Du Bois’ classic text The Souls of Black Folk does not at first read as a cohesive argument. Rather, each chapter offers a different style, a different purpose, and this makes for a complex and at times disjointed reading experience. The unifying factor in the text is the metaphor of the “Veil” – a metaphor which itself varies according to the scope of each chapter. When discussing race on a societal level, Du Bois describes the Veil as an external barrier, a wall built to exclude blacks from the white world of “Opportunity.” However, when discussing race on a more personal level, Du Bois uses the same Veil metaphor to explain the “double-consciousness” of black Americans – in this context the Veil becomes an internal barrier, a sort of self-aware division between a man’s black identity and the contemptuous gaze of his internalized white culture. Taken together, these two manifestations of the Veil metaphor offer a comprehensive understanding of the race problem in America. Ultimately, the function of both Veils is to act as a buffer, distorting the humanity of black Americans beyond the reach of compassionate recognition. According to Du Bois, the only way to halt the resulting cycle of racism and hatred is to look beyond the Veil and acknowledge in one another a common humanity.
In order to understand Du Bois’ argument for human connection, we must first consider the two manifestations of the Veil metaphor and how they function in the text. When discussing the Veil on the societal level, Du Bois appears forever aware of his primarily white liberal audience. For example, he spends several chapters describing the tangible consequences of the Veil, noting the poverty of the black renters, the dismal prospects of the schoolchildren, and all of the other results of discrimination that would have been entirely familiar to a black audience. According to Du Bois, this effort on his part is meant to raise the Veil so that his audience “may view faintly its deeper recesses… the passion of its human sorrow” (Du Bois 1-2). With this, Du Bois suggests that his white audience does not really know what goes on in the lives of black Americans – they see the poverty, and yet they do not recognize the human beings trapped within it. In this way Du Bois establishes the basic metaphor of the Veil from the white perspective, where it acts as a kind of shroud, altering the humanity of black men beyond recognition. He later expands this metaphor into a larger image:
And there in the King’s Highway sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, by which the traveller’s footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line. (35)
With this passage Du Bois describes the Veil from the side of the white spectator, depicted here as a traveller filled with fear at the sight of a “figure veiled and bowed.” Du Bois then calls for a change in that dynamic – the “figure” proves in fact to be a “bowed human heart” who must be raised and unveiled. Here, distilled into a single image, is “the problem of the color-line”: one traveller passes another, bowed and dispirited, and instead of helping him continue on, the first traveller hurries past, put off by the intervening Veil of race. This image is, of course, relatively passive, and yet even in circumstances of violence the underlying message remains – that, to the white abusers, black men appear less than human. This inability on the part of the white men to recognize and identify with their black neighbors is at the heart of the issue, for a lack of recognition is the most basic excuse for hatred and fear.
Even as Du Bois establishes the metaphor of the Veil on a societal level, he also indicates the presence of a similar Veil within the minds of black Americans, a Veil that proves, ultimately, to be an adopted rendition of the one cast upon the black men by white society. Early on, Du Bois describes this internalized Veil as a separation between a black man’s conscious mind and his soul; he writes, “In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, – darkly as through a veil” (9). This separation recalls Du Bois’ earlier discussion of black men’s “double-consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (5). With this Du Bois establishes a dynamic within black men that is very similar to the one he depicts in the traveller image for his white audience. Here the black man’s internalized, critical white culture is the “traveller,” unable to distinguish or entirely relate to the soul moving beyond the Veil. According to Du Bois, this becomes especially problematic when black men begin to lose sight of their own humanity and worth; at one point he gives voice to these thoughts, “Suppose, after all, the World is right and we are less than men? Suppose this mad impulse within is all wrong, some mock mirage from the untrue?” (75). With this Du Bois expresses the worst possible effect of the internalized Veil – the dejected sense of uncertainty as to one’s right to aspire to a better, more human existence. Although he notes that some experience the internal Veil and still manage to see “some faint revelation of” power and identity, the doubt remains a constant shadow in the text, an obstacle that black men must overcome in order to grow and live (9).
According to Du Bois, the only way for black men to overcome this internal Veil is through the education so often denied them by the prevailing white culture – education whose ultimate end is human recognition and validation. This end, as depicted by Du Bois, comes in two forms. Interpersonally, the kindness inherent in the gift of education is priceless; of white teachers’ efforts to educate black students, Du Bois writes, “This was the gift of New England to the freed Negro: not alms, but a friend; not cash, but character. It is not money these seething millions want, but love and sympathy, the pulse of hearts beating with red blood” (83). From this it is clear that, to Du Bois, education is not just about the learned material – it is an act of trust and guidance given by one human being to another, and for this reason it is a breach of the Veil and a triumph for humanity. Beyond mere human-to-human interaction, however, education offers the additional gift of culture and self-awareness, which Du Bois describes in a vision of his own:
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 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 come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? (90)
The sense of flight implied in the phrase “above the Veil” recalls Du Bois’ earlier description of the options available to black youth when confronted with their entrapment: they could either “plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above” (5). Considering the first passage in light of these dismal options, it is clear that the insight Du Bois has gained through his education is, to him, the ultimate achievement of that blue sky – it is through education that he has managed to rise out of the narrow prison of the Veil, to leave behind the “dull red hideousness” of a trapped, hopeless life. The nature of that insight, moreover, helps to reveal the dehumanization inherent in life within the Veil. For, according to Du Bois, the height of “Truth” he has reached is one of human companionship, a place of connection. In studying the works of other great men he has recognized in them his own humanity, and this is what has brought him away from the doubt and hopelessness of the Veil.
It is, of course, not enough to say that black men must be educated in order to escape the internal structure of the Veil, for it is white society that determines who receives an education. For this reason, Du Bois appeals to his white audience, attempting as best he can to help them see beyond the Veil of race, to recognize in black men a common humanity which ought to be raised up, not extinguished. On the subject of education, he writes:
The tendency is here… to regard human beings as among the material resources of a land… Race-prejudices, which keep brown and black men in their “places,” we are now coming to regard as useful allies with such a theory, no matter how much they may dull the ambition and sicken the hearts of struggling human beings. And above all, we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black. (79)
With this passage Du Bois addresses his white audience through the context of their main argument against black education – namely, that black men ought to remain in the subordinate position to which they have been relegated thus far through slavery and exploitation. In this passage Du Bois works to counter this line of thought, describing the black men affected by such reasoning as “struggling human beings” whose hearts “sicken” with the constant grind of an existence devoid of the very hope that education and kindness could give. In this way he attempts to reason with his audience, to draw their attention to the true humanity of those figures hidden and distorted by the Veil. This is, of course, not an easy task, for white society’s refusal to recognize black men’s humanity is the core justification for racism and exclusion. For this reason, Du Bois includes an additional incentive for his audience to look beyond the Veil. Having spent an entire chapter describing the brilliance and kindness of his friend, Alexander Crummell, Du Bois notes the unfortunate fact of his obscurity; he writes, “And herein lies the tragedy of the age… that men know so little of men” (185). With this Du Bois notes the one result of the Veil that does affect his white audience – namely, that they miss out on knowing and interacting with the best of black men. Thus Du Bois concludes his argument with a plea for mutual human growth.
It is thus that, in the end, the two versions of the Veil in fact have but one function – to distort the humanity of the black individuals hidden within. On the societal level, the Veil serves to perpetuate the racism of white Americans by allowing the abusers to ignore the humanity of their victims – allowing them to continue to exclude black Americans from all that is worthwhile in life, with the excuse that black men are different or lesser than themselves. On the personal level, the Veil acts as an internal buffer, hiding from black Americans their true worth and importance as human beings. Because the Veil has only this one function – to distort the humanity of those within – it also has only one, relatively straightforward solution. This is the solution which Du Bois attempts to introduce in the text – the notion of lifting or moving beyond the Veil, of recognizing each other as fully human and deserving of equal treatment. As Du Bois also indicates, this solution is not an easy one to implement, and it requires effort from both sides – effort to learn and grow on the part of black Americans, and effort to understand and help on the part of whites.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Ed. Donald B. Gibson. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1996. Print.