W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of autobiographical and historical essays contains many themes. Themes such as souls and their attainment of consciousness and the theme of double consciousness appear in many of the compositions. However, one of the most striking themes is that of “the veil.” The veil provides a link between the 14 seemingly unconnected essays that make up The Souls Of Black Folk. Mentioned at least once in most of the essays it means that, “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world, -a world with yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” The veil is a metaphor for the separation and invisibility of black life and existence in America and is a reoccurring theme in books about black life in America.
The veil metaphor in The Souls Of Black Folk is symbolic of the invisibility of blacks in America. Du Bois says that Blacks in America are a forgotten people, “after the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil.” The invisibility of Black existence in America is one of the reasons why Du Bois writes The Souls Of Black Folk in order to elucidate the “invisible” history and strivings of Black Americans, “I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive.” Du Bois in each of the following chapters tries to manifest the strivings of Black existence from that of the reconstruction period to the black spirituals and the stories of rural black children that he tried to educate. Du Bois in The Souls Of Black Folk is grappling with trying to establish some sense of history and memory for Black Americans, Du Bois struggles in the pages of the book to prevent Black Americans from becoming a Seventh Son invisible to the rest of the world, hidden behind a veil of prejudice, “Hear my Cry, O God the reader vouch safe that this my book fall not still born into the world-wilderness. Let there spring, Gentle one, from its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deed to reap the harvest wonderful.”
The veil also acts as a psychological barrier separating blacks from whites. The theme of the psychological separation of blacks and whites is a central metaphor of the book starting with the first lines where Du Bois recalls his encounters with whites who view him not as a person but as a problem, “They half 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.” The veil in this case hides the humanity of blacks which has important implications to the types of relations that developed between blacks and whites. With their humanity hidden behind “the veil” black and white relations at the time of the writing of The Souls Of Black Folk were marked by violence: draft riots in New York during the Civil War, riots following the reconstruction period, the lynching of Blacks, and the formation of the Klu Klux Klan.
The theme of separation caused by the veil is repeated in several times. For example slave religious practices were separate from white religious practices. Although many time slaves and their masters worshipped together religion during the slavery period provided to very separate things for master and slaves. For the master religion was a way to justify slavery and for slaves religion became a form of resistance and hope; a way to resist social death. For blacks reconstruction was a time of hope and freedom; for whites reconstruction was a time in which the north repressed a defeated region, with ignorant former slaves, who unable to act constructively for themselves were pawns of the northern intruders. The veil, a metaphor for separation both physically and psychologically hides the humanity of blacks, and created deep divisions between the race.
Du Bois in The Souls Of Black Folk unlike other blacks is able to move around the veil, operate behind it, lift it, and even transcend it. In the forethought Du Bois tells the reader that in the following chapters he has, “Stepped with in the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, -the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.” Du Bois in the first Chapter steps outside the veil to reveal the origin and his awareness of the veil. And it is Du Bois’s awareness of the veil that allows him to step outside of it and reveal the history of the Negro, “his two-ness, -an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.” Now that he has lifted the veil in the following chapters Du Bois shows his white audience the history of the Black man following reconstruction, the origins of the black church. Du Bois then talks about the conditions of individuals living behind the veil from his first born son who, “With in the veil was he born, said I; and there with in shall he live, -a Negro and a Negro’s son…. I saw the shadow of the veil as it passed over my baby, I saw the cold city towering above the blood read land.” In this passage Du Bois is both with in and above the veil. He is a Negro living like his baby within the veil but he is also above the veil, able to see it pass over his child. After Du Bois’s child dies he prays that it will, “sleep till I sleep, and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet-above the veil.” Here Du Bois is living above the veil but in the following Chapter he once again travels behind the veil to tell the story of Alexander Crummell a black man who for, “fourscore years had he wondered in this same world of mine, within the Veil.” Du Bois then in the last Chapter “Sorrow Songs” travels back into the veil from which he came, to return to the spiritual. Du Bois’s ability to movearound the veil could create some confusion as to whether the writer is black. For this reason Du Bois says in his introduction says that, “I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the veil.” Du Bois’s ability to move in and out of the veil gives him the ability to expose to whites that which is obscured from their view. It also lends Du Bois authority when speaking about his subject matter for he alone in the book is able to operate on both sides of the veil.
In the Chapter on “Sorrow Songs” Du Bois implores the reader to rise above the veil, “In his good time America shall rend the veil and the prisoner shall go free.” Du Bois likens the veil to a prison that traps Blacks from achieving progress and freedom. According to Du Bois the veil causes Blacks to accept the false images that whites see of Blacks. Du Bois although not explicitly in The Souls Of Black Folk critique’s Booker T. Washington for accepting the veil and accepting white’s ideas of Blacks. Booker T. Washington an accomidationist accepts the white idea that blacks are problem people; not a people with a problem caused by white racism. Booker T. Washington seeks to work behind the veil by pursuing polices of accommodation. Du Bois in contrast wants blacks to transcend the veil by politically agitating and educating themselves.
Du Bois’s conception of the veil contradicts some of the other theme’s in The Souls Of Black Folk. First, how can the problem of the twentieth century be that of the color-line when blacks are invisible behind a veil of prejudice? Second, how can Du Bois speak from behind the veil as he does in parts of certain chapters and yet present a resemble critique of society? Third, how can the veil both make blacks invisible and separate them at the same time and make the separations so apparent to society. Fourth, how can Du Bois say blacks are gifted with “second sight” when Du Bois says blacks are looking at their past and present through a veil? And Fifth, Du Bois’s prescription for lifting the veil, education and political activism, are only small steps to lifting the stifling iron veil that keeps blacks invisible and separated from white America. Du Bois’s metaphor has limitations and internal contradictions; but these internal contradictions are minor compared to the power that “the veil” has as a symbol of black existence in America.
The veil in The Souls Of Black Folk is a metaphor that suggests the invisibility of black America, the separation between whites and blacks, and the obstacles that blacks face in gaining self-consciousness in a racist society. The veil is also a metaphor that reoccurs in other novels about black strivings. The veil is not a two dimensional cloth to Du Bois but instead it is a three dimensional prison that prevent blacks from seeing themselves as they are but instead makes them see the negative stereotypes that whites have of them. The veil is also to Du Bois both a blind fold and a noose on the existence of “ten thousand thousand” Americans who live and strive invisible and separated from their white brothers and sisters. Du Bois wrote The Souls Of Black Folk to lift the veil and show the pain and sorrow of a striving people. Like Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Du Bois’s “letter” to the American people urges people not to live behind the veil but to live above it.