It was in early childhood when W.E.B. Du Bois––scholar, activist, and black radical––first noticed The Veil that separated him from his white classmates in the mostly white town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He and his classmates were exchanging “visiting cards,” invitations to visit one another’s homes, when a white girl refused his.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows,” Du Bois wrote in his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folk. “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”
Du Bois’s upbringing as a black child was, in some ways blessed, particularly for the time. He received a good education, he had white teachers who believed in his potential. Yet despite growing up in a white town, far from the bloody, violent turmoil of the post-emancipation South, he learned from childhood that he was different, that a wall yet lay between himself and the other white children. We cannot know who Du Bois might have been had he been raised in a mostly black town or gone to a mostly black school. What we do know is that growing up around white people, with opportunities other blacks did not have, did not make white supremacy invisible to him––on the contrary,the intimacy of his early relationships with whites helped shape who he was.