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 Theme: Identity

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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 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 jobs in factories and farms...

(This entire section contains 1455 words.)

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of their own. Du Bois, however, decried the neglect of the liberal arts, that would feed the minds of those who had so long been deprived of the culture of the Western Civilization. It is only by this, he argues, that the African-Americans can gain the social regeneration that will lead to integration. Du Bois also notes that it is in the company of the great writers and thinkers of the past that he can transcend the limitations of his ethnically-oppressed heritage. He yearns for more than just common labor for the black race and longs for their opportunity to ponder great thoughts.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 11

Within the Veil he was born, said I; and there within shall he live,--a Negro and a Negro’s son. Holding in that little head—ah, bitterly!—the unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tiny dimpled hand—ah, wearily!—to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, and seeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie. I saw the shadow of the Veil as it passed over my baby, I saw the cold city towering above the blood-red land. I held my face beside his little cheek, showed him the star-children and the twinkling lights as they began to flash, and stilled with an even-song the unvoiced terror of my life.


Du Bois speaks of his firstborn son who was born while he was away. As he comes home and sees his wife holding their baby, his heart is filled with a new level of love for his wife, and an awe of the creature they have brought into the world. Du Bois talks of the birth of his son within “the Veil,” that line of separation that divides the black Americans from the white. Yet he sees the pride of his race in his child, whose tiny hand grasps a hope in an unhopeful land. The land of liberty is a deceptive label that is denied the land of the African-American. As he shows his baby the world into which it has been born, that “unvoiced terror” of Du Bois’ life is stilled. Within this new child is a hope of better things to come. Unbeknownst to Du Bois, however, his firstborn son will only survive a few months, succumbing to an illness that takes away that hope.

Analysis of Essential Passages

W. E. B. Du Bois is the voice of the emerging twentieth-century African-American. Leaving behind the immediate legacy of slavery, Du Bois pointed the way forward to the dreamed-for equality in all areas of American life. He believed in gaining all that was open to white people, including education, voting rights, and social opportunities. Refusing the proposal that integration would best be entered into gradually, Du Bois sees no need to wait for what had been held from his people for three hundred years.

As a child, Du Bois avoided the poverty that was so often the foundation of African-Americans in the late nineteenth century. He was born in an at least marginally integrated community in Massachusetts, though segregation was still the norm. Playing with white children in an environment of equality, (or so he thought), he was shocked to be confronted by racism from a playmate. This is evidence that racial discrimination and prejudice was not confined to the South, but was also prevalent in the Northern communities when many African Americans in the days of Reconstruction. Through this experience, Du Bois first sensed the coming down of the Veil, separating the two races, allowing him to see into the white world but not to participate.

Du Bois was an ardent champion of civil rights, as was Booker T. Washington, at the time. Yet the two did not agree in some key areas. Washington promoted a lesser push for equality, aiming for economic strength for the African Americans and saving social equality for another day. Du Bois, however, would settle for nothing less than immediate equality. To him, education, not manual training, was the key for the African Americans ability to gain equal rights. Higher education should provide a solid foundation in the culture of mankind, rather than just the practical arts. He thus found Washington’s gradual integration unacceptable for a people long denied basic rights.

With the birth of his firstborn son, Du Bois found a small measure of hope for his people. He saw in his son the signs that each new generation would come one step closer to equality. His son’s untimely death, however, destroyed that hope. It created instead an urgency to fight.

As Abraham Lincoln was dubbed the “Rail Splitter,” Du Bois saw himself as a “Veil Splitter." His life goal was to remove that line of separation between blacks and whites. His desire was bring into one that “double consciousness” that plagued the daily life of the African American. His goal was to have African Americans finally be recognized for their contributions to the United States and to have an equal place in the land of liberty.


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