emphasize the need for education. He states that education should be used to improve the quality of lives and that it should be available to everyone, not just those that are going to be successful in a higher education setting. He says that other people put the importance of education in developing society, but points out that training individuals to work does not solve all of the social problems. “Training for life teaches living; but what training for the profitable living together of black men and white?” Du Bois also discusses the hasty establishment of schools, from elementary schools to universities, against the industrial revolution of the South. Du Bois questions the merits of the “industrial school” as it turns people into material resources.
Du Bois points out that segregation, especially in the South, makes any training between groups of people impossible, yet the cooperation of different groups of people is necessary for progress. He describes how thirty thousand teachers were placed in the South in a single generation. The sweeping response was able to eliminate the large amount of illiteracy in the black South and establish a groundwork for higher education to function. He says that many of the higher education institutions in the black South are not all of the same quality. Due to the problems within the new education system, the students at such institutions are less prepared. He does point out the success of black college graduates, who have become effective teachers and community leaders. He reiterates that higher education is the path to social change and racial cooperation.
VII. Of the Black Belt
Du Bois begins with a description of riding in a train car through Georgia. He mentions past events and how the state has the largest population of black citizens in America, at the time. Arriving in Albany, he mentions conflict with the Cherokee and Creek natives, who lived in Georgia before being forced westward, creating the “cornerstone of the Cotton Kingdom.” He describes Albany as a “real capital,” in that it is a county town where 10,000 different people converge on Saturdays to shop and interact. He travels the Albany countryside and observes all the field workers on land that used to be slave plantations.
Du Bois contrasts the hard-working poverty that he finds in Dougherty County with its former prosperous cotton industry that was valued at over 3 million dollars before the war. He encounters many run-down properties where the laborers are in debt to the owners and the owners are in debt to those who run the markets. He finds most of the farms and inhabitants bitter and sad. He does find some prosperity in the northwest of Dougherty County, where there is a larger proportion of white people and more successful individuals of both races. However, he still hears stories of black individuals who had their land taken after purchasing it (and other unfair treatment).
VIII. Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece
Du Bois starts with another mythological reference. He compares the fields of ripe cotton, gold against the black earth, to the golden fleece that Jason and the Argonauts set out to find. He states that the cotton industry has doubled since the Civil War, and despite many whites owning and working in the cotton industry, he claims that black people are chief figures in the industry and the field hands are “worth studying.” He says that the “keynote of the Black Belt is debt.” He claims that it is the heritage of the “wasteful economies” of slavery, but also that it was emphasized by the Emancipation of the slaves.
Du Bois again references Dougherty County. He states that the homes are overcrowded, even more so than in large cities, like New York. He also discusses how slavery has impacted the marriage culture of Southern blacks. In the times of slavery, slaves that were married would often be separated and sold or moved to other plantations, thus the slaves would often remarry eventually, if possible. After Emancipation, Du Bois points out that while many Southern black families regard marriage with the same traditional sense as Southern whites, it is not uncommon to find broken families where the couples decided to separate.
Du Bois next discusses how slave labor was replaced by a town merchant. Poor farmers get loans against their future crops to buy tools and food, but with the nature of the contracts and the decreasing value of their crops, the farmers are always behind and in debt. The merchants that offer the loans and supplies generate large amounts of wealth, but the farmers stay in debt and ignorant. Du Bois says that migration to the Black Belt was initially a huddling for mutual defense, but later, there was a migration back to towns as an attempt at greater opportunity. In Dougherty County, he points out that the high price of rent on land prevents most black farmers from ever purchasing property.
IX. Of the Sons of Master and Man
Du Bois briefly mentions the imperial expansion of Europe and the destructive effects it had on less developed groups of people across the globe. He states that in the future, humans should strive to support “the good, the beautiful and the true” and not “continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”
Du Bois then suggests that the racial division in the South should be studied to better understand future clashes between races. He stresses several aspects of Southern society as parts of racial communication. First, he describes how physical segregation forces each race to regularly see the worst in one another. Second, he describes the exploitative economic system of the South. He contrasts it with the labor unions and commercial laws of the North and of Europe and points out that both white and black laborers suffer due to it. Du Bois describes “political activity” as the third form of contact between the races and classes of the South. Unfortunately, due to post-war corruption, fraud, and force, Southern black voters quickly became disenfranchised with politics, “with the idea that politics was a method of private gain by disreputable means.”
Du Bois explains further elements of government that discourage black participation. Southern blacks had little control over the laws (as they were written), the enforcement of those laws, taxation, and even how tax funds would be spent. Du Bois admits “how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was,” but also points out that “representatives of the best white Southern public opinion” were not those in charge. He extends this point by stating that under such exploitative and abusive systems, there would inevitably be a rise in black crime, which would then only confirm the racist expectations of the white South. Du Bois then explains that instead of focusing on education as a means to prevent crime, the response was instead greater punishment and an increasingly biased legal system.
After outlining the ways that blacks and whites were in contact with one another in the South, Du Bois says that “there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.” Due to the lack of open communication, both sides remain antagonistic, the belief in stereotypes is reinforced, and progress is nearly impossible. For a successful future, he offers that both sides need to “see and appreciate and sympathize with each other’s position…”
X. Of the Faith of our Fathers
Du Bois examines the significance of religion of the black South. He describes the unique reactions from the congregation, including intense movement and shouting, that he did not experience in the North as a child. Du Bois states that the style of religious experience is a carryover from African spiritualism. He also says that the church is the “social center of Negro life in the United States.” He says that the “Church often stands as a real conserver of morals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Good and Right.” He points out the widespread support for the church: in most states there is a black church for every 60 families. Du Bois attributes the success to not only spiritual access but also as a site of relief, especially during times of slavery, where the only power or structure that the slaves had control over, was their own religion. He says that the church, which is “almost entirely Baptist and Methodist,” predates the black family home. He also stresses the important place that religion had as part of Abolition.
Du Bois describes a shift where the church, as the established cornerstone, has had difficulty keeping up with the social upheaval. The church has become less connected with the members’ civil, political, and economic status. He says that this has led to the creation of two competing ideologies. He has found hypocrisy in the North and radicalism in the South. The difference in living conditions (and socioeconomic disparity) of the two regions has fueled the division. He adds that religious life has been affected and it can be seen in elements of the “modern” (early 20th century) black church.
XI. Of the Passing of the First-Born
Du Bois tells of the passing of his young son. He is excited when his son is born, but feels concern, knowing that his son will grow up with the Veil of the color line. Unfortunately, his son dies as an infant due to illness. He describes feeling outrage at the unfairness of the situation. He states that he has never avoided work and has suffered the challenges of racism bravely. He feels as though he has had enough hardship and he and his wife do not deserve such pain. After passing through town, Du Bois feels confusion at how the world has not changed, despite his own world having been impacted greatly. He hears white people call him racial slurs and then later reflects that his son was privileged to avoid the Veil and racism. Du Bois’ last thoughts in the chapter are again about the unfairness of the situation, wondering why it was not he that died, but instead his child, who would have had a loving home and good life.
XII. Of Alexander Crummell
This chapter is Du Bois’s tribute to a clergyman and admired friend named Alexander Cummell. Du Bois lists three temptations Crummell faced in life: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. Alexander Crummell was born before the Civil War and had experienced racism and a bitter father. Du Bois commends Crummell for not becoming hateful himself, eventually being invited to attend an abolitionist school in Oneida County, New York. Crummell felt that he should dedicate his life to being a priest. He was met with resistance and told that, due to being black, he could not be admitted to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.
Instead of falling to despair, Crummell opened his own church in New England. Unfortunately, Crummell experienced a steady decrease in attendance, mostly due to the lack of black people in the area. Du Bois commends him again for not falling to doubt, which would have been the most powerful of the temptations. After meeting resistance and scorn at churches in both Philadelphia and New York, he traveled to England and then to Africa. After 20 years of wandering, he returned and “simply worked, inspiring the young, rebuking the old, helping the weak, guiding the strong.” Du Bois describes Crummell’s life as remarkable, but closes the chapter lamenting the fact that Crummell died relatively unknown.
XIII. Of the Coming of John
In this chapter, Du Bois talks about a former student, named John Jones. John left the rural Southern town of Altamaha to study at the Wells Institute in Johnstown, with the support of his family and despite the doubts of the town’s whites. After some difficulty, John eventually graduated and attended college. His growing awareness of racism made him slightly sarcastic and bitter. On a trip to New York, he was escorted out of a theater due to his race.
After college, his homecoming was awkward, for he was no longer the boy the town remembered. John then applied to teach at the local black school. Judge Henderson hired John on the condition that he would “teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers.” Henderson fired John after only a month, because of rumors that John was filling his pupils’ heads with dangerous ideas. That evening, Henderson’s son chased John’s sister, Jennie, into the woods. John was heading home through the woods and came across the young Henderson, who was holding a frantic Jennie. John hit him with a branch and killed him. John went home and said goodbye to his mother, telling her that he was going to go North to be free. He then sat on a stump at the edge of the property and waited to be lynched by Judge Henderson. When the lynch mob appeared, John stood with dignity and listened to the wind.
XIV. Of the Sorrow Songs
Du Bois uses this chapter to discusses “sorrow songs.” He describes the songs of the slaves as the “singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” Du Bois explains how the songs were passed down and eventually performed by traveling musicians. He admits that he does not have technical training in music, but he does speak on the importance of the songs’ message. Du Bois gives examples of several different songs and says that nearly all of the songs are sorrowful, but they do contain hope and a connection to nature or the land. He talks about the different styles and how they are usually categorized. Many have become connected and shaped by religion, incorporating verses / stories from the Bible. He goes on to discuss three gifts black society has given American society: that of story, that of brawn (hard work), and that of Spirit. He asks, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?”
In this coda, Du Bois writes that he wishes for all people to go forward with thoughtful deeds and “reap the harvest wonderful.”