Illustration of W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Essential Quotes by Character: W. E. B. Du Bois

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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,...

(This entire section contains 1695 words.)

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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 leave the ancient life of slavery to the modern one of a free man, he is doing so in a nation with its own period of transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. It is because of this, says Du Bois, that the double-mindedness of the modern African American leads often to hypocrisy in his personal life, as well as radicalism in his politics.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 14

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land had centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,--we have fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?


Throughout his collection of essays, Du Bois has struggled with the role of the African American in the American social history. For more than two hundred years that role has been in the context of slavery. With emancipation, the black race was forced to find a new place in the community, a community that did not quite know what to do with them, nor did they themselves know what they were capable of or what was required of them. The time of transition from slavery to equality, Du Bois says, is over. Both races, white and black, must accept the role the African American has played in the history of this nation. Rather than focus on the slavery heritage, Du Bois present the African American past as one of co-construction along with the white man. Neither race can anymore reject that positive aspect of the black presence in America. As has the white man, the black man made America what it is.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk appeared in a time of transition. Going from the tumultuous nineteenth century to the modern (and unbeknownst to all) even more tumultuous twentieth century, Du Bois sparked a debate that would continue well on into the next half century and beyond. The twentieth century appeared as a time of hope, when blacks could leave the legacy of slavery behind and find a new place in the American society. But this involved an intense psychological struggle to find an unknown identity that would fit within an unknown new civilization.

Within the horror of slavery, the place of African Americans was known to all—within the confines of bondage. Even those who were freed or never enslaved felt this mark upon them. With freedom following the Civil War, however, blacks were seen as a problem—either to solve or to eliminate. The rise of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan existed to eliminate them as a problem, to drive them back into effectual and emotional slavery, despite the thirteenth amendment. And those who desired to solve this problem of a displaced people, often did not look to the African Americans themselves for the source of the solution. This precarious position between rejection and acceptance necessitated the finding of a new identity for the black race within a new America.

As Du Bois relates, the one constant in the lives of the African Americans was religious faith. Even in the time of slavery, this was the one freedom that could not be taken away from them. It was free, easily accessible, and could be practiced even in the silence and secrecy of one’s own heart. Yet even religion was falling from its place of priority in this new America. Education, according to Du Bois, would help weld a new identity, but not as a laborer (as Booker T. Washington would have), but as an intelligent and thinking human being.

To Du Bois, the future was to be found within the enlightenment of the past. Though performed unwillingly, the efforts of the black slaves helped to build American society. Du Bois desires to change the focus of the past from the condition in which African Americans found themselves, to the construction of a nation under their hands, along with the white ruling race. Du Bois’ message in helping to recreate the identity of the modern African America is to accept the past, learn from it, honor what was honorable, and move on.

Du Bois’ message to his readers is that the time for change of the identity of African Americans is now. All society, both white and black, is changing, open to adding new paradigms. A new role for blacks could also be part of this change. The Souls of Black Folk is a call to begin the change. Du Bois’ work helped to open doors in the minds of both white and black that would lead to the march for civil rights half a century later. Sparking the National Association of Colored People, Du Bois’ message would influence such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and lead to as new a nation as that which Du Bois was leaving behind.


Essential Quotes by Theme: Identity