Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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What does W.E.B. DuBois mean by his quote about being an American and a Negro?

"An American, a Negro... two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

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This quote by W.E.B. Dubois discusses the experience of duality in the African American. In essence, the African American lives two lives; one as a person living in the black community, and one as a person adapting to the white community. This duality is a conflict in how one should act, should feel, and should believe about oneself. At the time Dubois wrote this quote and his book, The Souls of Black Folk, the white community expected a stereotype of the friendly, submissive black who fits into the cultural rules and expectations of whites. However, then and today, the black community expects another side to a black person; one that fits into the cultural rules of the black community. This becomes an internal “war” for black people who have to decide how to act when immersed in both cultures. Both communities have different cultures with independent speech and language, values and beliefs, and hardships and obstacles. 

For example, even today, black people must learn how to navigate both cultures in the way they speak. In the white community, black people must speak a language that would probably be more formal so they can fit in and be accepted. In the black community, slang, diction, and language syntax might vary and be less formal. This tug of war many black people experience causes “warring ideals” within them in trying to understand who they really are as a person, race, and culture. 

This constant pull to fit into two distinct societies causes a lot of anxiety and fear. Often black people feel “invisible” because they are unable to express who they really are. The black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar also writes about this same phenomenon in his famous poem, “We Wear the Mask”. Like Dubois, he suggests that blacks must hide behind a mask in dealing with the white community. They have to hide their true selves in order to achieve and survive. Dubois suggests that this is an experience imposed upon black people by white people who don’t understand that the black community is a separate culture from the white community who often insists that black people assimilate and act “white”.

The themes of being torn apart by the dual roles one must play, the feelings of invisibility, and the necessity of hiding one self’s true identity behind a stereotypical mask are ideas that run throughout African American literature and history.  The “two souls” experience for black people has been a source of angst, unhappiness, and conflict since slavery when black people were taken away from their original culture and forced to adapt to a white one.

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