W.E.B. Du Bois was considered to be one of the most influential sociologists, civil rights activists, educator, historian, and writers of race in American history. Observing many of these issues occurring during the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, he witnessed first-hand the tensions between blacks and whites, discrimination, and racism. His contributions to the study of race relations and how sociologists recognize race and ethnicity were overwhelming. One of his most popular pieces of work, The Souls of Black Folk, examined the issues that plagued many African Americans. In the fourteen chapters of his book, Du Bois focuses on a number of themes that have helped to shape the way we see race and ethnicity in historical writing. Two of the most impactful concepts that W.E.B. DuBois discusses is the idea of double consciousness and what he calls “the veil.” These theories are considered to be two of the most lasting and impacting theoretical concepts introduced on the topic of race and ethnic sociological thinking. According to W.E.B. DuBois, “for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” (1903). These two concepts gave African Americans the ability to describe not just to themselves but to the outside world what they experienced on an everyday basis.
W.E.B DuBois discusses in his book these two theoretical concepts of the veil and double consciousness, which intertwine with one another. According to DuBois, African Americans view the world differently than white Americans do, and this is due to how racism and discrimination have personally affected them. Their encounters and relations with others, especially white people were on two different sides of the world, based on his descriptions. Due to these differences, his idea was that African Americans were not viewed as Americans, and weren’t treated as being fully American, or even human beings in some instances due to racism. At the same time, this veil gave many African Americans a negative view of themselves, because of their experiences with racism. Based on his notion of the “color line,” African Americans had been prevented from accessing the opportunities and freedoms that were made available to white Americans. Jim Crow segregation laws prevented African Americans from the necessities they needed to live a suitable life, segregating them to areas in which they had access to limited resources and fewer opportunities for work and education advancement.
However, DuBois also discussed the positives that came from these exclusions. African American schools, political organizations, churches, and universities all were born out of this system of segregation to provide these people with areas of opportunity and advancement. In his final chapter, W.E.B. DuBois discusses how what he called “sorrow songs” were as impactful as anything else for the black community. “And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people” (DuBois, 1903). DuBois’s idea of the veil does also interleave with his idea of double consciousness.
W.E.B. DuBois’s theory of double consciousness is the most influential theory that he discusses in The Souls of Black Folk. According to DuBois, the veil compels African Americans to encompass a double-consciousness. This double-consciousness allows blacks to see and understand themselves as their own person, but also how the outside world, in particular white Americans, view them as well. “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” (DuBois, 1903). DuBois believed that until African Americans could remove the veil and understand that they could be both black and American, that achieving freedom and making progress is not possible.
W.E.B DuBois used his writings in The Souls of Black Folk to display to Americans how historical writing was influenced by one’s own views on race. It was not just one’s personal views of themselves, but the outside world and what was written in history books and stories told that had an impact on the black consciousness. In W.E.B. Du Bois’ Achievements as Historian: A Review Essay, Kenneth Potts (1994) stated, “Du Bois’ writings not only made the invisible Negro visible but gave blacks a central role in American history, a perspective not often taken before. Du Bois’ new vision depicted the Negro as an active agent in historical action, not merely the victim or passive recipient” (p. 15). His writings were compared to those of Booker T. Washington, who was also considered to be an influential black leader.
While Washington believed that in order win the respect of white Americans it was necessary for blacks to accept discrimination and focus on other things, DuBois believed that the only way to bring change was to fight against it and be proud of being black. His views would impact groups like the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement. His co-founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), would assist in helping African Americans become self-conscious, remove that veil, and be proud to be both black and an American.