"The Veil" and "Double Consciousness"
In The Souls of Black Folk, arguably W.E.B. DuBois� most famous work, he introduces and addresses two concepts that describe the quintessential Black experience in America� the concepts of �the veil� and �double-consciousness.� Though DuBois uses these terms separately, their meanings and usage in his works are deeply intertwined. These two concepts gave a name to what so many African-Americans felt but previously could not express due to a lack of words to accurately describe their pain. The implication and connotation of these words were far-reaching because not only did it succinctly describe the plight of being Black and American then, it rings true to the core and essence of what it means to still be Black and American today.
For DuBois, the veil concept primarily refers to three things. First, the veil suggests to the literal darker skin of Blacks, which is a physical demarcation of difference from whiteness. Secondly, the veil suggests white people�s lack of clarity to see Blacks as �true� Americans. And lastly, the veil refers to Blacks� lack of clarity to see themselves outside of what white America describes and prescribes for them.
Any socially-aware, present-day African-American has had at least two life-altering experiences in life� the moment he/she realized he/she was Black, and the moment when he/she realized that was a problem. Like DuBois, many African-Americans can pinpoint the exact instance at which both of these life altering encounters took place, and they too came to this realization at a young age. For DuBois, these realizations came during a youthful ball, at which his card was �peremptorily� refused by a Southern, white girl simply (or rather, not so simply) because he was Black. Of this encounter he writes the following:
Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddeness that
I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] 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 held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.
In this passage, DuBois� initial reaction upon realizing that being Black was a �problem� in American society is interesting because this same sentiment is commonly felt by African-Americans today. In addition, DuBois� reactionary feeling of contempt for all white people on the other side of the veil reveals a larger point about the veil concept. Because many people only understand DuBois� veil concept to mean that white people�s view of Black people is obstructed by this not-so-invisible veil that hangs between the races, many forget to see that this lack of vision is two-fold; that is, just as the white girl looking through the veil could not properly see DuBois for who he was beyond his skin, he in turn could not clearly see the whole white race because of his one negative encounter with her as well, which he then projected onto the entire white race.
Although there is a veil that shades the view of both Blacks and Whites, the reason why Blacks traditionally have a better understanding of whites than the reverse is because of this �two-ness� lived and felt by Black Americans. In other words, upon coming to the realization of being Black and what that has historically meant in America (or arguably presently means in America), Black people have long known how to operate in two Americas� one that is white and one that is Black. DuBois describes this phenomena as �double-consciousness�, which is the awareness of the �two-ness� of being �an American and a[n African-American]�, and the largely unconscious, almost instinctive movement between the these two identities, as needed.
DuBois describes African-Americans as �a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world� a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.� Further, of the actual concept of �double-consciousness�, DuBois goes on to say the following:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,
this sense of always looking at one�s self through the eyes of others,
measuring one�s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness� an
American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose
dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
This passage is perhaps the
most powerfully written, (and amazingly accurate for some) of the sheer
burden of being Black and American in this society. Although written
over a century ago, for many modern-day African-Americans this passage
is a reflection of how very little has changed in America�s conceptualization
of what is �Black� and of what is �American�. But more importantly,
for African-Americans it is an illustration and reminder of how far they
still have to go.