Between Slavery and Freedom: A Reflection on The Souls of Black Folk During the Ninetieth Anniversary of Its Publication
In, 1903, the year The Souls of Black Folk was published, a group of ex-slaves and their supporters held a mass meeting in Washington. Organized by the National Ex-Slaves's Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, the assembled called for the Congress of the United States to pass legislation that would provide pensions to ex-slaves.(2) It is believed that the effort to secure pensions of this type began in Madison, Arkansas in 1894, and from there the idea spread throughout the South.(3) By 1903, many of these organizations raised funds to pay their expenses by soliciting donations either through the mails or directly from ex-slaves. Officials of the United States Postal Service tended to view these efforts with skepticism and suspicion of possible fraud activity because of their assessment that Congress would never pass the necessary legislation.(4) Advocates for the pensions argued that ex-slaves should be compensated for past services. In Congress, however, the usual path of ex-slave pension bills was for them to be introduced and referred to the Committee on Pensions, and from there directed to the Committee on Invalid Pensions where they languished.(5) The skepticism of postal officials was well-founded.
While African Americans attempted to secure pensions for ex-slaves, American Indians in 1903 were continuing the struggle to maintain their very existence. The conventional wisdom among many Americans at that time was that unlike African Americans, whose numbers continued to increase, American Indians appeared to be a dying race. It was estimated that their population declined by two-thirds over the course of the 19th century, numbering about 200,000 in 1910.(6) The argument made in support of Indian extinction was that "the Indians were doomed because like the redwoods, and the buffalo, they could neither resist the whiteman's advances nor adapt to his civilization."(7) The tendency within U.S. national leadership, in 1903, was to view both American Indians and blacks as "problems." This led government officials and private philanthropists to group the two, and to look for a common solution to the Negro and Indian problems. For example, Indians and Negroes were both perceived as possessing a "primitive nature" with the mind and feelings of a child and the stature of a man.(8) A typical attitude of many Americans then was that any effort to educate the colored people in the United States was like butting one's head "against history and the attraction of gravitation" -- [like] "trying to make Chinamen, darkey and Indian into hand-me-down whitemen."(9) The question Du Bois poses in the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, "How does it feel to be a problem?" is not limited merely to the circumstances of African Americans, but embraces all the colored peoples of the of the United States and beyond.
The issue of pensions for ex-slaves or the anticipated extinction of American Indians illustrates an important dilemma of The Souls of Black Folk, the ability of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois's collection of essays and sketches to obscure through their brilliance issues of great significance to many people at the turn-of-the-century. In the years since it first appeared in 1903, the most singular aspect of the African American community, the presence of large numbers of individuals to know slavery firsthand, and the belief that the American Indian would eventually die off in time have disappeared. Yet today in 1993, there is little direct connection between Du Bois's classic text and these issues. The hopes and efforts of ex-slaves to secure in their old age some formal recognition by Congress of the value of their uncompensated labor during slavery has faded from the historical record. As Saunders Redding observed, "The Souls of Black Folk is more history-making than historical. …