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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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What does "the vast veil" symbolize in The Souls of Black Folk?

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The "vast veil" is what separates DuBois, as an African American man, from white society. The quote is from the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois's most famous work, published in 1903. He begins the chapter by pointing out that even well-meaning white people are, when talking to him about race, essentially asking "How does it feel to be a problem?" DuBois describes the "veil" that allows him to see the other (white) half of society even though he cannot fully participate in it. He points out that African American men and women experience a double consciousness. They are both black and American, and systemic racism has made it so that this distinction exists. In fact, these two concepts, or identities, are at war with each other in side each and every black man and woman.

Throughout The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois returns to this metaphor, even claiming that every African American person sees themselves as if through a veil, one that does not allow them to comprehend their true identity. Later, he characterizes the most basic problem of the twentieth century as that of "the color line," but the "veil" is something more complex than that. It is a fundamental divide, one that shapes the "souls of black folk" in a way that makes their experience as Americans unique. It symbolizes the cultural, psychological, and social consequences of living in a society that did not view African Americans as equal.

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W. E. B. Du Bois writes that when he was a child, there was a vogue at his school for buying and distributing elaborate visiting cards. He enjoyed doing this himself until one girl peremptorily refused his card. At this point, Du Bois suddenly realized that he was different from the other children, “shut out from their world by a vast veil.” This separation did not, at least initially, make him feel inferior. On the contrary,

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.

However, Du Bois says, most people on his side of the veil were less fortunate and wasted their youth either in “tasteless sycophancy” or “silent hatred of the pale world about them.” Later, Du Bois also came to resent the veil, as he saw that opportunities white people took for granted were routinely denied to him. Indeed, even his initial contempt may have been little more than bravado, for the veil has an insidious and purely negative effect in dividing humanity.

The veil symbolizes not only the division between black and white Americans, but also the divisions black Americans feel within their souls. Du Bois says that the black American has “no true self-consciousness.” Instead, he is forced by the surrounding society to see himself as white people see him. This leads to a peculiar “double-consciousness” in which

One ever feels his twoness—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.

The vast veil, therefore, is doubly divisive.

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In chapter one of The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois recounts the moment at school when he became aware that he was different. Students were exchanging visiting cards, and a "tall girl," a "newcomer," refused to take his card. It was then that he realized that there was a "vast veil" between the black world and the white world:

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.

The veil symbolizes the separation between the two worlds of black people and white people. It also symbolizes how difficult it is for those on either side of the veil to see each other clearly.

Because of the vast veil separating black from white in the United States and because of blacks being deemed a "problem" by whites, Du Bois and other African Americans experience a double consciousness. On the one hand, they know they are as worthy as whites, but on the other they know they are treated with pity and contempt by whites. African Americans know too that the vast veil keeps them from access to power and privilege that whites enjoy. How to tear down the veil becomes the problem Du Bois confronts.

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The "veil" is a metaphor referring to racism that W.E.B. DuBois introduces in the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." The "vast veil" is the separation—both physical and spiritual—between black people and the rest of the world. It is what the narrator feels shuts him out from everything else and, therefore, the veil must be torn down. If it cannot be torn down, one must "creep through" by performing well in school, during athletic competitions, or even in fist fights. The "veil" is what separates him from "the other world."

The veil works as a metaphor for racism because a veil is an item that obscures, one that prevents a person from being seen fully. Furthermore, it is a marker of separation and difference.

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