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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Du Bois's concept of the "problem" and the "color-line" in The Souls of Black Folk

Summary:

Du Bois's concept of the "problem" in The Souls of Black Folk refers to the systemic racial discrimination and inequality faced by African Americans. The "color-line" symbolizes the division and segregation between races, highlighting the social and economic barriers that prevent true equality and integration in American society.

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What does Du Bois mean by "problem" in the context of the "color-line" and in reference to himself in The Souls of Black Folk?

In the first mention, the "color-line" is, in context, framed as a social "problem," something to be solved through policy and mutual understanding. In context, DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk at the height of the Progressive Era, when educated men and women turned their talents to come up with institutional solutions to the pressing issues that confronted society. These included such things as alcohol abuse, poor working conditions, crowded inner cities, and many others. Writing in 1903, at the beginning of a new century, DuBois was saying that race relations were the "problem" of the present and the future, and The Souls of Black Folk was an attempt to help people understand the nature of the problem by helping readers learn about African-American identity.

In the first chapter, he uses the word "problem" differently. The question often posed by well-meaning whites is, "what does it feel like to be a problem?" In this sense, DuBois and African-American people are "problems" in the sense that they have, as DuBois writes, a "double-consciousness." They live behind a "veil" that separates them from the world of white Americans. They feel a "twoness...an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." In this chapter, DuBois uses "problem" in this sense—a unreconciled search for "true self-consciousness" that exists in the minds of African-American men and women.

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What does Du Bois mean by "problem" in the context of the "color-line" and in reference to himself in The Souls of Black Folk?

Du Bois' use of the term "problem" highlights what he sees as the unique duality of Black subjectivity in America. The "problem of the color line," as he puts it in his Forethought section, alludes to a particular set of socioeconomic and political issues that stem from the history of Black people in America, particularly the legacy of slavery and the failure of emacipation to address basic inequities. When Du Bois shifts, in the first chapter, to thinking of himself as a "problem," he is describing the sense of alienation Black people feel personally as a result of that history. Du Bois feels, even in grade school, that others see him not as an individual, but as part of the larger "problem" of race. As a result, he comes to evaluate his own individuality in terms of his relationship to that problem. As Du Bois puts it, "one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

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What does Du Bois mean by "problem" in the context of the "color-line" and in reference to himself in The Souls of Black Folk?

There is a difference between the personal sense or perception of being a "problem," as expressed in Chapter 1: Of Our Spiritual Strivings, and the "problem of the color-line," as mentioned in Chapter 2: Of the Dawn of Freedom. However, the former condition was precipitated by the latter. DuBois's sense of being a "problem"—a notion that is imposed on him by the liberal, well-meaning whites he alludes to in his prose—is a result of the history that he describes in the second chapter, which constructed black people, first, as non-citizens and "three-fifths" of a person, then, a system that imposed a second-class status and eliminated due process.

Being unwanted, being a "problem," can result in a feeling of defeat or, in the case of DuBois, in a determination to strive: "That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads." Still, the historical framework that constructed him as a "problem" causes that striving to be for naught in many instances: "Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine."

The perception of DuBois and other black people as a "problem" prevents whites, based on his anecdotes, from speaking to black people as individuals. Instead, black people are spoken to within the context of their racial oppression, from the understanding of their position as members of a permanent underclass. Thus, the "problem" of one's existence as a black person is created by the conditions of history and reinforced even by those who mean well.

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What does Du Bois mean by "problem" in the context of the "color-line" and in reference to himself in The Souls of Black Folk?

In the first instance, Du Bois uses "problem" to describe a generic, abstract, widespread issue: the issue of the divide between blacks and whites (what he calls the color-line) caused by racism. Race, as an abstract concept children learn, causes white people to believe themselves superior to black people. It also causes black people to internalize the cultural perception of inferiority in such a way that they display two faces to the world: the servile face they turn to whites and the reality of their own experience, understood only by other black people. This first instance is "problem" used in a very broad way.

In the second instance, Du Bois takes the broad concept of a "color-line" problem and makes it individual and specific. On the big, generic level, this "problem" is nothing more than a false construct: in reality, there should be no "color-line" because black and white people have equal ability, but the imposition of racism has created a false reality. Nevertheless, this false construct has very real consequences when it becomes a "problem" faced by a living, individual black person like Du Bois, who is held in contempt and treated as lesser—and ultimately has many fewer opportunities—based on a larger, more abstract perception of a "problem."

Ideology, in other words, matters. If white people believe black people are problem, then they become a problem.

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What does DuBois identify as the 20th-century problem and what does "the color-line" mean?

In W.E.B. DuBois's seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, the problem of the twentieth-century is, indeed, that of the "color-line."

The phrase "the color-line" first appeared in an article called "The Color Line" written by Frederick Douglass for the North American Review in 1881. It became better-known when DuBois used the phrase to expand its relevance for the issues confronting black Americans in the twentieth-century.

The color-line is a direct reference to the segregation that existed in the United States -- both the legal, de jure, segregation in the South, and the de facto, or "in effect," racism in the North and the West. Segregation made it so that blacks and whites lived in such disparate worlds that their lives generally did not look at all the same. Though black people were very often aware the rights and privileges that were kept from them, particularly since working-class blacks were very often employed in white homes as domestic laborers, many white people were blind -- often willfully -- to the inferior conditions in which black people existed.

The color-line created inequalities in education, housing, and access to employment. It made it nearly impossible for black and white people to have any amity between them. Existentially, it worked to convince black people of their presumed inferiority. 

However, DuBois was concerned not only with the conditions in which black people existed in the United States, but also the lives of darker peoples in other countries, particularly the colonies in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The subjugation of these peoples was justified by pseudo-scientific racial theories which attempted to give "the color-line" a scientific basis. 

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