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The Fragmented Self in American Fiction Essay


As it is in the world since time immemorial, human beings have struggled with their disunified self identity. This is owed to the diversified compelling circumstances in our society.

We have allowed ourselves to be controlled by highly capitalistic thinking in our quest for self authenticity that we can no longer identify ourselves. However, as we find out ultimately, each individual is unique in his/her own way and one does not have to conform or be like others in order to be complete as individuals.

As James Hollis stipulates in ‘What Matters Most,’ we are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being” (Johnson 35). This essay examines the concept of dual identity, its implications and the extents an individual goes to establish self authenticity in a society characterized by stratification and disunity.

Dual identity

Dual identity or double consciousness refers to the various ways individuals have at their disposal that can enable them defined and understand who they are and how they fit into their surrounding.

Most importantly, it refers to person with a multifaceted identify; an individual whose identity is challenged by discrepancies that exist in the social norms and the day to day hustles faced by the individual. It alludes to the way one perceives himself and also how the person is envisioned by others.

The Souls of Black Folk

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (26) describes the concept by looking at the life of the blacks in the United States at a time when racism was at its worst.

Through his metaphor of the veil, Du Bois advances that all black Americans wear this veil owing to their perception of the universe and its capabilities which is very different form the way the whites look at it. This veil is the color problem.

He presents dual identity in; the ability of the white Americans to effectively generalize the blacks by compelling them into not standing up for their people when they know the truth of the situation (politically), the racial segregation of the blacks from the predominant society regardless of whether the were Americans or not and most importantly the inner struggle that the black has to contend with; being black and American at the same time.

While dual identity may be a blessing for the black American, Du Bois however observes that it is dangerous when an individual reconciles himself into being accepted as he is perceived to be or molding one’s identity to fit that which others perceive him to be.

The black Americans are stripped of their real identities and look at themselves through the stereotyped disdain of the whites. The black is torn between being black and American at the same time. He cannot see himself as he is but perceives himself through the point of view of others which Du Bois argues, is tainted by disdain and pity.

The black American is conscious of his being black and American; something which creates both psychological and social strain not only within the individual but also on groups. While he considers himself an American, he still feels like an outsider because of his skin color. Consequently, their consciences are split, compelling them to identify themselves twice.

This is the precarious and detrimental position the black American is thrust into that greatly affects their perception of what is acceptable and what is not. Consequently, they have come to accept that the whites’ perception of who they are is the right one.

The whites look at the black masses as ignorant, destructive and incapable of good. This has seriously affected their individuality and character. According to Du Bois (28), the life of a black American is characterized by conflict. There is this struggle for recognition and the attempt to blend his dual identity to become a better version of his real self with the hope of conserving the African in them.

Du Bois strives for a society in which a black is given the opportunity to not only be black but also American without being segregated against by others and without being limited.

The American society is divided along various lines. Du Bois viewed racism, a product of slavery as a problem in the American society but also stipulated that the t times individuals are to blame for the way they are regarded by others.

To him, double consciousness is letting one self to be perceived through other people’s eyes. This is especially damaging when they let their conduct and character be affected or swayed by those perceptions. People become discriminated against and generalized by their color with many perceiving them as indolent, ignorant and destructive. This is a negative perception which kills their self worth.

The solution to this problem of color bar is for the back person to be given the opportunity to choose representation by voting, accessing quality education and being accorded fair treatment just like the other Americans.

In “Of the Dawn of Freedom”, he argues against Washington’s policies on how to handle the African American problem by arguing that education for the blacks should not just be industrial but should also academic so that they can also raise leaders and teachers within themselves.

While the black church may at one time have played the saving role from the miseries of slavery, it is now seen by Du Bois as a shortcoming that requires blacks to be emancipated from.

He views it as the only obstacle standing between blacks and their total liberation; a liberation that focuses on economic growth and empowerment. Instead of the black church overly dwelling on political movements, it ought to seek to improve the economic condition of the blacks in the society.


The quest for self authenticity and the struggle with dual identity and acceptance is also portrayed by Abraham Cahan in Yekl; a story of a young Jew living in Russia and later the United States of America.

Faced with the hopelessness resulting from the crimes against the Jews and the Russian government’s nonchalance towards the situation, the Jews realize their position in the Russian society as that of lesser citizens in spite of their struggles to fit in.

Yekl, more than anyone else, strives to be accepted into the Russian society. He knows the most words in Russian compared to other boys. However, his efforts to be incorporated are dwarfed by the killings aimed against the Jews.

His father’s blacksmith workshop, the family source of livelihood, is adversely affected. The pressure compels the boy to go to America where he hopes to make enough money and ultimately be reunited with his family (Cahan 12).

His life in America is characterized by a series of ironies. As Jake, Yekl strives to deal with his situation as an immigrant by attempting to be an American as much as he can. This ultimately drives him to be unfriendly towards others like him.

His idea of fitting in is to strip himself of his Jewish roots. He is obsessed with the idea of being a real American that he actually thinks he ought to get rid of the Jewish in him and take in his idea of what being American is. What Yekl contends with is dual identity.

His problem lies with the failure to accept that he is eminently Jew by nature and embrace his Jewish culture whether he is granted full American citizenry and privileges (Cahan 16). He fails to understand that he can be fully American as a Jew and does not need to be fully assimilated.

Jake uses language to be incorporated into first the Russian then the American society. He believes that by learning and mustering the language and by selectively using some words, he can be accepted easily. His hostility towards fellow immigrants and his reference to them as “greenhorn” is an attempt to show that he is superior to them.

His use of English and “Yankee” style is also an attempt to overawe the less incorporated immigrants. While the writer attempts to indicate that Jake has only accepted the guise of American civilization, Jake actually thinks it is genuine and so do the immigrants (Cahan 19).

This becomes conflicting for Jake as it reaches a time when his attempts to Americanize by using “Yankee” style reveal his bad English. The mixture of Yiddish and English are clear indications that linguistically, he will never be fully American.

He does not understand that unlike in Russia, a Jew in America did not have to adopt the language and the ways of the Russians to be assimilated. That was just an anti Semitic strategy to get rid of the Jews by constricting them in illiteracy and relegating them as lesser citizens in the Russian society. In America though, one did not have to be assimilated to attend school or college.

Jake fails to understand that America is made up of many ethnic groups which are all considered American regardless of their levels of assimilation. He fails to differentiate the Russia and America cultures; Russian which condoned transgressions against the Jews and America.

From a victim in Russia, he becomes the discriminator in his attempts to be a Native American forgetting that he is subjecting his own kind (the less incorporated immigrants) to the same type of suffering the Jews went through in Russia.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson describes the concept of dual identity or double consciousness through the story of a mulatto, the “Ex-Colored Man” who lived in racial America after the Reconstruction period.

The conflict with his identity arises when he is caught between accepting his black roots through ragtime music and going though life unnoticed as an insignificant ordinary white man in a society besotted with color.

Living a protected and a more privileged life than his counterparts, the Ex Colored Man is exposed as a child into a life of the privileged black people and the kind whites.

His world is changed by the death of his mother subjecting him to a life previously unknown to him: life of the lower class black. He however fits in well as he passes and is able to deal with all classes of blacks. His experience leads him into identifying three categories of blacks; the despondent class, the submissive class, and the autonomous workman.

To him, the despondent blacks were the poor who despised the whites; the submissive worked for the whites while the later did well by themselves and did not need the white man. His light skin allows him the privilege to associate with the all white.

Johnson indicates that despite the long tiring hours of working for The Rich White Gentleman playing ragtime to entertain white men, he would ignore his tired body just to put a smile on the white men’s faces. He is passed around to other people’s parties and he is enchanted by the lives of the whites.

He becomes a slave and also a friend of the white man. He embarks on a mission to use his talent to help the poor Africans in order to fill the empty space in his life.

This freedom to interact and be friends with the white man and the Ex Colored Man’s allegiance also indicate that the man was indirectly affected by the implications of slavery as there is that clear relationship between a master and a slave (Du Bois 20).

His intentions of moving South, forming a black American musical style and restoring the black man’s honor are noble. While in the South, he helplessly bears witness to a horrible lynching of a black man, a scene which is etched on his mind for a very long time. This was but one of the many scenes that prevailed in the whole south. This scene made the Ex Colored Man opts to go by as white (Johnson 37).

He did not want to identify himself with blacks who could allow themselves to be treated so inhumanely and those who could do such heinous crimes to others. He chooses to abandon the black race and refuses to be identified as black to the rest of the world and instead goes ahead to live life as a white man.

We observe however that the Ex Colored Man, despite his satisfying life as a white man, still has regrets for giving up his other heritage; the black heritage. This implies that had the Ex Colored Man embraced his black roots, he may have been a better man.

His double conscience and its contradictions is portrayed in his being accepted as white despite his black roots which are manifested in his skills for black music.

However, his fear of being a black makes him abandon his talent which he had planned to use to save and change the position of the black race in exchange for the convenience and privileges being a white man. He was forced by society at that time to take the best of the situations and live with it no matter the consequences (Johnson 35).

The Ex Colored Man chose to marry a white wife to foster his position as a white. Nevertheless, his life is full of ironic twists.


Race is the mother of many social problems affecting the world today. Du Bois, Johnson and Cahan bring together an amalgamation of history, fiction and personal experience that clearly indicate the dilemma that race or color poses to individuals and the society at large.

They both address the historical problem of racism not just for the African American but for other ethnic groups and the struggles they have to contend with to fit in the society.

While it is natural for an individual to seek a better life for him/herself, the social stratifications that exist in our society do not make the choices easy for the individual.

All the writers attempt to tell us how it felt like to be caught in the racial dilemma and an individual’s efforts to advance and emancipate one self from the dilemma.

Self authenticity requires that individuals mature psychologically, acknowledge and develop our uniqueness. Otherwise, we will always struggle to conform to the demands of society which are in many instances too overwhelming yet we can simply be accepted as we are.

Works Cited

Cahan, Abraham. Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto and The imported bridegroom, and other stories. London: Courier Dover Publications, 1970. Print.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. Hill and Wang publishers. 1991. Print.

Du Bois, William. The Souls of Black Folks, norton critical edition, ed. Henry louis Gates Jr. and terri Hulme oliver. NY: New York: New York publishers. 1999. Print.

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IvyPanda. "The Fragmented Self in American Fiction." September 19, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-fragmented-self-in-american-fiction/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The Fragmented Self in American Fiction." September 19, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-fragmented-self-in-american-fiction/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Fragmented Self in American Fiction'. 19 September.

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