From p. 331 in Social Theory Re-Wired
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?The “Southern outrages” that Du Bois mentions provide some historical context for reading The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois was writing about and reacting to the prolonged segregation of African-Americans following the emancipation of slaves in 1863. Beginning in 1877, state and local laws, also known as Jim Crow laws, were enacted throughout the southern United States to enforce segregation based on the argument that African Americans were “separate but equal.” These laws led to the disenfranchisement and discrimination of millions of Americans up until their formal abolishment with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read more about Jim Crow and listen to personal narratives about its consequences at the PBS site, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.This famous line illustrates what is so powerful and instructive about Souls of Black Folk. By turning attention toward himself and his experience of living “as a problem,” Du Bois introduces the idea that racial segregation is not just a historical or structural condition of twentieth century America—it is also a subjective experience. Thus, throughout these essays, Du Bois analyzes race from an objective, structural perspective as well as a subjective, experiential one.
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden school-house, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. 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.Du Bois captures the subjective dimension of racism though his metaphor of the veil. A veil as used here by Du Bois signifies blindness or invisibility. It renders the African-American experience invisible to White Americans and makes it impossible for African-Americans to develop a “true consciousness.” He elaborates on the veil more poignantly in the next paragraph. 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. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is 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. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousnessDouble-consciousness refers to the social and psychological experience of seeing the world through the lens of both an American and an African-American. The contempt also mentioned here refers to the experience of seeing one’s self through the disapproval and scorn of White Americans, which Du Bois argued prevented a unified self from developing. This concept of double-consciousness remains one of Du Bois’s most famous contributions. To learn more about how Du Bois continues to inspire scholars and leaders, check out the work of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute., this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of 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.Du Bois’s concept of the “double self” resembles other key concepts discussed in Social Theory Re-Wired, most notably Simmel’s “stranger” and Dorothy Smith’s “bifurcated consciousness.” The experience as the “other” is also important in the work of Edward Said and Frantz Fanon, whose metaphor of the mask is in many ways a powerful extension of the veil.
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.An example of the veil and double-consciousness can be found in the film The Tuskogee Airmen, a fictionalized account of the fist African-Americans to fly in the U.S. armed forces. To read more about the film’s depiction of these concepts, and to watch a clip, check out this post at The Sociological Cinema. 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.