The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B Dubois is a influential work in African American literature and is an American classic. In this book Dubois proposes that ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.’ His concepts of life behind the veil of race and the resulting ‘double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,’ have become touchstones for thinking about race in America. In addition to these lasting concepts, Souls offers an evaluation of the progress of the races and the possibilities for future progress as the nation entered the twentieth century.’ The Souls of Black Folk’, is a collection of autobiographical and historical essays contains many vast 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.
One of Dubious the most outstanding themes is the idea of ‘the veil.’ The veil provides a connection between the fourteen seemingly independent 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 seems to be a metaphor for the separation and invisibility of black life and existence in America. It is also a major reoccurring theme in many books written about black life in America. Du Bois examines the years immediately following the Civil War and, in particular, the Freedmen’s Bureau’s role in Reconstruction. He feels the Bureau’s failures were due not only to Southern opposition and ‘national neglect,’ but also to mismanagement and courts that were biased.
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The Bureau did have successes, and there most important contribution to the progress was the founding of school for African American. Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, Du Bois claims that the most significant event in African American history has been the coming about of the educator, Booker T. Washington. He then became the spokesman for the race. But Du Bois argues that Washington’s approach to race relations is counterproductive to the long-term progress of the African American race. Washington’s acceptance of segregation and his emphasis on material progress represent an ‘old attitude of adjustment and submission.’ Du Bois asserts that this policy has damaged African Americans by contributing to the loss of the vote, the loss of civil status, and the loss of aid for institutions of higher education.
Du Bois insists that ‘the right to vote,’ ‘civic equality,’ and ‘the education of youth according to ability’ are essential for African American progress. Du Bois relates his experiences as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee, and then he turns his attention to a critique of American materialism in the rising city of Atlanta where the single-minded attention to gaining wealth threatens to replace all other considerations. In terms of education, African Americans should not be taught merely to earn money. Rather, Du Bois argues there should be a balance between the ‘standards of lower training’ and the ‘standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life.’ In effect, the African American college should train the ‘Talented Tenth’ who can in turn contribute to lower education and also act as liaisons in improving race relations. Du Bois returns to an examination of rural African American life with a presentation of Dougherty County, Georgia as representative of life in the Southern Black Belt. He presents the history and current conditions of the county.
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Cotton is still the life-blood of the Black Belt economy, and few African Americans are enjoying any economic success. Du Bois describes the legal system and tenant farming system as only slightly removed from slavery. He also examines African American religion from its origins in African society, through its development in slavery, to the formation of the Baptist and Methodist churches. He argues that ‘the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the history of the Negro in America, but no uninteresting part of American history.’ He goes on to examine the impact of slavery on morality. In the last chapters of his book, Du Bois concentrates on how racial prejudice impacts individuals.
He mourns the loss of his baby son, but he wonders if his son is not better off dead than growing up in a world dominated by the color-line. Du Bois relates the story of Alexander C rummel, who struggled against prejudice in his attempts to become an Episcopal priest. In ‘Of the Coming of John,’ Du Bois presents the story of a young black man who attains an education. John’s new knowledge, however, places him at odds with a Southern community, and he is destroyed by racism. Finally, Du Bois concludes his book with an essay on African American spirituals. These songs have developed from their African origins into powerful expressions of the sorrow, pain, and exile that characterize the African American experience.
For Du Bois, these songs exist ‘not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.’ The Souls of Black Folk’ is a compendium of wisdom on the subject of race in America. It looks at how with deft prose and insightful sociological and spiritual wisdom, Du Bois criticizes the failure of American democracy in delivering true equality to blacks. In particular, it shows how his bold assessment of the mainstream, white-supported views of Booker T. Washington in chapter three, has challenged the very core of black identity and forced a more thorough holistic and realistic vision of race relations in America.’ The Souls of Black Folk is designed to steer African-Americans toward a healthy self-consciousness and self-conception.
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It is also written to illustrate the myth of emancipation, which might have ended the southern plantation aristocracy but did nothing to end the underlying beliefs in the inferiority of blacks. Furthermore, since slavery was officially abolished, blacks continue to dwell in poverty in a land of plenty; they continue to be violently and subtly persecuted wherever they walk; they suffer from inequality in almost every arena of American life.’ 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 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.
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 the mein 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. Rabato eu 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…
The Veil of the Minister and Goodman Brown Nathaniel Hawthornes short stories The Ministers Black Veil and Young Goodman Brown are two stories that are thick with allegory. Young Goodman Brown is a moral story which is told through the perversion of a common townsperson. In Young Goodman Brown, Goodman Brown is a Puritan who lets his excessive pride in himself interfere with his relations with the ...
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 cons c, 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 sexism. 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 American people have a serious identity crisis. Its rare while in the country to hear someone say that they are American. People say that they are Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, African, English, West Indian, etc. Often people are a combination of these. For black Americans it becomes even more complicated. Many want to identify as African but others would never dream of such a thing ...
The reconstruction which Fonerterms 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 a man 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 DuBois 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.
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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 ‘s ouls 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 within 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 its 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 Blackman 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 Crum mell 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 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.
IIn 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.’ DuBois 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 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. DuBois 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 ‘s ouls 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. DuBois’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 DuBois’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?