Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folks, tells the story of how, in an integrated grade school in New England, a white student refused to take a greeting card from him. He writes, “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 invisible veil separates the white and black worlds; it is a fundamental fact of black life, one that causes Du Bois to ask, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own home?” Du Bois says the veil creates a kind of “double consciousness” for blacks, in which their understanding of self is always mediated by the veil, or the the way they are perceived by whites. This sort of ”second sight” is ever present: “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.”
How this idea is explored in African American literature is a huge question. I think every African American writer addresses this theme in one way or another. The title of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man refers directly to the veil; one example of how the idea of “double consciousness” is at work in that novel can be found in the part where Todd Clifton is arrested for selling sambo marionettes in the street. The doll is in part a representation of how whites see blacks. Clifton is arrested not for selling the dolls, but for controlling them—his crime is to assert his own agency. We can see the “veil” idea at work in Octavia Butler’s science fiction as well. In her trilogy Lilith’s Brood, for example, Lilith’s status as “human” is called into question when she receives powers from the Oankali aliens. Neither human nor alien, Lilith must assert the integrity of her own identity independent of race; in order to save humanity, she must separate herself from it.