In W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, explain how his use of the concepts of ‘veil’ and ‘double consciousness’ help to explain that race and the marginalization of African Americans is a socially constructed narrative? (7.5 marks, 800-900 words)
The Souls of Black Folk, is a seminal work by African-American Sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Originally published in 1903, Du Bois elaborately describes the “social degradation” of the African-American community in the backdrop of systemic and institutionalised racism. Born just a few years after the 13th Amendment was passed, Du Bois recounts the true nature of emancipation brought forth by the abolition of slavery, implying that even though the physical shackles that were used to bound slaves no longer exists, what was still not done away with are the shackles of white prejudice against the black community that creates a social reality of living “behind the veil” created by the white society and in a “double consciousness”, on one hand in the reality of ones own community and culture and on the other hand, is a reality filled with contempt and racial prejudice meted out against this very community. Du Bois also brings to light the true nature of this “half-named negro problem”, implying that it is not a problem of the black community, but rather a problem for them, created by the White American Society. He suggests that the only way to overcome this social degradation is through the power of education and that granted by suffrage and in doing so, creating a society where the black community can live a life of dignity and equality, shoulder to shoulder with their “white neighbours.”
Living Behind “the Veil”
Du Bois first talks about the problem as a strange experience, recounting experiences of contempt and of revelation. He talks about his contempt for the political correctness of White Americans that he encounters whenever they interact with him. According to him, they always try to beat around the bush and mention either the southern outrages or their relation to the civil war, whenever he is around. Rather than outwardly asking about the lived experience of being a “problem”, they constantly remind him of being different from them. Later on, he recounts his childhood experiences of this same feeling, when a white girl in his class refused to exchange a visiting card with him with just a look of contempt, thus this realisation dawning upon him that he is very different indeed from the rest of his peers, his skin color being the so-called “black”. Yet, he talked about not being affected by this realization in school at least, as he outperformed many of his peers in academics and sports. Du Bois himself had a certain privilege over the rest of the people of his community, being interracial in the first place and belonging to a community of freed slaves on his maternal side, therefore getting access to education and later on becoming the first african-american to recieve a Ph.D from Harvard, indeed making use of his intellect for this achievement. However, this did not prevent him from realising how segregated the african-american community was from the rest of the White Society., not just in terms of the difference in skin color but historically through institutionalized policies of marginalization and exploitation. He uses the metaphor of a prison to describe this, a prison made of white walls behind which lurkled the “sons of the night (black community”, most of whom had already resigned to hopelessness and despair. For people who were clearly not as privileged as him, life as an african-american was either lived in sycophancy and subservience to the dominant whites or in silent hatred for them. What then is life with any potential when living in an isolated realm devoid of opportunity? It is a life of contempt and suffering, born behind the “veil” that is cast on them by the White community.
The “two-ness” of souls
Of this strange experience of being the “problem” he writes, that after being cast aside by this veil, there is also a second-sight that is granted to the African-American community, something that forces them to see through the lens of the “American world” in which they live. The self of a Black person is forcefully divided by the dominant ideology of the white community, on one hand is one’s own self that is a result of one’s own socialization into the black community, but on the other hand there is a self created by the White society, a self that loathes itself in light of the contempt and hatred it receives from the white society. He calls this two-ness the “double-consciousness”, that introduces “two warring ideals in a dark body”, a state of conflict brought forth being forced to look at oneself from the contempt and pity of the dominant community in one’s society. The two souls according to Du Bois are the American and the “Negro”, living in one body, that of the black. This can also be seen from the lens of the master-slave dialectic, since the black community is the progeny of the slaves brought to North America in the 17th century, and also because the “master” or the “white american” who dominates the american society and uses its superiority to impose this sense of double-consciousness on the “slave’ black community. Du Bois says that the only way to free oneself from this conflict is by merging the two souls into one, such that both of them are not lost, indicating the preservation of the black culture and a history of strife but also of the american identity of these people, in order to create a reality of equality and dignity. Du Bois however, hints at the grave difficulty in attaining this aim by talking about a process of a waste of double-aims. He implies that for black culture to survive in america, it must either become the mainstream culture or the black people should adapt to the white culture, neither of which is possible due to the shackles of lack of opportunity and racial prejudice binding them. In such a situation he hints at the difficulty of the african-american community (with its creole culture represented by both negro and american culture) in attaining emancipation.
Therefore, by using metaphors of the veil and of the “two-ness of souls”, WEB Du Bois mentions in elaborate detail, the socially constructed reality of the lived experience of the African-American community through these concepts, of what he calls a “half-named negro problem”. He talks about why it was that the Black community still dreamt of freedom despite the legislated “emancipation” of 1856, by talking about the intangible shackles of prejudice that lurked in White Society even after this. He talks about the true nature of emancipation through education and suffrage, granting the power of representation and knowledge to the community that they had lacked prior, due to the White community denying these privileges and thereby creating a veil. He further makes a reference to the “promised land” in Judaism, referring to it as the ultimate vision of a society where the black community can live a dignified and equal life as Americans alongside their white neighbours. After the 15th Amendment in 1870, which granted African-American men the right to vote, Du Bois states that the only hindrance in the way of emancipation is the lack of universalising education to the African-American community as a whole.
- Du Bois, W.E.B. (2008). The Souls of Black Folk. A.C McClurg & Co. (Original work published 1903).https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm (Ch. I, ‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’)
- Vindo, Renu (2020). “The Souls of Black Folk – WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT Du Bois (1868-1963) – [PowerPoint Presentation]