Soph. Sem. Paper 2
W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, a collection of autobiographical and historical essays contains many themes. There is the theme of souls and their attainment of consciousness, the theme of double consciousness and the duality and bifurcation of black life and culture; but 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 14 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 which 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.”(Du Bois, 3) 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.
Du Bois’s veil metaphor, “In those somber forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, -darkly as though through a veil”(Du Bois, 6) is an allusion to Saint Paul’s line in Isiah 25:7, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”(Rampersad,104-125) Saint Paul’s use of the veil in Isiah and later in Second Corinthians is similar to Du Bois’s use of the metaphor of the veil. Both writers claim that as long as one is wrapped in the veil their attempts to gain self-consciousness will fail because they will always see the image of themselves reflect back to them by others. Du Bois applies this by claiming that as long as on is behind the veil the, “world which yields him no self-consciousness but who only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”(Du Bois,3) Saint Paul in Second Corinthians says the way to self consciousness and an understanding lies in, “the veil being taken away, Now the lord is the spirit and where the spirit of the lord is there is liberty.” Du Bois does not claim that eclipsing the veil will lead to a better understanding of the lord but like Saint Paul he finds that only through transcending “the veil” can people achieve liberty and gain self-consciousness.
The veil metaphor in 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.”(Du Bois, 3) The invisibility of Black existence in America is one of the reasons why Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folk in order to illuminate the “invisible” history and aspirations 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,xxxi) Du Bois in each of the following chapters tries to manifest the strives 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 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.”(Du Bois, 189)
The invisibility of Black existence is a recurring theme in other books about Black history. In Raboteau’s book slave religion is called, “the invisible institution of the antebellum South.”(212-318) Raboteau tries to uncover and bring to light the religious practices of Black slaves, he tried to bring their history out of the veil. Rabatoeu writes how religion for slaves was a way in which, “slaves maintained their identity as persons despite a system bent on reducing them to a subhuman level… In the midst of slavery religion was for the enslaved a space of meaning, freedom, and transcendence.”(Du Bois, 318) Because slave religion was an invisible institution hidden by a veil from white slave masters it provided a way in which slaves could resist social death. The history of Black women is also the history of a people made shrouded; hidden behind the veil. In this book as women are described by their physical characteristics for the most part, by a male speaker, proving that the veil which makes black women invisible to white society is made from an inseparable cloth woven from the threads of racism and sexism. The Black reconstruction period is another area in which scholars have fought with the repercussions of the veil which has hidden the history of black striving and struggle from view. Eric Foner’s book on the reconstruction was the first major study of the period since Du Bois’s book on the period fifty years earlier. The reconstruction which Foner terms “America’s unfinished revolution” could also be called American invisible revolution due to the lack of literacy on the subject.
The veil is also a metaphor for the separation both physically and psychologically of blacks and whites in America. Physically the veil separates blacks and whites through Slavery, Jim Crow laws, economic inequality, and the voluntary segregation that followed the end of the civil war. The veil acts as a physical barrier that permanently brands black Americans as an “other”; the veil is the metaphorical exhibition of the train tracks that divide the black and white parts of town. Du Bois in Chapter two blames the creation of the veil from the end of the civil war to the failure of reconstruction. The following chapters then tell of those who have acted to strengthen the veil such as Booker T. Washington or who suffered behind the veil such as the school children Du Bois taught.
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.”(Du Bois, 1) 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 affiliations 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.(Foner,119)
The theme of separation caused by the veil is repeated in many other black texts. In Raboteau’s book, slave religious practices were separate from white religious practices.(294-300) Although many times slaves and their masters worshiped 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(Raboteau) and for slaves, religion became a form of resistance and hope; a way to resist social death. In Eric Foner’s book on reconstruction a veil separated black and white interpretations of reconstruction.(xxi-xxiv) 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 races.
Du Bois in 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.”(xxxi) 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 strives, two warring ideals in one dark body.”(Du Bois, 3) 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 red land.”(Du Bois,147) 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.”(Du Bois,151) 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 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.”(Dub Bois, 187) 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 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.(Meir, 230-232) Booker T. Washington seeks to work behind the veil by pursuing polices of conciliation. Du Bois in contrast wants blacks to exceed the veil by politically agitating and educating themselves.
Du Bois’s conception of the veil contradicts some of the other theme’s in 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 hidden 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 Souls of Black Folk is a metaphor that indicates 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 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” Americans who live and strive invisible and separated from their white brothers and sisters. Du Bois wrote Souls of Black Folks to lift the veil and show the pain and sorrow of a persevering 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.
1. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam Company, 1989).
2. Arnold Rampersad, Slavery and the literary imagination: Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk Rampersad in his book says that Du Bois’s metaphor of the veil is an allusion to Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
4. Eric Foner, Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row Company, 1989).