Removing the Veil: The Humanizing and Cautionary themes of Dubois and Baldwin

dubois baldwin Many regard The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois as classic literature. Indeed, both works are referenced, purchased, and deemed socially relevant several years after their original publication dates. Furthermore, both books transcend typical description by exploring and informing various disciplines including history, psychology, literature, sociology, and political science.

Perhaps the value of these books owes itself to the insight they provide into the black experience in racist America, and into the white American psyche that creates and maintains racism for its benefit. This paper argues that Dubois and Baldwin made passionate pleas in their respective works, one appealing to the conscience and reason of whites to demonstrate Black humanity, the other extolling white hypocrisy while calling for Black identity and self-determination. Taken together, these works represent attempts to reconcile blacks and whites with each other in the cooperative spirit of creating an America that lived up to its lofty ideals.

Writing at the turn of the 19th Century, Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk provides a history of the black experience from the Reconstruction to the turn of the century, and in doing so, encompasses such topics as black religion, music, labor, politics and education. Yet, we might argue that his main interest is to humanize black people in the eyes of his white contemporaries. His title itself suggests this aim, (that Blacks do in fact, have souls) and Dubois alludes to this in the forethought of his book.[1]

In the first chapter entitled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Dubois introduces his concept of the “veil,” to describe how white society creates barriers to black advancement. This veil, suggests Dubois, “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.”[2] While that veil clouds blacks’ self-perception, Dubois suggests that the veil of race also prevents whites from viewing black people as they truly are. What results then is a distorted view that blacks are ignorant, child-like, and inhuman. Setting this foundation in the beginning, Dubois then sets out to help white America see black people as they truly are, to expose them as his title suggests, to the souls of black folk.

He does this convincingly, arguing that the black condition following the Civil War might appear trivial or “weak,” but is in fact, the burden blacks bear, fighting both to be true to their own culture and to reconcile themselves with American values and expectations.  As if pleading with white America not to judge the descendants of slaves too harshly, he reminds them of the intense poverty they suffered and how generations of educational neglect left them illiterate and unsophisticated. [3]

In the second chapter, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” Dubois explores the period after the Civil War until 1872, highlighting both the achievements and defects of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He recalls how former slaves fought in the Union army, created mutual aid societies, and struggled to educate themselves with and without Bureau support. His account squarely documents the tenacity of black people, and the seriousness with which they took their own lives and freedom. DuBois’ testimony to black humanity and agency despite societal handicaps continues throughout the book. In his chapter Of the Training of Black Men, for example, he discusses the development of industrial and common education for blacks in the south, noting the remarkable progress made amongst black college graduates and professionals in just five decades.[4]

In the last chapter “Of the Sorrow Songs,”  DuBois  poetically describes the power and history of the Spirituals, which he characterizes as “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”[5] Thus, he provides a counterargument for whites at the time that portrayed blacks as being content with their captivity and abuse. Again, DuBois uses his broad knowledge of history to humanize black people by illustrating their contributions to American music, their industry (he recalled how the Fisk Jubilee Singers used their concerts to raise money to support Fisk University), and their humanity.

Finally, DuBois summarizes his appeal to white America on behalf of black humanity when he cites black contributions to America: “Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro People?”[6]

If DuBois used The Souls of Black Folk, to prove blacks’ worthy of full and unrestricted American citizenship, if he removed the veil so whites could accurately see the humanity of black people, then Baldwin removed the veil for the purpose of showing black people and whites themselves who they really were.

Published during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin’s classic, The Fire Next Time, is considered an excellent commentary on race relations at the time. He provides a brutally honest and highly reflective examination of white racism and its debilitation of blacks. In his first essay, My Dungeon Shook, Baldwin speaks to his black contemporaries, insisting that black people know and embrace their heritage, unashamedly claim all the rights and privileges owed them as American citizens, and that they refuse to internalize the racial stigmas ascribed to them by whites. Speaking to the latter point, Baldwin counsels,

The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to you inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear. [7]

In this sense, Baldwin removes the proverbial veil in an effort to edify the psyche of blacks and simultaneously, to expose the maliciousness of white racism in America. He also explains the power dynamics of racism, as when he describes how whites create ghettos for the purpose of curtailing the mobility, ambition, and life choices of black youth.[8] Clearly dissenting with the popular notions of acceptance and integration at the time of his writing, Baldwin insists that blacks reject attempts to be accepted by whites or integrated into their society.

His second essay in the book, “Down at the Cross,” removes the veil again, but this time, to expose the contradictions and hypocrisies of white society. It is as if Baldwin wants to peel away layers of illusion, reminding whites that they are not the righteous demigods they portray themselves to be, but that their superiority is based on mythology that both deludes them and debases black people.  As Baldwin suggests, “the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards.”[9]

Baldwin is particularly critical of Christianity, both its black and white manifestations. Seeing it as yet another way to negate and restrict people, he cites as evidence the “Curse of Ham” (which suggests that black people are divinely cursed despite their best efforts) and that notions of heaven and hell amounted to “blackmail.”[10]

Baldwin takes some time to describe his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Although he agrees with some of the nationalist pride and unity exhibited by the group, he nevertheless views their biological determinism and claims to superiority to mirror similar negative elements of Christianity. He concludes by rejecting racism and discrimination in all its forms, calling our attention to the need for interracial cooperation, and the need to transcend our self-imposed labels and barriers. Similar to DuBois, he removes the veil preventing blacks and whites from truly understanding themselves, one another, and the role both must play toward creating social justice in America. Of course, as suggested by his title, Baldwin’s book is more of a cautionary tale than DuBois.’ He reminds us that what is at stake is our mutual existence.

[1] Dubois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” In Three Negro Classics, 209. New York: Avon Books, 1965

[2] Dubois, 215.

[3] Dubois 218

[4] Dubois, 279.

[5] DuBois, 380.

[6] DuBois, 387

[7] James Baldwin, “Baldwin: Collected Essays,” 293,  New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998

[8] Baldwin, 293.

[9] Baldwin, 300.

[10] Baldwin, 307.

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