Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In The Souls of Black Folk (1903),* Du Bois addresses the practices of “squatter” tendencies, in which black Southerners pilfer from landowning whites. Secondly, he implies that there is a futility—even a danger—to being a good worker within the black community. This latter notion is explored in several of Julius’s stories, beginning with “The Goopher’d Grapevine” when Henry's hard work only leads to his being circulated from plantation to plantation, like the tragic hero in “Po’ Sandy.” Henry’s body eventually gives out under the strain of labor: “Henry . . . des went out sorter like a cannel. Dey didn’t ‘pear ter be nuffin de matter wid ‘im, ‘cep’n’ de rheumatiz, but his strenk des dwinel’ away ‘tel he did n’ hab ernuff lef ter draw his bref." Dave, who is “monst’us strong” and “could do mo’ wuk in a day dan any yuther two niggers on de plantation” is nonetheless severely punished for a crime he does not even commit. As Du Bois explains, black laborers’ resisted taking “unusual pains to make the white man's land better” because they understood that hard work got them no closer to owning their own land or maintaining their own sense of space—not to mention that diligent labor could only lead to further exploitation: 

"To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling the snarl of centuries,--to such men very often the whole trouble with the black field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia's word, "Shiftless!" They have noted repeatedly scenes like one I saw last summer. We were riding along the highroad to town at the close of a long, hot day. A couple of young black fellows passed us in a mule-team, with several bushels of loose corn in the ear. One was driving, listlessly bent forward, his elbows on his knees,--a happy-go-lucky, careless picture of irresponsibility. The other was fast asleep in the bottom of the wagon. As we passed we noticed an ear of corn fall from the wagon. They never saw it,--not they. A rod farther on we noted another ear on the ground; and between that creeping mule and town we counted twenty-six ears of corn. Shiftless? Yes, the personification of shiftlessness. And yet follow those boys: they are not lazy; to-morrow morning they'll be up with the sun; they work hard when they do work, and they work willingly. They have no sordid, selfish, money-getting ways, but rather a fine disdain for mere cash. They'll loaf before your face and work behind your back with good-natured honesty. They'll steal a watermelon, and hand you back your lost purse intact. Their great defect as laborers lies in their lack of incentive to work beyond the mere pleasure of physical exertion. They are careless because they have not found that it pays to be careful; they are improvident because the improvident ones of their acquaintance get on about as well as the provident. Above all, they cannot see why they should take unusual pains to make the white man's land better, or to fatten his mule, or save his corn. On the other hand, the white land-owner argues that any attempt to improve these laborers by increased responsibility, or higher wages, or better homes, or land of their own, would be sure to result in failure. He shows his Northern visitor the scarred and wretched land; the ruined mansions, the worn-out soil and mortgaged acres, and says, This is Negro freedom!"


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