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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
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Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa
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Reading Guide
2.  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, Ch. 1, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
    W. E. B. Du Bois

We also return to Du Bois in this section for his poignant declaration of the African American's quest for identity—the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood." Although granted freedom, citizenship, and suffrage by the Civil War amendments, the emancipated black person had yet to be seen as a person by white society—and, often, by himself or herself. By the fact of being black, one qualified as a "problem." By the fact of being black, one had to maintain a "double consciousness"—looking at oneself first through the eyes of white society. How does selfhood survive these obstacles? How does one maintain self-respect in this environment? Where does one find solace from the strife?

Du Bois's responses to these questions reflect his perspective as an educated northern black man. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts into a family that had long been free, Du Bois pursued education with intellectual fervor. Beginning his college education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, he was exposed to the plight of former slaves living in the hostile South. After completing a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, he returned to the South to teach, soon becoming a spokesman for equal political rights for African Americans. A vital text, especially for the "vocabulary" of identity and selfhood that he created for his times. 7 pages.

Note: Du Bois opens each chapter of Souls with a poetic verse and the score of a spiritual (a "sorrow song"). In chapter one, the spiritual is "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and the verse is Arthur Symon's "The Crying of Water."

Discussion questions
  1. According to Du Bois, what is essential for the African American "to attain his place in the world"?
  2. What are the "spiritual strivings" of African Americans as they enter the 20th century? Trace the connection of these "spiritual strivings" with blacks' quest for legitimate power, as outlined by Du Bois.
  3. In what way is the black person "a sort of seventh son, born with a veil"? Is the veil permanent? Is this veil the same as Dunbar's and Washington's "mask"?
  4. Three decades after emancipation, what "shadow" hangs over African Americans? Contrast this with the "shadow" over the Blue Veins in Chesnutt's "The Wife of His Youth."
  5. Consider Du Bois's concept of the "contradiction of double aims." How does this contradiction distort blacks' strengths into apparent weaknesses? How has it led to undeserved shame?
  6. What solace and strength does black culture offer to African Americans? to American society as a whole?
  7. How would Booker T. Washington and Henry Singleton respond to Du Bois's perspective on attaining black identity?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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