Throughout the essays of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois writes with a fierce, didactic tone that embodies the spirit of the African American during the beginning of the twentieth century. There are also moments of an almost soft, narrative that doesn’t only show the soul of Du Bois, but the souls of all black folk. To be black and American during this time period poses a great struggle to find one’s true identity within the real world. Du Bois asks the question, “How does it feel to be a problem” (Du Bois, 37)? The question shows the division Du Bois sees within himself that is given to him by the real world. It is this contrast with society and culture that Du Bois focuses his attention on throughout the entire book of The Souls of Black Folk.
A motif that is seen throughout the book is Du Bois metaphor of wearing “a veil”. The veil itself is symbolic of the tearing of the veil in the temple in the New Testament. But why would Du Bois use this metaphor to illustrate the lives of black folk and their relationship with white Americans? He reveals that the culture of white Americans is still embodied in the idea to fall back into mindset when slavery was still in place. And the same goes for African Americans. A “veil” has been created within society that strips people of their wholeness and is replaced by a double-consciousness (38). This sudden two-ness, as it is described allows Du Bois to see not only through his world, but also through the eyes of the other world. It is the world in which culture deems black Americans to be untrustworthy and inferior. It is possible that Du Bois, by referring to this biblical metaphor, could be trying to reveal that through human relations there is a way toward higher Divine relations. Allowing everyone to look beyond the veil and to live in a culture where there is no veil at all. It could be the beginning of the idea where people go through life with true happiness and higher intelligence.
In “Of the Dawn of Freedom” and “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” Du Bois portrays the US government and other political characters such as Booker T. Washington as taking the wrong approach toward freedom for the somewhat newly emancipated black American from slavery into freedom. He describes the ideal of “book-learning” to be the highest achievement any man can attain (41). However, Washington has a strong following into the belief that for now they should put away any ideals of equality and focus more on securing their place in America with economic success. For Du Bois, this is merely assuming the mindset of slavery because it is what is familiar and known. The same applies for white Americans not evolving their political and social systems to allow for freed slaves to enter the culture with unhinged arms. To achieve what is intangible, freedom, through Du Bois eyes, a person must have higher education. It is the only way to complete the soul and give a life its true meaning. It is also, the hardest to achieve over economic status and law.
Du Bois sees Atlanta embodying the materialistic culture that Washington and others strive to achieve. He compares her to Atalanta and her temptation toward the golden apples left by Hippomenes. “And with all this change, so curiously parallel to that of the Other-world, goes too the same inevitable change in ideals” (85). It is the loss of spirituality and honesty that leaves the black American with no sense of himself. But, not all is lost in the City of a Hundred Hills. The college is the breadth of life for Du Bois. He recognizes a negotiation between the intangible and tangible world. With the culture of Atalanta surrounding the city, the college gives people a chance to gain knowledge, which is necessary for development of an individual’s soul. It is quite interesting to see the negotiation of the intangible (knowledge gained at the college) and the tangible (the city and all the riches it proposes). Both of them together create a sort of compromise which all people are conflicted with. It is as if Du Bois is trying to address not only issues for his own race, but also issues faced by all races of people. By doing so, Du Bois hints back toward “the veil” and his ideas through human relations there is way toward Divine relations.
Du Bois notices Georgia and Atlanta in particular to be of great importance to the race because of the amount of black citizens that reside there. He notices a rise in the life of the negro, but soon after visiting with multiple farmers feels a sudden set back after post-Emancipation America, farmers who were cheated and told him otherwise. Noticing two types of mindsets: those bitter with contempt and hatred, and those who were ignorant and lazy. Farmers are still living in slavery-like conditions and never seeming to get out of debt. In someone does prosper, according to Du Bois in Dougherty County they would leave for the city-life. There was no time for leisure or studies. Everyone seemed to work. Taking a step back, Du Bois analyzes the interactions between white and black Americans. Noticing a trend called the “color line” whites tend to stay in one area while blacks tend to stay in another area. The “veil,” if ever to be crossed seems far and in between. Society tends to fall in place what is best known and comfortable and that is exactly what Du Bois is expressing. There is a fear of the unknown and it takes a great deal of courage to cross that “color line.”
In “Of The Passing Of The First-Born,” Du Bois illustrates the impact of life and death of passing of his first son. The language in which he uses is very formal and is used to bridge the gap between the white world as well still attempt to express his in depth emotions of his own world. In doing so, there is this connection between both worlds that allows for a moment for his son to be released from the grasps of “the veil” and to be set free with God. To show the development of his human emotions, Du Bois subtly describes what seems to be the birth of Jesus in the manger (161). Possibly, what he is trying to articulate is that white and black Americans are over looking forgiveness, faith, and love. Religion and spirituality are the backbone for the South and Du Bois is playing with the idea that through loss, or through birth an individual’s faith should be renewed. Faith might be the factor that allows both worlds to let “the veil” slowly fade into the light.
Toward the end of “The Sorrow Songs,” he asks, “Would America have been America without her Negro people” (193)? He ultimately concludes it would not. American culture without its African American people would have not yet had such a conflict with identity. Du Bois use of epigrams is one of his strongest attributes to the embodiment of the spirituality of the black American during the twentieth century. He tells a narrative of hope by his use of epigrams that are designed to share the experience of being an African American and to point toward a future where culture has no need of a veil.