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I am trying to understand a small portion of the following quote from The Souls of Black Folk:

The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people,--a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.

I understand this quote overall as it speaks to, among other things, the disappointment of African Americans, even after being emancipated. However I don't quite understand what Du Bois meant when he said "unbounded save."

Can someone clarify that last part of the sentence and why he chose to use those words? I haven't seen such English at all in recent literature, so I'm having a bit of trouble.

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    try parsing as “unbounded, save by the simple ignorance”. (save here meaning except)
    – Jim
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 20:17
  • Hmm, interesting. That would definitely make more sense.
    – user212550
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 20:35
  • 'Save'. of course, means 'except' in this context. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 7:53

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The cited quotation appears in Du Bois's book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. However, an earlier version of the quotation appears six years earlier an article by Du Bois, "Strivings of the Negro People," in The Atlantic (August 1897):

The freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of lesser good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people.—a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly folk.

The three main differences between the earlier and later versions are (1) the opening clause of the quoted paragraph in the later version, "The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins" is nowhere to be found in the earlier version; (2) "whatever of good" in the later edition appeared as "whatever of lesser good" in the earlier version; and (3) the last word is "people" in the later version but "folk" in the earlier.

The effect of the first difference is that Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folks explicitly yokes the United States' sin of embracing slavery as an institution to the freedman's disappointed hope to reach a promised land following emancipation.

The unattained promised land appears to be a place with features such as peace, harmony, prosperity, education, meaningful employment, civic engagement, and social equality—the greater goods flowing from freedom and opportunity, augmented by various lesser (that is to say, relatively incidental) goods. Freedom from slavery removed the physical shackles, the practical imprisonment of involuntary servitude, and the institutional status of being mere chattels; but it did not, as Du Bois points out, show heartening signs of progress toward the idealized benefits—after "thirty years of national life, thirty years of renewal and development.

My understanding of the final phrase in the quoted excerpt—"a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people [or folk]"—is that the newly liberated freedman had imagined that the only thing standing between him and the life that he hoped freedom would bring to himself and his children and grandchildren was the ignorance in which the institution of slavery had, to preserve itself, kept him and his generation.

The grave disappointment to black people, then, was the discovery that the enforced ignorance that slavery had imposed on them (leading Du Bois to call the African Americans under slavery "a lowly people [or folk]") was not, after all, the only impediment to achieving the promised land. If it had been, the educational advances of black families and black communities would have left the no longer ignorant, no longer lowly people in a position to enter the promised land.

But instead, prejudice, resentment, an unfair economic system, separate and unequal treatment under law, disenfranchisement, and imputations of inferiority formed new walls preventing the freedmen and their progeny from enjoying the greater goods that they had hoped for and that had thought that they might be only a generation or two from achieving.

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