The Problem of the Color Line in Du Bois’s "The Souls of Black Folk"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Concept of “the Veil of Race”
2.1 The Veil as the Social Theory of Race
2.2 A Matter of the Veil

3. The Crisis of African American Identity

4. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Appeal to the Reader

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited


This work examines the social relations between African Americans and white Americans caused by the veil of race in Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. It also highlights the effects this social conflict had on African American identity, the main reasons that fostered the division of American society, and possible solutions offered by Du Bois in his effort to address the reader in order to tackle this conflict.

First, this work explains Du Bois’s theory of “the Veil of Race” as a social construct. For Du Bois, the meaning of race is the production of racial hierarchy, ideology and dominant culture. Next, this work highlights the problems caused by the veil of race within the American nation, such as social segregation and racism. It gives examples of the separate lives of blacks and whites and racial prejudices toward African Americans. It reveals how Du Bois identifies with these problems from his own experiences and explains why the dominant culture is unable to see those who reside on the other side of the veil.

Further, this work reveals the effects of the fatal division of the American nation on African American identity. It represents Du Bois’s concept of “double-consciousness”, that is the duality of African American identity of being both a “Negro” and an American. Double-consciousness has dehumanizing effects on the spiritual life of black people. In this respect, this work gives examples of strong emotionalism and inner degradation of black people. It illustrates African Americans’ feelings of discouragement and pain, with the sorrow songs as a reflection of the black peoples’ despair and Du Bois’s own experience of misery.

Finally, this work reveals how Du Bois tries to appeal to the reader. Du Bois emphasizes humanity, education, and self-knowledge as the key to respect, equality, freedom, and democracy. He also puts emphasis on spiritual power over the power of social hierarchy and dominant culture, which serve the interests of the rich. To conclude, Du Bois’s main goal is to negotiate between the two worlds in one country in order to achieve integration of the “Negro” race into US society. He urges the reader to understand the cultural demands of black people and advocates one nation.

1. Introduction

The roots of the issue of race in America go back to the two historic documents signed by the Founding Fathers. Velikova points out that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are “race-blind” (437). Serving the interests of the white majority, these two official documents excluded the issue of slavery, race, and color for a long period of time. A long struggle for freedom from slavery and their inferior status in American society undermined the citizenship status of African Americans. However, national tensions between whites and blacks were especially difficult in the post-Reconstruction period. Parini explains that “Reconstruction and its aftermath had led to a situation where the basic rights of black men and women had been denied to them. Laws had been put into place that codified racist feelings” (76). The relationship between whites and blacks during this period was mainly significant in the American South. Parini depicts the South in the United States during the period of Reconstruction as “the captured and exploited land; within this model, black folk become peasants, tenant farmers, hired hauds, slaves in all but name” (80). He also states that “The Souls of Black Folk is mainly a southern book” (Parini 80). Being an African American nationalist, Du Bois in his seminal work deals with the issue of race that predominantly existed in the American South. Putting emphasis on the split of the American nation due to “the Veil of Race” (Du Bois 67), he defines racial hierarchy and the dominant hegemony as a problem that had dehumanizing effects on American society. In this respect, Velikova states that The Souls of Black Folk is Du Bois’s “own liminal position between two races” (441). This inspirational work is also “a sign of the nation’s division against itself” (Velikova 441). Du Bois also emphasizes the most basic problems of black identity, that is, their duality, feeling of otherness and the dilemma of self-representation in American culture. Considering all these facts about the division of the American nation, this work will examine the social relations established by the veil of race between African and white Americans in Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. It will also highlight the effects of this social conflict between the two nations on African American identity, the main reasons that fostered the division of American society, and possible solutions offered by Du Bois in his effort to address the reader in order to tackle this conflict.

2. The Concept of “the Veil of Race”

2.1 The Veil as the Social Theory of Race

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois avoids the public belief that biological heredity determines the essence of race. He defines the meaning of race on the basis of human interaction rather than biology. Wilson defines biological heredity as “the result of variations in climate, nutrition, and behavior…Focus on skin color and hair texture gave way to considerations of brain mass, bone size, and cranial structure” (196). He suggests that in the nineteenth century, physical features were significant for definition of racial differences (cf. Wilson 196). Du Bois, in contrast to the nineteenth century views, believes in the power of the social construction of race. Wilson suggests that Du Bois’s metaphor of the veil of race “reveals that physical traits are unimportant until they are tied to a specific meaning and until they become the motive of symbolic action” (206). It can presumably be a clear link to the historical past of the black people, such as slavery, disfranchisement, and an inferior position in American society. Du Bois enumerates all these reasons in the Souls of Black Folk more precisely. He writes:

War, murder, slavery, extermination and debauchery,-this has again and again been the result of carrying civilization and the blessed gospel to the isles of the sea and the heathen without the law. Nor does it altogether satisfy the conscience of the other world to be told complacently that all this has been right and proper, the fated triumph of strength over weakness, of righteousness over evil, of superiors over inferiors (Du Bois 123).

In other words, not physical but rather psychical and spiritual differences are important for the definition of race. Wilson makes a concluding statement that for Du Bois the meaning of race is a social construction (cf. 195). He explains it with the fact that according to the social theory of race, “racial identity is grounded not in biology but in social values, perception, and action” (Wilson 195).

Through the sociological studies of the South, Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk holds the position of sociologist. Lemert states that “The Veil was a fundamental figure of Du Bois’s early social theory of race relations in the United States” (385). Indeed, Du Bois’s theory of the veil suggests the division of the American nation in two ethnic groups on the basis of social beliefs. Du Bois highlights how the veil separates whites and blacks in everyday life:

Thus, then and now, there stand in the South two separate worlds; and separate not simply in the higher realms of social intercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and street-car, in hotels and theaters, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, in asylum and jails, in hospitals and graveyards (79).

This passage suggests that social interactions between whites and blacks in everyday life reveal the existence of the veil. As Wilson points out: “Any set of experiences that contrasts one’s personal potential and society’s racist oppression can highlight the veil’s presence” (208). Du Bois identifies the racial conflict on the basis of social interactions in everyday life.

Du Bois believes in the power of social institutions and ideology imposed on American society. Wilson suggests that “social institutions sustain the veil’s power” (205). The belief in racial hierarchy has been manifested in American society for centuries: white superiority and black inferiority. Racial differences exist because whites define blacks as different and label them as a problem in American culture. In this respect, Wilson points out that “Du Bois’ emphasis on the meaning of being Black highlights race’s social significance” (210).

2.2 A Matter of the Veil

Writing The Souls of Black Folk from within the race problem, Du Bois discusses the problems established by the veil on the American nation. He gives many examples on the matters of social segregation and racism. First, writing about the geographical border between the two nations in America, Du Bois mentions the separated lives of both ethnic groups. He claims:

It is usually possible to draw in nearly every Southern community a physical color-line on the map, on the one side of which whites dwell and on the other Negroes… Usually in cities each street has its distinctive color, and only now and then do the colors meet in close proximity (Du Bois 125).

The veil of race keeps white and black citizens apart. Parini states that “This inequality is perpetuated by a system rigged to favor the wealthiest and whitest communities” (73). He further says that a black person is “segregated, separate but very much an unequal citizen” (Parini 76).

Further, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois mentions racial prejudice as the issue of racial discrimination. He writes: “And when, by proscription and prejudice, these same Negroes are classed with and treated like the lowest of their people, simply because they are Negroes…” (Du Bois 139). Revealing the true attitude of white Americans toward the “Negro”, racial prejudices reflect the conflict between two nations in one country. Southern prejudice is racism which is connected to the history of African Americans and is based on the color of one’s skin. This cultural experience of being discriminated against and having no excuses for injustice is the reality of African Americans. Korang states that the other world sees the “Negro” as having a “racially marked and despised black body” (169), he continues further saying that “What the dominant world makes of the Negro is what the Negro is and will be” (Korang 170). He clearly highlights the dramatic situation of the black person in America. Thus, the personality of the Negro was undermined in American culture. Fontenot emphasizes that the identity of black people in American culture was demoralized. He states: “the African American was a fractured, incomplete, inauthentic person, less valuable than his/her white counterpart” (Fontenot 7). Hubbard comments on the lack of black subjects in the history of America: “the rage of disesteemed is robbed in the history as a dull cultural mirror: black people look into it and do not see a positive image of self” (40). All these facts about racial prejudice mentioned by different critics are reflected in The Souls of Black Folk.

Finally, Du Bois identifies the problem from his personal perspective. Brodwin explains that: “Du Bois presents an intensely personal vision of how one man confronted and transcended the complex tragic life generated in living behind the veil of the color line” (305). Du Bois experienced the negative feeling of being black, and this strange feeling he had after he had communicated with the white girl. After crossing the border established by the veil, he identified himself as a problem. Du Bois writes:

Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different form the others; or like mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I hold all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows (16).



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Title: The Problem of the Color Line in Du Bois’s "The Souls of Black Folk"