Essential Passages by Character: W. E. B. Du Bois
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
Du Bois begins his essay with the question of black identity. Behind all the questions that ask concern race relations is that one question: How does it feel to be a problem? There are different reasons for not asking it, as Du Bois relates, but Du Bois chooses to ignore the question behind the questions. To him it is too personal, too much at the very heart of the racism of the South, and of the North as well. He continues to examine the problem of being a problem, which leads to a “double consciousness” of the African American population. He himself did not know he was a “problem” until his first encounter with racial hatred, when a girl in his class refused to exchange greeting cards with him simply because of the color of his skin. The struggle with his bitterness derived from this incident, until he learned to exist as a “problem” and yet still function in society.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 10
It is difficult to explain clearly the present critical stage of Negro religion. First, we must remember that living as the blacks do in close contact with a great modern nation, and sharing, although imperfectly, the soul-life of that nation, they must necessarily be affected more or less directly by all the religious and ethical forces that are to-day moving the United States. These questions and movements are, however, over-shadowed and dwarfed by the (to them) all-important question of their civil, political, and economic status. They must perpetually discuss the “Negro Problem,”—must live, most, and have their being in it, peculiar problems of their inner life, --of the status of women, the maintenance of Home, the training of children, the accumulation of wealth, and the prevention of crime. All this must mean a time of intense ethical ferment, of religious heart-searching and intellectual unrest. From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet struggling in the eddies of the fifteenth century,--from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence. The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.
Du Bois reflects on the foundational importance of religion to the African American. Perhaps more religious than the white population, the black race lives in different worlds: the modern life, the spiritual life, and the black life. In this context they must find some way to live their lives as productive citizens and successful family members. Being pulled in so many different directions, the African American lives in a constant turmoil, unable to fully come to grips with his own identity. Having to focus so much on what he is, unlike the white American, the African American cannot help but be confused as to his purpose in society. While he is struggling to...
(The entire section is 1691 words.)
Essential Passages by Theme: Identity
Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1
…I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,--refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others or like mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep though; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a footrace, or even beat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I long for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine.
Du Bois reminisces about his childhood in Massachusetts. Having been born in the North, Du Bois has not experienced the kind of racism that was prevalent in the South at that time. At an integrated school, he encounters his first experience of discrimination. The children had purchased small calling cards (such as adults left at homes they visited) which they could exchange with each other. In trying to exchange cards with one of the white girls, Du Bois is rebuffed when she refuses his card. It was at that moment that he first felt his “differentness” due to his skin color. Without a word, Du Bois accepted it, but built up a resentment against his white classmates that developed into a deep competitiveness with them. His pride was built on his achievements, whether scholastic, athletic, or social. It was a mark of his contempt for those who held him in contempt, He had thus experienced the Veil, as he terms it, that separated the white from the black world. The tearing down of this Veil would be his lifelong goal.
Essential Passage 2: Chapter 6
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
Du Bois, as a member of the generation of African-Americans born after the Civil War, and thus after slavery, has been educated in the environment in which schools for the black race were just coming into being. The nature of those schools, providing teaching for both children and adults as former slaves and their offspring acquire the skills and learning necessary to be a viable force in the economy as well as in society, were trying to find their focus. Those like Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, focused on the practical arts, training men for...
(The entire section is 1466 words.)