The chapter begins with Arthur Symons’ poem “The Crying of Water.” Du Bois explains that people in “the other world”—the world of white people—seem perpetually curious about what it feels like to be “a problem.” Du Bois explains that he first became aware of being “a problem” as a child in Massachusetts. One day, all the children in his class at school exchanged greeting cards, and one girl refused to accept Du Bois’ card. It was this experience that made him realize he was different, and was excluded from the world of white people by “a vast veil.”
Du Bois uses poetic imagery to illustrate the idea that white and black people in America are separated into two worlds. Although they may inhabit the same community—as is the case in Du Bois’ integrated school—the reality is that they are divided by an invisible yet immensely powerful force, which Du Bois characterizes as a veil. Children are not born with knowledge of the veil, but black children discover it at an early age.
Du Bois didn’t immediately feel the need to destroy the veil, but instead dedicated himself to working hard in the hope of excelling in the future as a doctor, lawyer, or writer. He notes that this reaction differs from that of other young black boys, many of whom grew bitter at the idea that God made them outsiders within their own country. Du Bois emphasizes that all young black men felt the pressure of prison walls around them as they grew up, and that they were forced to choose between grimly accepting their fate or hopelessly attempting to overcome it.
Throughout the book, Du Bois shows how easy it is for black people to grow bitter over their exclusion and mistreatmentwithin society. His reference to prison highlights the fact that even though all African-Americans have technically been free since Emancipation, the reality of their lives isstill oftenasconfined and constricted as imprisonment.
Du Bois characterizes black people as “a sort of seventh son,” cursed to live behind the veil. At the same time, this veil produces a “second-sight” that means black people are forced to view themselves through the hostile perspective of whites. Du Bois calls this “double-consciousness,” and suggests that it is both a burden and a kind of skill. Double-consciousness can leave African Americans feeling filled with internal conflict; yet it is a testament to their strength that they are still able to conduct their lives in this state of duality.
Although this is one of the only moments in the book in which Du Bois mentions double consciousness explicitly, it is one of the most important and influential concepts to emerge from his work. According to Du Bois, racist ideas are so pervasive that black people end up internalizing them without being aware that they are doing so. This is a key example of the insidious psychological operation of racism.
African American history has been shaped by the struggle to overcome the state of double consciousness. Du Bois emphasizes that this does not mean eradicating either the African or American side of black American identity, but rather insisting that these two sides can exist harmoniously instead of being in conflict. This task is so difficult that it can appear as though black people are weak, when in fact they are simply faced with an almost impossible burden—the “contradiction of double aims.”
Although Du Bois was a Pan-Africanist who became increasingly sympathetic to black nationalism over the course of his life, this passage makes clear that he does not reject America entirely. However, neither does he follow Booker T. Washington’s approach of advocating assimilation into white society. In some ways, Du Bois occupies a middle ground between these two styles of leadership.
Du Bois examines how this “contradiction” manifests itself in the lives of different African American figures—the craftsman, the minister, the savant (intellectual), and the artist. In each case, the figure is torn between two contrasting “audiences” (one white, one black) and thus two contrasting purposes. This can in turn lead people to follow “false gods” and pursue “false means of salvation.”
Du Bois’ discussion of the dilemma facing these figures is also applicable to his own position as an academic and writer. Although Du Bois is arguably writing with a white audience in mind, he is careful not to misrepresent reality in order to pander to white people’s perspective.
During the slavery era, black people dreamed fervently of freedom and imagined that one “divine event” would end not only slavery but all the prejudice and hardship they were forced to endure. However, at the time Du Bois is writing—forty years after Emancipation—it is clear that this has not been the case. America has not dealt with the reality and legacy of slavery, and black people have yet to truly experience freedom. The post-Emancipation period has thus been characterized by a collective feeling of “deep disappointment.”
In this passage, Du Bois explicitly lays out his notion that the freedom promised to black people after slavery is an illusion. He describes the peculiar combination of hope and disappointment that characterizes black life at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike whites, black people do not have the option of ignoring the reality of slavery and its legacy, and this leads to bitterness.
There are many causes of the enduring hardship black people have faced since the end of slavery, including the Ku Klux Klan, the carnage of the civil war, “the lies of carpet-baggers,” and a widespread sense of confusion about the best path forward. At first black men were fixated on seeking justice and equality through the vote; however, this was gradually replaced with a strong emphasis on education.
In this passage Du Bois implicitly emphasizes the relative powerlessness of black people in the face of the many modes of violent racism they face. As he points out elsewhere, the vote alone was not enough to combat racist forces, and even that was then taken away.
Du Bois describes black peoples’ struggle to access education as unimaginably difficult, and notes that the goal of gaining power through education has not yet been achieved. Dedicating time and energy to education has allowed black people to engage in a process of self-reflection, but this has not necessarily been a good thing; forced to view themselves through the veil, black people can come to feel self-conscious about the issues of poverty and ignorance. As a result, some black people come to accept the racist notion that white people are a “higher” race.
Here Du Bois introduces a major theme of the book—that education can be simultaneously empowering and self-defeating for black people, because even as it equips them with knowledge and skills, it also awakens them to the reality of the vast injustice they face. Du Bois stresses that this does not decrease the value and importance of education, but also that it should not be ignored.
Of course, the reality is that black people face such overwhelming prejudice and oppression that it can be almost impossible to avoid “self-disparagement.” Meanwhile, the dreams of Emancipation—freedom, political power, and education—have failed to be realized, even though at the time Du Bois is writing they are needed more than ever. Du Bois argues that African Americans also desperately need a strong sense of community, as well as the assurance that black history, thought, and culture are important and valuable. In fact, if white America opened itself to the culture and values of black people, the country as a whole would likely be vastly improved.
For Du Bois, increasing the strength of the black community will not come at the expense of community in the US as a whole. Rather, black people’s ties with their own kind will strengthen the overall harmony of American society. In order for this to happen, white America must stop viewing black culture as a threat and excluding black people from public institutions, opportunities, and conversations.