W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, uses the Veil as a motif representing the barrier between black and white communities in America. The Veil is something that all black people in America are born with; it represents that white society only can see (and only wants to see) a vague sense of blackness through a veil. When a woman wears a veil on her wedding day, the groom cannot see the details of her face, he constructs an image of her based on his previous knowledge. In the same way, the Veil only allows white Americans to have a broad understanding of the other (those who are nonwhite) and to make generalizations of the whole population based on their experience with black people; white society’s only experience with black people was through slavery. Black society sees the Veil as a boundary to their success. This phenomenon is not exclusive to African Americans or former slaves, but anyone who is non-white. Black people in America lacked equal access to government, education, and basic rights. Du Bois uses the Veil to highlight white society’s perception of black people, to signify a black person’s new state of mind post enslavement; Du Bois’ goal was integration of the races, however white society uses the Veil to justify the need for division. Black men are imprisoned behind the Veil because they are confined by expectations about how they should act; do not disturb the peace. After Emancipation, the black community was forced to live within the Veil, continuing to be enslaved.
The Veil groups all black people as one entity, allowing white societies to generalize the black identity. Because of the Veil, black parenting is not equivalent to white parenting. “Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live, – a Negro and a Negro’s son,” (DuBois 170). Black parents pass down their experience living within the Veil, living against certain expectations. Coates, in his memoir Between the World and Me, talks about his experience growing up in a black body. He recalls walking through his neighborhood, feeling the need to always be on guard against the streets (Coates 90). The same way he is defensive, so are other black boys ready to fight at an instance to protect their bodies.
Cloaked within the Veil, Coates acknowledges that each group has an expectation of him as a young, black male. As he walks down the street, his individual thoughts are irrelevant; all anyone sees is the Veil over his face. The Veil requires black children to be twice as good as white children because black children are not expected to be great; however, at the same time, the black children are expected to accept half as much (Coates 90). Growing up, my mother would remind me that I not to become a ‘statistic’. She meant not to succumb to the negative stereotypes of black girls in America because unfortunately we (as black people in America) are still inherently second-class citizens until we prove our worth beyond the Veil.
Coates uses his experience growing up to teach his son about the Veil around him, though Coates never explicitly uses the term. Coates describes the moment his son first notices his Veil: it was when Coates’ son heard that Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the death of Michael Brown. Coates’ son ran to his room. As Coates writes, he did not tell his son that everything was going to be okay; he told his son what Coates parents told him, “that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it” (Coates 11). The title of the book represents how Coates lived his life and how he wants his son to cope with the reality that society only sees him through a veil.
Black people have accepted the Veil as a protective wall surrounding them from the disapproval of white societies. In this way, the Veil is a mindset that blacks themselves have adopted. In The Souls of Black Folk DuBois writes: “Leaving, then, the world of the white man, I have 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 1). The Veil is a place – a state of mind – black men and women are not literally veiled from society. However, when Du Bois wrote this book society only wants to have a vague perception of blackness as if to be looking through a veil.
The Veil cloaks a black person’s individuality and carries generalizations of the population. It allows outsiders to view the black community as a homogenous group. The Veil carries stereotypes that target young black men, painting them as aggressive and violent. The Veil acts as a cell; black men have to prove their worth to be released from the stereotypes. “If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time American shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free” (DuBois 215). In Between the World and Me Coates quotes Malcolm X saying, “If you’re black, you were born in jail” (Coates 36) and the Veil acts as the bars of the cell. In the interview between Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, Mumia says, “I know a whole lot of Black men who don’t have freedom…they can’t say it because they’re afraid of losing their job,” (Abu-Jamal 3). This country has restricted the speech of black males because regardless of their success more often than not a ‘white man’ writes his checks (that could represent a literal boss or the consumers to the product). To speak up, is to risk being fired.
The Veil is also used to justify the separation of white and black societies, especially in education. Booker T. Washington was the first pioneer for black education; he was responsible for the Atlanta Compromise shortly after Emancipation. In the Atlanta Compromise, Booker T. Washington called for blacks and whites to be separate, stating, “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Du Bois 37). He did not condone segregation, but was willing to look the other way in exchange for the economic advancement of colored people. Washington said that the blacks at the time did not need higher education, only a technical education such as the kind he provided at Tuskegee. Washington proposed that the races be separate as a way to live within the Veil. He did not try to provoke the Veil constraining him, but instead politely remained ‘in his place.’ Through the Atlanta Compromise, blacks consented to become second-class citizens in exchange for “larger chances of economic development” (DuBois 43). As a newly freed man, Washington could not grapple with the future of his race; he was simply focused on dealing with the present. During slavery the Veil caused all blacks to be seen as slaves not an enslaved people, this dehumanized an entire demographic.
Du Bois compares those who support Washington to those following a cult. He struggles to accept Washington’s ideas as valid because Washington’s plan condoned the use of the Veil for black disenfranchisement. Washington was asking black men to live in a country without the right to vote, to be treated as a second-class citizen in social settings, and to dispense with all hope for higher education. Though a majority of black people would be receiving vocational training, teachers needed access to higher education to teach the population. According to Du Bois, Washington was calling for blacks in America to form a separate society, however was not providing them with the educational foundation to sustain that society.
Society at the time of Washington could not see past the Veil and did not understand why the black population needed to be educated. Some people believed that blacks were not capable of higher education. Du Bois believed blacks should not limit themselves to an industrial education when whites are given the ability to attain a classical education. According to Du Bois, higher education is needed not only to train teachers, but also “to furnish the black world with adequate standards of human culture and lofty ideals of life…be broad-minded, cultured men and women” (DuBois 81). Higher education is about more than having a profitable career, but about developing a community. Du Bois believed the top ten percent of the race should be classically educated in order to teach and govern the whole community. Dubois said that higher education is necessary to create philosophical thinkers, not manual moneymakers.
The ability to transcend color and socioeconomic class through education is the true American dream; a self-made man, especially a self-made black man, fascinates everyone. Today the word “man” is used to represent all of humanity, however at the time The Souls of Black Folk was published, typically males were the only ones that needed an education because an education was necessary to create black leaders for the community. Du Bois believed black men are capable of more then being wage laborers and a higher education “will give us poise to encourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and to stamp out those that in sheer barbarity deafen us to wail of prisoned souls within the Veil, and the mounting fury of shackled men,” (DuBois 76). The Veil imprisons Americas black youth and education is seen to parents as a path to a better life beyond the Veil. Many, but not all, minority students I have met currently enrolled at Colgate University are the first in the families to attend college. Education is still used to transcend the social systems and cultural forces inhibiting success for black Americans.
Slavery created the Veil, casting nonwhite citizens as second-class members of society. The Veil affects all aspects of the black population. After Emancipation, the black community had to fight for equality. The Veil positions black people as inferior based on their past in slavery. After emancipation blacks were still enslaved, they were not given the right vote, or proper access to education. Currently, the black population still wears a veil, however each year the Veil becomes thinner and in the future hopefully the Veil can be eliminated entirely.