Chapters 7–8 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on March 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1276
Du Bois is traveling through Georgia on a train. Georgia is significant because of its huge Black population and its particular disinclination to get rid of slavery. Du Bois notes that when traveling by train, he must travel in the "Jim Crow Car." While some poor whites do also use these cars, Black people cannot travel in the white car. He encourages the reader to journey with him.
The train arrives in Albany, which Du Bois describes as a quiet, working-class town whose Black inhabitants are simple but harmless. They do not drink too much or start fights. They simply live peaceably on land that was actually stolen from Native Americans in the first place.
Du Bois describes the way in which the state of Georgia has changed. What was once plantation land has now been divided among the previously wealthy slave owners, as well as among Jews and Blacks, but the farmland is now not farmed as it once was. In the aftermath of slavery, many of those who benefited from it fled the state in search of better opportunities, but this was not something the working-class Black people could do. Instead, they are stuck working their poor land, in many cases having to pay off debts, some of which were invented.
This area, the Black Belt, has an important place in the history of Black Americans. Slaves were imported into this area and forced to work in a situation described by one former slave as "Hell" and where slaves were treated as disposable. Their deaths went unremarked. Now, many of these former plantations are in the hands of those who once supervised the field shifts, with lighter-skinned Black people, in particular, benefiting. Du Bois notes that the history of Black people in America has very rarely been told, because the lives of slaves were not thought worthy of note.
Du Bois also compares the lives of many modern-day Black men with the lives of slaves: one man, at the age of twenty-two, suffered from the economic downturn and became unable to rent and farm the land he had previously rented and farmed. Instead, he had to rent land and a mule at a far higher rate, which made him effectively a slave to the landowner. Despite the fact that this young Black man continues to strive to work his land, his debt is only increasing, not diminishing, and he is far from alone. It is impossible for Black people in this area to better themselves, and many continue to suffer at the hands of whites. While they may be "free" technically, they are not free from poverty or structural racism.
The train continues into another part of the region, where increased affluence is mirrored by the presence of a larger number of white people. Du Bois meets a wealthy Black farmer, living on land now owned by Russians. However, another couple Du Bois knows have been cheated out of land they bought fairly from a white landowner. Forced into debt, bailiffs then seized the couple’s furniture to repay the debt, even though they had done nothing wrong. Du Bois uses this couple as an illustration of how, while some Black people can succeed, others will be defrauded however hard they work, because society is rigged against them.
Du Bois continues his discussion of debt in the South by discussing the lives of Black laborers in the Black Belt, where 10,000 Black people lived in 1890, compared to 2,000 whites. Although the cotton industry meant that the area was still technically rich, the laborers remain poor, with the aftermath of Emancipation meaning that many former slaves still live in the same terrible conditions they lived in during slavery.
In some ways, Black laborers are worse off now than before, with families very small and few marriages taking place. Although the church is trying to encourage couples to remain married, economic difficulty means that many couples do separate, while sixty percent of Blacks in Dougherty County are illiterate. Because, as slaves, these people were never involved in the economy, politics, or government, they still know very little about these things and are deliberately kept “ignorant.”
Ninety-four percent of Black people in this county work, including the children. Du Bois has spoken to former slaves who feel that their new reality is only a "mockery" of freedom: they do not live better lives now than they did before. Many Black cotton laborers exist in a state of debt that binds them to their employers, essentially a form of illegal slavery. Meanwhile, these workers are not educated enough to be able to free themselves from this bondage.
In the South, although the law supposedly outlaws racist mistreatment, Black people suffer terribly unless they live in primarily Black areas, and when they live in these areas, there are few opportunities to gain wealth. Black people are not lazy, but they have been poorly educated and do not know how to make better money or challenge the situations into which they have been thrust by white employers.
White employers, meanwhile, are the ones who should be improving the conditions of their workers, but they do not. Instead, whites blame Blacks for their poverty, while Blacks blame white employers for their situation. This exacerbates difficulties between the races.
Du Bois explains that in the South, not all Blacks are in the same socioeconomic position: some, tenant farmers, pay their rent in cotton; others pay their rent in money; and the top six percent actually own land. But renting with cotton as a currency means that the workers can suffer terribly if there is a poor crop, and it is difficult for anyone to negotiate a better position.
Very few people who own land in Dougherty County are Black. Du Bois argues that any Black ownership is remarkable; the system in Dougherty County is set to work against Black people. Most Black people seeking financial independence have moved to cities such as Atlanta.
Here, Du Bois directly addresses an issue that many white people in the early twentieth century did not properly grasp: the fact that, in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, the "freedom" enjoyed by many Blacks in the South was actually just a continuation of slavery, which in many cases left the Black farmers worse off than they had been before. Du Bois gently explains, for the benefit of the white reader, why it is so difficult for Black people to achieve upward social mobility in an economy that is built on cotton and has disregarded the intelligence and understanding of Black people. Although, by law, Black people may be allowed to access education and participate in government, in actuality, they have not been given access to these opportunities, so it has been very easy for former slave owners to keep Black workers in a state of ignorance and poverty.
As he describes the Black communities in the South, however, Du Bois is keen to emphasize the fact that it is not through any moral failing that they remain in this poor state. On the contrary, they have simply been overlooked by others, particularly whites in the North. It is not the fault of white readers, Du Bois emphasizes, if they do not understand why the situation remains so terrible for Black people in Georgia. However, by reading Du Bois's book, this hypothetical white audience is availing itself of an opportunity to better understand a group that has previously been dismissed and left undiscussed. These unrepresented Black people in Georgia are a significant group, and they represent a legacy of slavery that litigation has failed to deal with.