One of the main points Du Bois is developing throughout his book is that, to quote him directly, “the defining problem of the 20th century [was] the color line.”
He continues to develop this point in chapter two, which he begins this way:
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points, of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, how this deeper question ever forced itself to the surface despite effort and disclaimer. No sooner had Northern armies touched Southern soil than this old question, newly guised, sprang from the earth,—What shall be done with Negroes? Peremptory military commands this way and that, could not answer the query; the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro problems of to-day.
Two things should be noted here.
The Color Line as a Global Problem
First, this “problem” is not simply an American problem. It is a global problem according to Du Bois. On this point, he turned out to be unquestionably right. As the British Empire collapsed, many African and Asian nation-states came into existence which had not existed before. These states would play a defining role in the politics of the Cold War and would also make massive contributions to the shaping of the global economy in the late 20th century. During Du Bois’ day, there was routinely overlap between the African freedom fighters in post-colonial Africa and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in America. After all, both movements ran on similar ideas, as I noted in our last post.
One of the interesting questions about the contemporary debate on race issues in America is why this trans-Atlanticism has faded so much so fast. Part of this can probably be explained by the simple fact that the defining battles in America and Africa have diverged enough that it no longer makes sense for African American leaders and African leaders to interact as regularly. I also can’t help wondering if religion plays a role in this—groups like Black Lives Matter and many younger black activists are increasingly secular in outlook and generally progressive on matters of sexuality whereas many African leaders are deeply conservative Christians who support policies that groups like BLM would strongly condemn.1
Returning to Du Bois, he is here anticipating how America’s own race problems would shape their standing on the world stage throughout the 20th century. The Soviet Union frequently cited American segregation as one of the many reasons that newly independent majority world states should align with the Soviet bloc rather than America. “The Americans talk a lot about freedom and liberty,” they said, “but just look at how they treat black people.”2
In one particularly notable episode, a Ghanaian ambassador named Komla Gbedemah was traveling in the United States during the late 1950s to speak at a couple historically black colleges. While driving through Delaware, Gbedemah asked the driver to stop at a diner along the highway so he could use the bathroom and have lunch. The Ghanaian ambassador was shocked when the diner refused to serve him, telling him he would have to receive his food at the window behind the restaurant. An enraged Gbedemah quickly informed a number of major international newspapers of his treatment, prompting panic in the Eisenhower administration. This led to Gbedemah’s unlikely visit to the White House later in the week where he met with President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon.3
Thus the many injustices visited upon African Americans in the United States were not simply a domestic problem, but a global problem, precisely as Du Bois anticipated way back in 1903.
The Specifically American Manifestation of the Color Line Problem
It is also worth considering the problem of the color line as a domestic problem in America.
One of the questions that our nation struggled to answer from its founding was what would be done with the slaves, should the government move toward abolishing slavery. There were a number of possible answers, including establishing a colony in Africa similar to Sierra Leone, a colony that Britain had established for their own former slaves. The favored idea amongst many in the north was simply to reestablish the emancipated slaves on the lands of their former owners, a bit of poetic justice, as Du Bois notes in this chapter.
By the time of the Civil War, the nation had been debating that question for nearly 80 years and was no closer to a viable answer than it was at the start—but now they had even more slaves and an economy in the American South that was even more dependent on slave labor to sustain it.
This led to an exceedingly complicated problem in the early days of the Civil War, which Du Bois describes here:
The war has naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, the President, and the Nation; and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West, penetrated Virginia and Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They came at night, when the flickering camp-fires shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon: old men and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men and girls, stalwart and gaunt,—a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and pitiable, in their dark distress. Two methods of treating these newcomers seemed equally logical to opposite sorts of minds. Ben Butler, in Virginia, quickly declared slave property contraband of war, and put the fugitives to work; while Fremont, in Missouri, declared the slaves free under martial law. Butler’s action was approved, but Fremont’s was hastily countermanded, and his successor, Halleck, saw things differently. “Hereafter,” he commanded, “no slaves should be allowed to come into your lines at all; if any come without your knowledge, when owners call for them deliver them.” Such a policy was difficult to enforce; some of the black refugees declared themselves freemen, others showed that their masters had deserted them, and still others were captured with forts and plantations. Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to the Confederacy, and were being used as laborers and producers. “They constitute a military resource,” wrote Secretary Cameron, late in 1861; “and being such, that they should not be turned over to the enemy is too plain to discuss.” So gradually the tone of the army chiefs changed; Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, and Butler’s “contrabands” were welcomed as military laborers. This complicated rather than solved the problem, for now the scattering fugitives became a steady stream, which flowed faster as the armies marched.
So, to begin, many on both sides of the Civil War were deeply invested in the idea that the war was about something other than slavery, even if it was manifestly obvious that slavery was the defining issue that led to the war. Indeed, some people were clear eyed enough about the conflict to recognize as much.
But this denial creates a problem for the north: If the war is not about slavery, what do you do with escaped slaves? Moreover, if the war is about maintaining the American union, does it not follow then that escaped slaves should be returned to their masters in keeping with the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling?
This is what the north did initially. But once they realized that slaves were being used to support the south’s war effort, they changed course and began working to find work for escaped slaves to do to support the northern army.
This highlights another of the issues near the heart of African American history in the United States: If you are a “problem,” to use Du Bois’s term, it follows that you must be solved, in some sense. Problems that need to be solved, however, are passive—or at least are ultimately subject to the will of some other independent entity. This is the issue that Du Bois’s history in this chapter makes plain and the issue has continued, though its manifestations have changed, on down to the present day.
The problem is two-fold: First, the slaves escaping into the north lacked any kind of real agency. Even in doing something to try and claim agency of their lives—escaping slavery—they could not really escape because ultimately the success of their escape was almost entirely in the hands of whatever white people they met when they got into the north and whatever laws existed—and in the post-Dred Scott world the laws that existed mandated that escaped slaves be returned to their masters.
But there is a second point: These human beings were first contemplated in the minds of the whites not as brothers and sisters who share a common humanity but as a problem to be solved. Thus we can see in Du Bois’s history that escaped slaves who made their way into the supposedly free north were not actually treated as human beings, but as valuable resources to be stewarded as the allegedly benevolent northerners deemed appropriate. If there was no tactical benefit to be gained from keeping them in the north, then submit to the law and send them back across the Mason-Dixon. But, oh? The slaves are a military resource in the war? Well then, by all means keep them here and put them to work supporting our army.
If we connect these ideas from chapter two to the double consciousness idea in chapter one, we arrive at the devastating conclusion: African American people must see themselves not only as they wish to be seen, but as the white man sees them—and the white man historically has not seen them first and foremost as people, but rather as a problem or a resource to be used in solving other problems.
We will pick up the questions of agency and passivity in the next chapter, which concerns Booker T. Washington. At the time of writing, Washington was seen as something of a great hope for African Americans and as something of a “safe” black person by white Americans. Du Bois would be severely critical of Washington. We’ll learn why in the next post.
- It was perhaps telling that the US media worked so hard to pin the blame for the widely (and rightly, I should note) condemned anti-sodomy laws in places like Uganda on the influence of white evangelicals. It was the only narrative that would allow them to avoid a relatively obvious fact: On many important issues, the majority of African leaders of today disagree strongly with the progressive left in the modern west.
- If you want to learn more about this, the book to read is Tim Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line.
- This event also played a role in the downfall of Nkrumah in Ghana. Nkrumah was deeply envious of Gbedemah’s White House visit and this led to a fracture in their relationship ultimately resulting in Gbedemah’s exile from the nation to avoid being imprisoned by Nkrumah. After Gbedemah’s departure, Nkrumah’s position in Ghana became increasingly tenuous, ultimately leading his overthrow by a US-supported coup in 1966.