Chasing Civilization

If you type “civilization” into Google, it returns the definition: “The stage of human social development and organization that is considered most advanced.”

The term civilization is not meant to be compared populations across the globe to find the most “civilized;” no one culture is more civilized than the other. Civilization is determined within a single culture or population. Urban Americans in the United States are not more civilized than tribal Native Americans in Central America; each group is the most civilized version of themselves. Over the course of this semester, we have touched upon many modernist authors who critique civilization and its effects. Do the benefits of civilization truly outweigh its costs? All the authors allude to the same definition of civilization, however they focus on different consequences of civilization. In class we discussed the central paradox of life. Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents argued that the central paradox of life is that happiness is achieved through advancement, however the constant need for more leads to perpetual unhappiness.

Du Bois, in “Marxism and the Negro problem,” equates the need for civilization to economic prosperity and competition. The consequence of civilization is the exploitation of laborers in the United States for the benefit of capitalism; this exploitation had an immense effect on African American laborers during Du Bois’ time and still today. Modern slavery tends to be veiled across the oceans and distanced from the consumer. In 1933 Du Bois calculated that about 85 to 90 percent of working African Americans belong to the proletariat that Marx defends in “The Communist Manifesto, ” however open discrimination puts the African American proletariat at a higher disadvantage than the white members of the same socioeconomic class (Du Bois 149). African Americans have little agency to fight the social systems stacked against them to protest unfair treatment because they need an income to survive. College students after graduation accept entry-level jobs expecting to progress within the industry over many years. Du Bois argued that in our post-Marxian society, capitalism aims to oppress African American laborers. The longer African Americans and other minorities within the working class remain subservient, the employers reap greater benefit for their own corporations, “as theirs are the interests of capital” (Du Bois 150). Oppression is allowed as long as civilization continues to advance.



Kuhn, Leon


African Americans could not protest oppression because to overcome the negative effects of capitalism, requires an income. Even in America, many African American laborers only have their ability to work (Du Bois 148) and cannot risk jeopardizing their job in the name of justice. Through the years, many immigrants have come to the United States and found success, but at what cost? In order to climb to the top, white immigrants had to step on the backs of African Americans and minority laborers to make it to the top; “leaving Negros still at the bottom chained to helplessness, first by slavery, then by disenfranchisement and always by the Color Bar” (Du Bois 150). Capitalism is a market-based economic system that, in theory, allows equal access to success for all members of the society. Those that are “on top” or reaping the greatest benefits of capitalism are thriving off of the exploitations of the African American and minority working class. People of color are always next in line to reach the Dream, however never fully access it. There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large the Color Bar prevents the African American and minority community from reaping the full benefits of capitalism.

Though, according to Du Bois, the African American community has every reason to fight oppression in the workforce, they probably never will because the African American community is always on the cusp of achieving the Dream. Freud wrote that happiness is achieved through advancement, thus the African American community is constantly chasing and unattainable Dream, chasing civilization. Du Bois’ wrote that “common labor in America and white Europe far from being motivated by any vision of the possibility of layer after layer of the workers [one day] escaping into the wealthy class and becoming mangers and employers of labor” (Du Bois 150). One day is most likely never going to come. Coates also questions the Dream in his memoir Between the World and Me. A New York Times article written in response to the memoir the author, Michelle Alexander, stated: “Historians conjured the Dream,” Coates writes. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories”; Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie, at black people’s expense” (Alexander). According to Coates, the Dream is not real; it is a fabrication from American cinema.



Du Bois questioned civilization in 1933; he wanted to critique the idea “progress” as a positive when the foundation of this “progress” was built on the exploitation of the African American working class. Du Bois hoped for future generations to correct exploitation, draw attention to the Color Bar, and invalidate the chase for the American Dream. His writing was meant to provoke action. In 2009 the Dark Mountain Project Manifesto was published. The about page [do I have to cite this differently] states that Kingsnorth and Hine, the authors of the manifesto, wanted to create literature that responded truthfully to the problems with our economy, environment, and society, problems civilization created (Hine and Kingsnorth). The Dark Mountain Project is meant to be “a forum in which to be honest about their sense of dread and loss” (Smith) because they believe that there is no way to reverse the damage already done. The manifesto was meant to provoke a change in thought, but not action.

The manifesto is titled “Uncivilisation” because civilization or progress was and is destroying our society. Kingsnorth and Hine understand civilization as the manifest destiny of the human species for technological and economic advancement. Uncivilisation is to be still in the world we have created and accept the outcome. The manifesto evaluates the “myth of progress” because within civilization we are “still wired to an idea of history in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present” (Hine and Kingsnorth), however not all innovations correlate to advancement. Rachel Carson in Silent Spring also challenges the idea of innovation correlating to progress with the use of DDT. Scientist were flabbergasted by the ability of DDT to prevent Dutch Elm disease that they disregarded the negative effects DDT could have to future generations. The scientists were quick to take credit for the innovation of DDT, but easily could deny responsibility for its negative effects. Carson pushes the scientist to want to create a healthy environment for future generations, where as Kingsnorth and Hine call beings to be still and accept the future outcomes of our mistakes. The manifesto is mean to change what it means to be a civilized society and evaluate if the benefits are truly worth the cost.

The manifesto stated that civilization is a construction of beliefs based on seemingly arbitrary values and the assumptions of a future (Hine and Kingsnorth). Uncivilization manifesto highlights the arbitrariness of “obvious” values of our society, such as advancement or economic prosperity. We live based off of certainty and assumptions that the future is never fleeting without actively taking steps to protect it. The cost of civilization has been the economy, the environment, and society according to Kingsnorth and Hine. Capitalism is the driver of civilization, encouraging continuous innovation. Not only has capitalism caused numerous environmental travesties, but also has caused human beings to become selfish, only focused on personal well-being and success. This has lead to economic downfalls, such as the Great Depression in the 1920s and the Great Recession in 2008. Industry has nearly destroyed the environment. The manifesto stated that civilization has “led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked” (Hine and Kingsnorth).

Human civilization did not intend produce negative consequences, however we need to take responsibility for the damage that we have caused chasing civilization. Coates wrote in his memoir “’good Intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream” (Coates 33). Coates meant this in regards to the disenfranchisement of African Americans, however civilization uses ‘good intention’ as a Band-Aid to all mistakes. Civilization did not intend on economic collapse or the destruction of the environment, but it still happened.



The Black Population is Cloaked with the Veil

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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son

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.

Booker T. Washington

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.

*Feature image of W.E.B. Du Bois