Bowdoin College

“The Problem of the 20th Century, is the Problem of the Color-Line”

“How does it feel to be a problem? I answer a seldom word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, — peculiar even for one who has never been anything else (Du Bois 10).” In the early pages of the “Souls of Black Folk” Du Bois begins to rationalize the historical conflict and turmoil within the United States, upon the issue of race. He blatantly states early on that, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois 9).

There are many different themes present in W.E.B. Du Bois’s, “Souls of Black Folk.” There is the idea of “souls {black people} and their attainment of consciousness, the reoccurring theme of double consciousness, and the concept of the “veil”. Within the reading, this concept of the “veil” provides a link between each individual essay and the ideas of consciousness and “double” consciousness. Within the reading, Du Bois has two main goals:

  • To highlight the representation of what it is like to be black in America in the 20th century
  • To show that race will be a central problem of the 20th century

Du Bois in each of the chapters attempts to show the “strivings” of black existence from the reconstruction period to the black spirituals, the stories of rural black children that he tried to educate, and even the painful death of his own child. He speaks about winning the right to vote, literacy, and efforts of “striving,” in comparison to the philosophies of Booker T. Washington. In “The Dawn of Freedom” Du Bois provides a straightforward history of the ways the United States government has attempted to deal with the “problem” of blacks, just before, during, and after the Civil War, as well as efforts like the Freedman’s Bureau. The extreme marginalization and “othering” of the black has essentially made him into the “stranger” that Simmel speaks about within society.

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and the Roman, the Teuton and the Mongolian, the Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. 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” (Du Bois 10-11). Often viewed as an “appendage” to the rest of society, blacks have struggled to attain the success, equality, and overall collective consciousness of the American society, while simultaneously creating and maintaining and identity of their own. Blacks have been and continue to be socially, economically, educationally, and politically disenfranchised and therefore cannot completely find unity within an American system that continuously seeks to reaffirm their inferiority. Du Bois speaks of the “veil” that attaches itself to the souls of black people at birth. This so-called veil is a metaphor for the separation and invisibility of black life and existence in America. As long as one is wrapped within the “veil” their attempts to gain self-consciousness as well as a collective consciousness within society will fail, because they will always see the image of themselves reflected back to them by others, {As long as one is behind the veil, “the world which yields him no self-consciousness but who only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world”}.

The veil acts as a physical and psychological separation for blacks and white through:

  • Slavery
  • Jim Crow
  • Economic Inequality
  • Voluntary Segregation after the Civil War

The veil, acts as physical barrier, branding blacks as “others”, and psychologically affects him as he internalizes being seen as a “problem”.  Du Bois, believes that the veil hides the humanity of blacks as the black relation of whites has always been marked by violence. Furthermore, Du Bois believes that Booker T. Washington strengthens the veil through his accommodation beliefs and to rid the veil, blacks need to progress through education and political achievement.

Presentation Set Up Clips:

Du Bois Double Consciousness Reading

Richard Pryor: I Am Black?

Donald Glover: Having White Friends, but Being Black

Pages to Discuss Quotes:

p.10: First realization that he was a “problem”. Idea of the “stranger”

p. 17: Problem of the Color-Line. Has it always been there? When do you think it began?

p.30-31: Freedman’s Bureau: Let’s Discuss

p.45: Du Bois vs Booker T. Washington

p. 46-48: The Veil and the Meaning of Progress: Du Bois and Educational Experiences

p 132-133: Death of the First Born: Institutional Racism and Du Bois

  • The Idea of the Negro as a 7th Son: Forgotten?

Questions to Discuss:

  • How can the problem of the 20th century be the problem of the color-line if blacks are invisible to society because of the veil {of prejudice}?
  • How can the veil make blacks separate and invisible at the same time and make the separation so apparent within society?
  • How can education and political achievement help lift the veil? Do you think Booker T. Washington’s ideas are better?