Lynch is a writer and teacher in Northern New Mexico. In the following essay, she examines ways that the text of The Souls of Black Folk embodies Du Bois' experience of duality as well as his "people's." In Du Bois' "Forethought" to his essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk, he entreats the reader to receive his book in an attempt to understand the world of African Americansâ€”in effect the "souls of black folk." Implicit in this appeal is the assumption that the author is capable of representing an entire "people." This presumption comes out of Du Bois' own dual nature as a black man who has lived in the South for a time, yet who is Harvard-educated and cultured in Europe.
Du Bois illustrates the duality or "two-ness," which is the function of his central metaphor, the "veil" that hangs between white America and black; as an African American, he is by definition a participant in two worlds. The form of the text makes evident the author's duality: Du Bois shuttles between voices and media to express this quality of being divided, both for himself as an individual, and for his "people" as a whole. In relaying the story of African-American people, he relies on his own experience and voice and in so doing creates the narrative. Hence the work is as much the story of his soul as it is about the souls of all black folk. Du Bois epitomizes the inseparability of the personal and the political; through the text of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois straddles two worlds and narrates his own experience.
Du Bois expands on his reference to duality and the "veil" in "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" with the explanation, "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." He goes on to describe "two-ness " as being "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body." The world of the African American, he asserts, is one split by perception from the exterior of mainstream America and in conflict with the experience of oneself. These conflicting selves result in an obscured sense of identity. Du Bois' use of the "veil" describes an obstacle that prevents white America from true perception of African Americans.
The veil is mentioned at least once in each of the essays; Du Bois sees it asinseparable from African-American identity in that blacks live within it, yet also live in America, and thus lead double lives. Arnold Rampersad, in The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, suggests that the word " 'souls' in the title is a play on words, referring to the 'two-ness' of the black American." His assertion supports areading of Du Bois' work as aimed not only at addressing the African American as a whole but at addressing his experience as an individual who is inherently divided.As an active participant in two worlds, Du Bois embodies his assessment of life within the "veil"â€” and to the extreme.
Raised in New England and possessed of superior intellect, he completed his undergraduate, master's, and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University and spent several years working on his dissertation in Europe.
His extensive education makes him a renowned scholar and a man exceptional for his time; he was the first African American admitted to Harvard. As a student of history and philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century, Du Bois was versed in the classics according to the traditional curriculum of the time. Hence, although the focus of his work is the liberation of African-American people, his academic life was necessarily steeped in Western, and largely white, culture. Because of financial limitations, Du Bois completed the first three years of his undergraduate education at Fisk College in Tennessee and spent his summers teaching deprived southern blacks each of those years, a period that comprises his main experience of the South.
Because most of his life was spent in the North, critics of his work at the time called into question his ability to understand the lives of southern African Americans. For example, the 1903 New York Times review of The Souls of Black Folk asserts, "probably he does not understand his own people in their natural state." Such statements not only support Du Bois' interpretation of the way African Americans are viewed by white America but also reflect the way he himself was viewed as not a "natural" black man, and, in fact, divided from his people.Several of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk are delivered in a third-person, rhetorical tone that calls to mind.