November 1, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
During October, I was fortunate to discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. In our discussion we spent quite a bit of time exploring the metaphor of the veil, which Du Bois says exists between African Americans and “the other world.” His first experience with this veil was in the schoolhouse of his youth. When the children pretended to exchange visiting cards, one white girl refused to exchange with Du Bois. He writes: “The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, – refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” In trying to understand the veil itself, we explored the potential reasons for making it the metaphor. Why a veil? It seems that a sort of transparent or opaque line always exists between the two different groups, sometimes invisibly even. While acting as a physical barrier, it is also barely there, both noticeable and not. Du Bois says that those inside the veil are most disillusioned because it impairs a true apprehension of potential, but he quickly remarks that it also acts upon those who are outside of it. In fact, it seems innocent, but the veil damages everyone it touches. Once again, the translucent, flexible quality of a veil can present a mask, which seems to affect not only the one wearing it, but rather, it obscures and distorts all viewpoints. The veil is an apt metaphor for these reasons: its ambiguity and formlessness, an intentional or distorted barrier, and the very fluid nature of it.
On the very first page of the book, Du Bois explains that between the two worlds exists an unasked question. Some people attempt to ask, or dance around the subject, but to the question of “How does it feel to be a problem,” or how does it feel to be the problem race, he does not answer. I could not understand why he did not respond to this question, which seems so important to his message. But our discussion helped me better understand his reasons for not answering. In his eyes, and in truth, the answer to that question requires a whole history of explanation. Rather than deliver a lecture at a cocktail party, he attempts to answer in the complex, weaving narrative of his book. He writes:
“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Despite the notion that, at that time, being “Negro” and “American” must have seemed almost antithetical, Du Bois astounds me with his hope. He says that America is an experiment, in which he hopes to play an equal part. Much of this book addresses the educational system because it is there that we find communal, foundational beliefs. Education can open up dialogue about what it means to be American and what it means to be African-American. While it is important to Du Bois to bolster the African-American pride and potential, he repeats that the conversation must include everyone. If the American experiment is to be successful, it must sincerely address slavery, it must sincerely address racism. And the African-American responsibility is to teach others how a formerly enslaved peoples can share in equality and freedom.
We briefly discussed, and I continue to wonder at the intended audience for this book. Did he mean to address elites, intellectuals, African-Americans specifically, educators? For whom is his message most important? I keep returning to the answer that everyone must be the intended audience. Du Bois’s grace and eloquence in dealing with such a difficult subject is impressive.
Published in 1903, Du Bois uses Atlanta to explain his fears for the rest of America. He sees Atlanta as a city rising in greed and excess, and yet still unable to address equality. He feels that money complicates Atlanta in an unhealthy way. Du Bois says of the Civil War that right triumphed but with something of the wrong, by which I believe he means to say that ownership of peoples transferred into greed and excess of other types of property. Du Bois says, “Not only is this true in the world which Atlanta typifies, but it is threatening to be true of a world beneath and beyond that world, – the Black World beyond the Veil. Today it makes little difference to Atlanta, to the South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills. In the soul-life of the land he is to-day, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, half forgotten; and yet when he does come to think and will and do for himself, – and let no man dream that day will never come, – then the part he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race-childhood.”
The education of African Americans had been so minimal and unable to address economics and equality, so the nation grew by experience only, which created inaccuracies and perpetuated inequality. This appears to be the period of “race-childhood,” with which we are just now coming to terms.
I am grateful to those who dedicated an hour and half to discuss the vital words of W.E.B. Du Bois with me. Our next Quarterly Discussion will be in January on Natural Science. Check out our Facebook page and website for more information on upcoming events.
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