Lifting the Veil

Striving to Live Above the Veil 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 prominent themes is that of “the veil. ” The veil provides a connection between the 14 seemingly unconnected essays that make up this book. Mentioned at least once in most of the essays the veil is the stereotypes that whites bring to their interactions with blacks.
African Americans are prejudged as incapable and thus not given a chance to prove themselves. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if one is told they can’t do something, they may internalize that belief and think they can’t, when in fact they can. Du Bois puts it as, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Du Bois 2). The veil is a metaphor for the separation and invisibility of black life and existence in America; also a way to represent the idea of blacks living in a “white world”. The veil 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 2). The invisibility of Black existence in America is one of the reasons why Du Bois writes The Souls of Black Folk, in order to explain the “invisible” history and strivings of Black Americans, Du Bois writes in the forethought, “I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand Americans live and strive” (v).

Du Bois in each of the following chapters tries to build the idea 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 book is contending 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 unseen to the rest of the world, hidden behind a veil of prejudice.
He writes in the after-thought, “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” (165). Du Bois wanted this book to inspire Blacks to fight for their rights and equality, he didn’t just want this book to be read, he wanted people to react to the writing and make a change. The veil also acts as a psychological barrier separating blacks from whites.
The theme of this 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”(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 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 throughout the book several times. For example slave religious practices were separate from white religious practices. Although many times slaves and their masters worshipped together.
Religion during the slavery period provided two very different things for master and slaves. For the master religion was a way to justify slavery and for slaves religion became a form of resistance; a way to resist social death and hope that they can overcome the barrier of white prejudices. Another difference is what the reconstruction period did for each race. For blacks reconstruction was a time of optimism 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 for the people of the North.
These differences created immense misunderstanding and because of that neither race was able to overcome the obstacle of learning and excepting a different culture; both whites and blacks thought the worst about each other. Du Bois 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. He also rises above the veil in chapter six, when he explores the great arts, “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 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 will come all graciously with no scorn nor condensation. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil” (67).
No discrimination is to be had when he is reading great works of art because his race doesn’t affect his ability to read and interpret them. Also it is Du Bois’s awareness of the veil that allows him to step outside of it and reveal the history of the Negro. Du Bois goes on to show 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” (128). In this passage Du Bois is both within 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” (131).
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” (134). Du Bois relates to Crummell who struggled against prejudices while trying to become a priest. In the Chapter on “Sorrow Songs” Du Bois implores the reader to rise above the veil. He writes, “In his good time America shall rend the veil and the prisoner shall go free” (163). Du Bois compared 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 directly in The Souls of Black Folk critique’s Booker T. Washington for accepting the veil and accepting white’s image and misconception of blacks. Booker T. Washington accepts the white idea that blacks are problem people; not a people with a problem caused by white racism. Washington seeks to work behind the veil by pursuing polices of accommodation. Du Bois in contrast wants blacks to transcend the veil by politically disturbing the concept of what blacks are and what they are worth and by gaining a full education.
The veil 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 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. This book was Du Bois’s “letter” to the American people urging them not to live behind the veil but to live above it.

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New York University

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