Veil, in African American Culture
Veil, in African American Culture
The veil in African American culture is a mystical dimension of a spiritual belief system that traveled with slaves on the Middle Passage. An infant “born with a veil” of fetal membrane enveloping the head was interpreted as supernaturally gifted with a second sight, an ability to see into the future. Likewise, the seventh child of a seventh child would also be gifted with spiritual powers. The veil, also called a caul, like roots, charms, and conjurers, is a vivid aspect of African American spiritual, literary, and folklore tradition.
Moving beyond the mystical, African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois explored the notion of the veil from a societal perspective, using the metaphor of being “born with a veil” to describe black life in America, particularly the plight of the black American experience and the challenges facing African American culture. In his 1903 masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois articulates with poetic beauty and poignant accuracy the pain and confusion felt by an entire race of people as it sought self-understanding.
A sense of duality surrounds Du Bois’s veil metaphor: First is the physical delineation of blackness and whiteness, that semipermeable border that separates black and white cultures and forces blacks to learn to function in both worlds. Second is white people’s inability to view blacks as worthy Americans. Du Bois often felt despised by whites and was regularly asked, indirectly, “How does it feel to be a problem?” (1903, p. 1). This obstruction of vision is twofold, for the veil also refers to black people’s inability to see themselves beyond the prescipted image projected onto them by whites. Realizing his racial identity, Du Bois states, “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; … shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through” (p. 2).
Faced with this problematic veil that separated the two worlds of black and white, blacks were forced to create a “twoness” or “double-consciousness.”
The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but … this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body. (p. 3)
But also drawing upon the positive spiritual qualities of the veil, Du Bois notes that a black person seeks “to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (p. 3).
A century later, Du Bois’s metaphor veil lives on in Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South, a comprehensive research project associated with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Historians conducted nearly 1,300 oral interviews with everyday men and women from the Jim Crow era, resulting in a book and audio documentary titled Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South (2001). Much like the dualism of The Souls of Black Folk, Behind the Veil has its own dualism: to convey the oppression experienced by African Americans during Jim Crow but also their incredible hope and monumental efforts.
SEE ALSO African Americans; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ethnography; Inequality, Racial; Jim Crow; Mysticism
Chafe, William H., Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, eds. 2001. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South. New York: New Press.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam, 1989.
Judy L. Isaksen