The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk Summary and Analysis of "Of the Dawn of Freedom"


Du Bois sets the stage for his second chapter, Of the Dawn of Freedom, by stating that “the problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the Color line” (Du Bois, Page 16), which is the “relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” The relation of the “darker” to the “lighter races” is a direct reference to the existence of the veil, or the distinction that separates the ‘Negro’ from the rest of Americans. While he focuses on the United States and on the plight of the darker skinned man in this country, he highlights for the first time, that that is a global issue. In the United States, specifically, however, the treatment of the “darker” race resulted in injustices and war.

The differences between the white American and the “Negro” resulted in the poor treatment of African-descent in the United States, especially when it had to do with slavery. Du Bois contends that the controversy resulting from the institution of slavery resulted in the Civil War. Congress, he states, claimed that the actual issue is one of sovereignty. Although governing bodies refused to accept that slavery somehow resulted in war, slaves became an imperative part of the war itself.

In the South, slaves were seen as resources: free labor that could produce for states within the Confederacy. This, however, was also a contentious issue, as slaves in different states were awarded different freedoms. Virginia put slaves to work, for example, while Missouri declared them free under martial law. Furthermore, in areas that required for slaves to be sent back to their masters, it was impossible to determine whether these ‘Negros’ were free, abandoned, or fugitive. Although there were many discrepancies about the treatment of ‘Negros’, governing bodies remained adamant that the War was not about slavery.

The debate over the importance of slavery during the Civil War developed into a national acceptance of the economic inequality faced by the black man. Since the ‘Negro’ was a newly freed man with no experience or economic worth, it was difficult for this group of people to establish themselves into American society. They were, in essence, foreigners in the only land they had ever known. These inequalities persisted, as the government did not reach a general consensus on how to deal with the newly freed man. In Washington, for example, the military confiscated the estates that were given to fugitives after their freedom from slavery. It was not only in secluded areas of the country that these inequalities existed, which resulted in necessitating a bureau to deal with them.

The inequalities faced by the American Negro were difficult to rectify; according to Du Bois, the greatest attempt at this was the establishment of a Freedman’s Bureau. Initially referred to as the Freedmen’s Act Society, this congregation dedicated themselves to supporting the newly freed man and to enable these free men to exit their deplorable conditions. Generally, white military leaders took leadership positions in neighborhoods and newly established black townships.

For years, the stratification of the ‘Negro’ remained. In an attempt to rectify this, many American leaders collectively decided to petition President Abraham Lincoln about guiding blacks. This would provide not only economic opportunity, if passed, but also educational, and would allow for Americans of African descent to rise to prominence much as their white counterparts had. As a direct result of this, Treasury Agents in the United States purchased large quantities of land in the Mississippi Valley. This land was used to employ Negros, and thus began the economic rise of the black person in the United States.

Du Bois completes his essay by providing a historical account of the federal freedoms allotted to, and restricted from, the ‘Negro’ in the late 1800s. He mentions that in 1864, the government suspended the use of large quantities of land in the Mississippi Valley for matters of public policy. Following this, the Act of 1865 passed, which established a War Department with a “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land” (Du Bois, Page 21). Under this, the Secretary of War was allowed to offer rations, clothing, and fuel to the Negro, thus taking charge of the newly freed man in the United States. For the first time, Americans of African lineage were provided with marriage applications and employment, thus attempting to facilitate assimilation into American society.

Throughout Of the Dawn of Freedom, Du Bois provides a historical account of the Negro in the United States. He argues that regardless of the governmental freedoms supposedly granted to the newly freed man, the Negro remained enslaved through more modern measures. While no longer chained to their masters on plantations, Negros remained segregated in the United States. The problem, he argues, continues to be, the color-line.


"Of the Dawn of Freedom" serves as an introduction to the racial nuances that Du Bois will encounter throughout the rest of the work. Through his encounter with the new girl in his school who refuses to accept the card which he has written for her, the reader begins to see the transformation of Du Bois from an ignorant young man into the insightful academic that he eventually becomes. This exchange thus serves not only as an introduction to the idea of a veil, but also as a catalyst to the adult personality that Du Bois eventually adopts.

By telling the reader that he will examine racial relations within the 20th Century, Du Bois positions his text as a historical one. It is, therefore, not only a sociological analysis on the plight of the "Negro" in the 20th Century, but also a lesson in history. This is done so that the reader can fully understand the obstacles with which this group is faced. Du Bois suggests that it is difficult to fully understand the concept of the veil, without first understanding the history surrounding it.

At the beginning of this essay, Du Bois discusses the question that most people do not want to ask him: what it feels like to be a problem. As a "Negro" in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Du Bois realized that he held a low position within society. While he understood how others saw him and what they felt about him, he also acknowledged that by virtue of his education, he was not entirely a "problem". He was, according to whites that often asked this question, a token good person within black society.

This idea that "black was bad" and that only few good ones could exist predated the more contemporary versions of race. In essence, this exchange served as a foreshadowing of the black strife of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Throughout the 20th Century, blacks continued to fight for equal rights. While many fought for the rights of their people, only few came to national attention. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader from within the Civil Rights movement, rose to prominence around the time of his death. His civil activism throughout life was mostly ignored, because he was black. Thus, even in modern America, the persistent idea that being black was a problem persisted.

This first essay provided the reader a more detailed definition of what the "veil" was. The "Veil", a metaphor for the color-line, was that with which African-Americans would live with for life. They would always live with the knowledge that they were different, and that others would see them differently. Regardless of how hard they tried, they would never be able to rid themselves of this metaphor or of this distinct difference. Du Bois uses an accusatory tone to explain this concept. Through his writing, it is apparent that he blames the American government for place African-Americans in position that would ultimately constrain them to live within the veil. He also insinuates, however, that only those who do not live in ignorance are aware that this burden exists. Thus, the uneducated black man does not necessarily need to worry about the existence of the veil, solely because he does not know it exists.