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The Souls Of Black Folk


By W.E.B. DuBois
The Different Conceptions Of "The Veil" 
"For now we see through a glass, darkly"
 -Isiah 25:7

W.E.B.DuBois' " 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 fourteen 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 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.
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" is an allusion to Saint
Paul's line in Isiah 25:7, "For now we see through a glass,
darkly." 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 one 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." 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 transcending
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
 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. The invisibility of Black existence in America is one
of the reasons why Du Bois writes 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 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 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
ante-bellum South." 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." 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 invisible; hidden behind the veil. Bell Hooks in her
study of Black women and feminism tries to bring to light
the forgotten past of black women who have also been hidden
behind a veil, " Traditionally, scholars have emphasized
the impact of slavery on the black male consciousness,
arguing that black men more so than black women were the
real victims of slavery." To Bell Hooks, the veil which
makes black women invisible to white society is made from
an inseparable cloth woven from the threads of racism and

The Black reconstruction period is another area in which
scholars have grappled with the consequences 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
scholarship on the area. 
 The most striking examples of the theme of the veil and
invisibility is in literature about Blacks struggling with
their identity and with oppression. In " Beloved", Setha's
rational for killing her child can not be understood by the
white police system which sentence her to prison. In Ralph
Ellison's," Invisible Man", the main character says, "I am
an invisible man, No I am not a spook like those that
haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood
movie ectoplasm's. I am a man of flesh and bone, fiber and
liquids- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am
invisible understand because people refuse to see me."
Ralph Ellison's invisible man like the history of black
women, slavery, reconstruction, and many other elements of
black life are hidden behind "the veil" making them
invisible to much of society. 
 The veil is also a metaphor for the separation both
physically and psychologically of blacks and whites
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 manifestation of the train tracks that
divide the black and white parts of town. Du Bois in
Chapter two lays out 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." 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 Ku Klux Klan.
 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.
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. In Eric Foner's book on reconstruction
a veil separated black and white interpretations of
reconstruction. 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." 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
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 and 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, "Within the veil was he born, said I; and there within
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 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." 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

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 move around 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 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 policies 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 " 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 Souls of Black Folk is a metaphor that
connotes 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 Souls of Black Folks 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. 

So, wed with truth,
 I dwell above the Veil.
 Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?
W.E.B. Du Bois
Works cited:
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam
Company, 1989.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House
Publishing, 1990.
Foner, Foner. Reconstruction America's Unfinished
Revolution. New York: Harper & Row Company, 1989. 

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter. New York: Quill
William Morrow, 1984. 184. Paula Giddings points out how
black women were stereotyped into three categories, the
sexless suffering Aunt Jamima, the seductive temptress
Jezebel, and the evil manipulative Sapphire. These are just
some of the negative stereotypes of Blacks that formed on
the white side of the veil.
Meier, August. Negro Thought in America 1880-1915. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.
Rabatoteau, Albert. Slave Religion: The invisible
institution "in the Antebellum South". Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1980.
Rampersad, Arnold. Slavery and the Literary Imagination: Du
Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. Baltimore: The John Hopkins
University Press, 1989. 104-125. Rampersad in his book says
that Du Bois's metaphor of the veil is an allusion to Saint
Paul's letter to the Corinthians. 



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