The Souls of Black Folk | Study Guide

W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Souls of Black Folk | Chapter 2 : Of the Dawn of Freedom | Summary



"Of the Dawn of Freedom" takes a close look at the sequence of events leading up to and following Emancipation, particularly the role that the U.S. government and the Freedmen's Bureau played in helping African Americans adjust to their new liberty. Du Bois mentions many historical figures by name in his examination of who wielded influence in deciding the fates of freedmen during this precarious time. What emerges is an increasingly clear picture of how African Americans came to be separated from white society by the "Veil" of otherness.

The essay's first sentence cuts right to the core of what the white majority refers to as "the Negro Problem," and Du Bois identifies the "color line" as the most divisive element in societies worldwide. In America the government's uncertainty about how it should incorporate newly emancipated African Americans into its free society actually made the seemingly progressive War Amendments more problematic for black individuals. Freedom and unfamiliar rights were suddenly bestowed upon the black population, but no one had thought through a comprehensive plan for how to incorporate this group of people into the national political economy. Du Bois describes the conflicts and confusion about leadership and responsibilities as the Freedmen's Bureau took shape, trying to provide relief and jobs for millions of people without a very clear long-term vision. The result was a constantly changing support structure without committed leadership to see the mission through. Du Bois sheds light on the ways that stewardship of the African American population when it was most vulnerable was sacrificed for short-term goals of national economic prosperity.

Hundreds of thousands of rural Southern black people died from starvation, neglect, and disease between 1862 and 1870. The ones who survived were "bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary." To drive home this cruel reality even harder, groups like the Ku Klux Klan used intimidation and violence to restrict the rights and privileges of African Americans after the Civil War. Du Bois ends this essay where he began it: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."


Du Bois's epigraph for this chapter is a single stanza from the 1845 poem "The Present Crisis" by New England abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell (1819–1891). Lowell was one of the widely read "Fireside Poets" of his day, and the crisis to which this poem refers is that of American slavery. In 1910—seven years after publishing The Souls of Black Folk—Du Bois co-founded the NAACP and dubbed its newsletter The Crisis after this popular poem. Also, Martin Luther King Jr. cited lines from this poem in his 1954 essay "Going Forward by Going Backward," as well as in his 1968 speech "The Other America," which he delivered at Grosse Pointe High School in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit three weeks before he was assassinated. The lines that Du Bois chooses from Lowell's lengthy poem for this chapter mention a vengeful yet protective God who will have the final word, even over corrupted earthly tyrants.

In the final chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois identifies the musical bars accompanying Lowell's poem here as a phrase from the apocalyptic hymn, "My Lord, what a mourning, when the stars begin to fall!" Taken together, the two parts of the paratext (the surrounding material that accompanies the author's text) set a tone of fatalism interlaced with a hope for eventual justice. This duality persists through the entire book, and it is certainly evident in this second chapter, which deftly analyzes the historical failures of post-Emancipation America while looking toward "a century new for the duty and the deed."

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