Written in 1903, just 40 years after the end of slavery, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois discusses the problem of race in America during the Jim Crow era. Du Bois details his own experience of having double consciousness. How his identity as a black person and his identity as an American are often at odds with each other.
The end of slavery only partially endowed black people with liberty. The right to vote didn’t entirely grant liberty either, since black ballots often aren’t counted (sadly, still a problem in the United States today). Education didn’t entirely work either since educated black people were often relegated to servant roles. According to Du Bois, work, culture, and education are all needed to move forward towards equality.
No matter how much people try to deny it, the Civil War was indeed about slavery. Du Bois recounts the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau which was responsible for helping out former slaves. Inevitably, freedmen were used by the North to punish the South, and the South greatly resented the freedmen. Land given to former slaves was often taken away from them. The Freedmen’s Bank went bankrupt and the former slaves lost all their savings. Even after slavery was abolished, many black people were still slaves in all but name. Many still worked the same plantations they had before.
The Freedmen’s Bureau wasn’t perfect, but Du Bois thinks it ultimately did more good than harm. Ironically, the South’s opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau is what led to black men getting the right to vote. If you do away with the institution protecting freedmen from getting enslaved again, you need to at least give them the right to vote so they can protect themselves.
Du Bois covers many topics over the course of the book. He criticizes Booker T. Washington for reuniting North and South at the expense of black people losing political power, civil rights, and higher education. He recounts his time as a school teacher in a poor black town, highlighting the inequality between white and black. He criticizes Atlanta for valuing money above all else and he makes the case for the need for higher education.
He gives us a tour of the rural, poverty-ridden parts of Georgia. Mentions that black people often get charged with crimes just so they can be used as forced labor. Black people are basically still slaves since they’re paid low wages, but charged high rent which they can never pay off, keeping them perpetually in debt. They also end up getting cheated out of what little they do have. Since they just keep getting deeper in debt every year no matter how hard they work, it’s no wonder many of them have given up.
He points out that in his day, slavery is basically still alive in more rural parts of the South, far from any large cities or towns. Black people who flee, seeking a better life in town, are usually brought back by the sheriff. The police system of the South was created to deal with runaway slaves and prevent slave uprisings. Due to this, all white men in the South were considered de facto members of the police. When slavery was abolished, the judicial system was used as a means of reenslavement. He points out that for every five dollars spent for public education in Georgia, the white schools get four dollars and the black schools only one.
During slavery, there were bonds of intimacy and affection between domestic slaves and their masters. They lived in the same home, shared the same family life, and often attended the same churches. After Emancipation, blacks and whites stopped interacting. They go to separate churches, live in separate parts of town, travel separately, and read different newspapers. Black people generally aren’t allowed in most libraries, lectures, concerts, and museums. Due to this, there was actually more tension between the races after slavery.
Du Bois discusses how Emancipation was a religious event for black people, the long promised Coming of the Lord. Du Bois recounts the life of a preacher he knew named Alexander Crummell. He talks about the pain he felt when his infant son died, but consoled himself with the thought that his son would at least never encounter racism: “Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow. Better far this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you.”
The most moving chapter, titled “On the Coming of John” tells the story of a black man named John who grows up in the South perfectly happy with his lot in life. However, after going to college up North, he comes back home a more serious man, having learned how unfair the black person’s lot in life is. He tries to change things for the better in his hometown, but his revolutionary talk gets him fired from his teaching job. When he kills a white man for trying to rape his sister, he ends up being caught by a lynch mob.
W. E. B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard and also cofounded the NAACP. He was born just a few years after slavery ended and died just one day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s amazing to realize how much history can happen in the span of a single person’s lifetime.