In this first chapter, Du Bois lays out the broad outlines of what he says he will discuss in detail in later chapters. His goal is to lay out the "striving in the souls of black folk" so that others may "listen" to them. In other words, he wants his audience to know what Black people think and feel in order to make his argument for the urgent need for full civil rights and equality.
In this chapter, Du Bois introduces the concepts of the veil and the Black double consciousness. The veil is Du Bois's metaphor for the way Black people are systemically shut out of the white world and its opportunities. This double consciousness is the awareness Black people hold of how they see themselves but also the awareness thrust on them of the much more denigrating way—filled with amusement, pity, and contempt—that they are viewed by whites.
Du Bois discusses poignantly in this chapter how the Black person striving for education, advancement, and dignity is often met with despair. As Du Bois puts it, Black people become filled with self-doubt and question to themselves, for instance, why they should bother with education when "[they]must always cook and serve." Why should they strive for higher culture when they are treated as "half-men"?
The chapter lays out the major theme of the book: that internalizing the white view of Black people as second-class citizen is the "suicide" of the race. Black people must press forcefully, Du Bois argues, for the vote, for education, and for all the freedoms enjoyed by white people, or their souls will be destroyed. This seems self-evident to us now, but as will be revealed in later chapters, Du Bois is pushing back against the ideas of Booker T. Washington, who wanted Black people to accept second-class status in exchange for economic opportunities.