Leaving, then, the world of the white man [whiteness], I have stepped within the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, -the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls. All of this I have ended with a tale twice told but seldom written . . . And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the veil?
-W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
With the recent passing of U.S. Congressman John R. Lewis, those on the opposite side of the veil have been given a rare peak into Black life and culture. Rare in the sense that those who are not a part of the Black lived experience here in America have the luxury of not being required to know our truth. The televised funeral of Congressman Lewis at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia gave America yet another peak into an aspect Black culture. This was also true of Aretha Franklin’s funeral, or even the recorded sermons the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, nefariously manipulated in an attempt to undermine then Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run. The Black church is one of the ways that America accesses our culture.
As an educator in sociology, when I think of DuBois’ reference of the veil, I understand it to be a separator of cultural space as a result of what he called back then “the problem of the 20th century”, the problem of the color [racial] line.
And to think 117 years later, what DuBois called the color line is still a problem!
It’s troubling that those who would not otherwise be interested in coming within the Black side of the veil, have the temerity to enter and project their attitudes and opinions onto the culture. Even more troubling is how these individuals and their institutions steeped in white cultural values, can cross- enter and exit the veil without being required to pay toll. Not toll in the sense that they pay money (though at times this is certainly appropriate), but rather paying toll in the sense that these visitors are obligated to learn, respect and be held accountable for their visits into Black cultural spaces.
At Congressman Lewis’ funeral, former President Bill Clinton had the temerity to pit Stokely Carmichael (later name changed to Kwame Ture) legacy against John Lewis’ legacy. He took the liberty to elevate Lewis’ legacy above Ture, when both were prophetic Black cultural voices in their own right. No matter how much Clinton might be esteemed as an ally by many of us within the veil, he’s still a visitor.
At Aretha Franklin’s funeral, primarily white news media pundits lost their minds and could not understand why Louis Farrakhan had a seat on the rostrum. Many of them took liberty to assert a narrative about how he is a problematic aspect of our culture that we need correct. It’s still a mystery in the minds of these outsiders, the earned nuanced place that Louis Farrakhan has within the Black side of the veil.
Finally, the case of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, former shepherd to President Barack Obama. In 2008, the other Clinton, Hilary in her presidential run was the first to cross the line into Black cultural space. She took a clip of Reverend Wright’s sermon and manipulated it to fashion a false narrative about one of best theological practitioners in Black liberation. Soon media outlets committed to white cultural values took up the narrative, spewed their vitriol and attempted to decimate his character and legacy, all the while trampling over one of the strongest religious examples unique to our Black cultural space.
I highlight these cases not necessarily to bemoan the actions of those individuals and media institutions committed to attitudes and values steep in whiteness. Rather, it is an admonishment to those of us within the veil to take up the responsibility be culture keepers who actively guard the uniqueness, beauty, and nuances of Black life and culture. No outsiders can be allowed to cross the color line and enter or exit the veil without paying toll. Similarly, those from within the veil who choose to exit and wed themselves to the norms, values, and attitudes that prioritizes whiteness at the expense and oppression of Black life and culture should too, be made to pay toll. Culture keepers are responsible to put forth healthy and accurate narratives, and provide commentary and interpretation our lived experiences within the culture. While we are not monolithic, we are the only ones qualified to preserve, protect, and articulate our diversified and nuanced truth. We are obligated to guard the beauty and diversity of lived experiences within the Black side of the veil.