The Souls of Black Folk Essential Quotes by Theme: Identity
by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Identity

Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1

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…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 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...

(The entire section is 1,455 words.)