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.