W.E.B. Du Bois’ most famous work, his treatise ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, was a seminal work in the African-American literature. The two terms he incessantly used ‘double consciousness’ and the ‘veil’ couldn’t have been put in a better set of words to explain his situation and what he felt about belonging to a looked-down-upon race. Our endeavor is to put forth a summary and analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois’ ‘Double Consciousness and the Veil’.
This is the 21st century we are living in, so to say! An unarmed 18-year-old African-American was gunned down by a police officer on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson city in Missouri, United States. The final verdict of this case was on November 24, 2014, with the guilty officer not being indicted. This horrible occurrence has caused many riots and protests in the city, and has left a mourning family crying for justice for their departed teenager.
‘Double Consciousness’ and the ‘Veil’ are terms used by William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois in his classic work, ‘The Souls of the Black Folk’. This book contains heart-touching essays on the black race, based on his African-American life experiences. It is known as an influential piece of work in the history of African-American literature. Apart from this, the book is acknowledged as one of the early works in sociology and holds an important place in social science.
In ‘The Souls of the Black Folk’, published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois writes about the struggle of the African-Americans that has been there since the time of slavery and continues to endure even after emancipation. He believes that one question most of his white men want to ask the black people is “How does it feel to be a problem?”. This although is never asked directly, but is stated in their actions and made known by what they say.
W.E.B. Du Bois was made to realize that he was the problem, when he was studying in an elementary school in Massachusetts. As a part of their class project, they were supposed to exchange visiting cards. A girl who was newly admitted to the school refused to give him one, and that is when he understood the difference of his being. As a result of this incident, he decided to educate himself far more than any of his white mates and prove that his existence mattered.
Insightfully, W.E.B. Du Bois used the terms ‘double consciousness’ and the ‘veil’ describing the double lives a black has to live in order to survive in his country―the life of a black, and the life of an American. He cites that a Negro is ‘sort of a seventh son born with a veil’, seeing himself through the eyes of the whites. He also calls the veil a gift, making the black stronger day by day, striving ‘to merge his double self into a better and truer self’. A black struggles every day to claim his identity among a majority of whites. He doesn’t wish to change America, and neither does he want to change himself to an American. All he wishes is to be both, a black and an American, to be called even, and given equal dignity and respect from his fellow countrymen.
The struggle of an African-American boy, who was as innocent as any other white kid, to understand what was really going on around him, had his first encounter with the truth about ‘racism’ that a white kid of his age had revealed to him. W.E.B. Du Bois was in school when in a card exchanging class project, a new girl student of his class refused to give him one, because of the color of his skin. He realized there was a problem, and it dawned upon him at that very moment, that the problem was nothing else other than himself. He was the problem. His existence in a country of whites was a problem, and so was that of the realm of African-Americans living in America. Meandering around the actual point, the whites would insinuate into the minds of every black, how downtrodden they were.
A young W.E.B. Du Bois, with all the questions about his prejudiced permanence, was adamant on liberating himself and his people. He decided not to be oppressed by this imbecile discrimination based on the color of a man, and take further education, proving that it is justice in receiving equal rights as a citizen of America.
W.E.B. Du Bois writes about seeing the world from under the “veil”, a misfortune every black is born with. The veil is a metaphor used for the restricted frame of mind that always thinks from within the walls of injustice. It is like an imaginary barrier that surrounds a black and separates him from the white―the barrier that is made by the whites for the blacks. Americans run circles around them making them feel guilty of faults that don’t exist. They question their quiet existence. They make them live with the sense of dwelling under the power of someone else.
Contemplating themselves through the eyes of others, they are forced to live double lives―the life of a black and as an American, both of which are not liberal to them. Hence, the term ‘double consciousness’. They know what the Americans feel about them, and everything even remotely related to them. But the whites know not what racism is. They have never experienced it after all. They have never felt what it is to be suppressed by people of their own country. They have never felt that pain or misery, that the blacks have been breathing like air since their birth.
The question arises that after two centuries of slavery and 40 years of emancipation, why is there still so much injustice in the 20th century? The answer lies in this sentence by W.E.B. Du Bois: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
But as readers, we wonder if the hearts of this era have still not been able to accept the difference in color. Behind that skin is the same race―mankind. Is it so hard to understand?