In his first essay, .Du Bois cites that there is one question that most white people want to ask black men. This question is always: "how does it feel like to be a problem?" (Du Bois, Page 7) While nobody ever directly asks this question, they often skirt around it and make it known that it is what they wish to know.
Du Bois' first realization that he was a "problem" was when he was in elementary school. Du Bois attended an integrated school in Massachusetts, and one year, a new student had enrolled. As part of a class project, students were supposed to share cards with one another. This girl, however, would not accept Du Bois' card.
This was when he realized he was different, and when he decided that he would dedicate himself to being better than whites at most things in life in order to be superior. Instead of sitting by and letting himself succumb to the injustices of the Veil, he decided he would pursue education that would empower him.
Throughout the first chapter, Du Bois keeps asking himself why God chose to make him a problem. He could not understand why the Negro was created in the shadow of all the other races; he says that the Negro is a sort of "seventh son" (Du Bois, Page 9), who was born with double consciousness and was always looking at himself through the eyes of others. The American Negro was not only a problem, but also, according to Du Bois, a symbol of struggle. This group was not only attempting to reach self-conscious manhood after years of captivity, but also trying to merge two conflicting identities into one ultimately better one.
According to Du Bois, the United States was afraid that these newly freed blacks would begin to Africanize America. However, this was impossible, especially since the Americas were advanced in comparison to the Americas. The real goal was not to take over, but to gain acceptance from the one homeland that they knew: the United States. After Emancipation, all the strengths of the black man were seen as weaknesses. This weakness was not a weakness, but actually a double aim: he was looking to not only escape white contempt, but also have better living conditions. For two centuries, the black man believed that century was the most evil, but forty years after Emancipation, the struggle continued.
In this essay, Du Bois also introduces the phrase "second-sight" (9). This phrase, "double-consciousness" (Du Bois, Page 9), defines how African-Americans live within the United States. They do not live just as black men in America or as Americans in America, but as an intersection of these two identities, that could not be peacefully merged together. The historical process of Emancipation exacerbated these conflicting identities. Instead of providing blacks with an opportunity to assimilate, Emancipation provided little freedom to a group of people that had previously been enslaved.
In order for this idea of the Veil to be eradicated, it would be necessary for freedom and liberty to become one. After Emancipation, while blacks had freedom from slavery, they did not have all of the rights allotted to people with liberty. In order to succeed, they would need not only physical freedom, but also voting rights and education.
"Of Our Spiritual Strivings" serves as an introduction to the racial nuances that Du Bois will encounter throughout the rest of the work. Through his encounter with the new girl in his school who refuses to accept the card which he has written for her, the reader begins to see the transformation of Du Bois from an ignorant young man into the insightful academic that he eventually becomes. This exchange thus serves not only as an introduction to the idea of a veil, but also as a catalyst to the adult personality that Du Bois eventually adopts.
By telling the reader that he will examine racial relations within the 20th Century, Du Bois positions his text as a historical one. It is, therefore, not only a sociological analysis on the plight of the "Negro" in the 20th Century, but also a lesson in history. This is done so that the reader can fully understand the obstacles with which this group is faced. Du Bois suggests that it is difficult to fully understand the concept of the veil, without first understanding the history surrounding it.
At the beginning of this essay, Du Bois discusses the question that most people do not want to ask him: what it feels like to be a problem. As a "Negro" in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Du Bois realized that he held a low position within society. While he understood how others saw him and what they felt about him, he also acknowledged that by virtue of his education, he was not entirely a "problem.” He was, according to whites that often asked this question, a token good person within black society.
This idea that "black was bad" and that only few good ones could exist predated the more contemporary versions of race. In essence, this exchange served as a foreshadowing of the black strife of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Throughout the 20th Century, blacks continued to fight for equal rights. While many fought for the rights of their people, only few came to national attention. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader from within the Civil Rights movement, rose to prominence around the time of his death. His civil activism throughout life was mostly ignored, because he was black. Thus, even in modern America, the persistent idea that being black was a problem persisted.
This first essay provided the reader a more detailed definition of what the "veil" was. The "Veil," a metaphor for the color-line, was that with which African-Americans would live with for life. They would always live with the knowledge that they were different, and that others would see them differently. Regardless of how hard they tried, they would never be able to rid themselves of this metaphor or of this distinct difference. Du Bois uses an accusatory tone to explain this concept. Through his writing, it is apparent that he blames the American government for place African-Americans in position that would ultimately constrain them to live within the veil. He also insinuates, however, that only those who do not live in ignorance are aware that this burden exists. Thus, the uneducated black man does not necessarily need to worry about the existence of the veil, solely because he does not know it exists.