W.E.B. Du Bois

David's Book Club: The Souls of Black Folk

To read WEB DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk in near proximity to Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery is a disorienting experience. Up From Slavery is a book written in a direct style, using a simple vocabulary and homely humor. Yet on every page, an alert reader is conscious of the author's artifice: of the careful self-presentation, of the tight control of every word, of the "oh the story I could tell" omissions, of the steely self-disciplined smile. If Booker T. Washington was not literally the inspiration for Paul Dunbar's great line, "We wear the mask that smiles and lies," his memory certainly lurks there.

DuBois on the other hand writes in a style as self-consciously literary as that of Marcel Proust. Classical allusions, poetical turns of phrase, antique diction, recondite words. Yet there is no doubt that when you read him, you are meeting the man himself. Not for him the false compliments paid by Washington to the "pleasantness" of race relations in the South of 1900. He has no false compliments for anyone, including the Southern "black folks" that this highly educated Northern man - whose ancestors had lived in freedom for more than 130 years - first met when he voyaged more than 1,000 miles to attend Tennessee's Fisk University.

Washington and DuBois are remembered as opponents in a great debate, fulfilling dialectical roles for later generations much like those filled by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Dudley Randall formalized the stereotype in a 1954 poem:

"It seems to me," said Booker T.,"That all you folks have missed the boatWho shout about the right to vote,And spend vain days and sleepless nightsIn uproar over civil rights.Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,But work, and save, and buy a house."

"I don't agree," said W.E.B."For what can property availIf dignity and justice fail?Unless you help to make the laws,They'll steal your house with trumped-up clause.A rope's as tight, a fire as hot,No matter how much cash you've got.Speak soft, and try your little plan,But as for me, I'll be a man."

DuBois is cast as the hero of protest; Washington as the shameful accommodationist. Because DuBois ended his long life in the Communist party, while Washington remained faithful to the party of Lincoln to the end of his short one, DuBois is also assigned to the "left," while Washington to the "right" - and in late 20th century black politics, the left is where a person sensitive to his or her reputation wanted to be.

Yet on rereading the two most famous books of these two famous men back-to-back for the first time since my undergraduate days, I was struck by the inaptness of their usual political categorization.

If ever there were a man who understood and championed the aspirations of the ordinary American - black in this case, but not inherently or necessarily so - it was Booker T. Washington. Economic security as the basis for individual fulfillment; the opportunity to acquire additional wealth through effort and skill; education for one's children - these are the things most people want. Washington endorsed those wants and struggled to help black Southerners to meet them. A superior man himself, he entered fully into the life of the ordinary person, sacrificing those parts of his personality inessential to his service of those lives.

As Robert Norrell confirms in his splendid biography of Washington, it's an erroneous slur to assert that Washington was indifferent to civil rights or contemptuous of higher education. In Up From Slavery as elsewhere, Washington urged everyone to gain all the education he or she could benefit from. (Washington's Tuskegee Institute, it should be noted, accepted women from the very start.) What Washington did recognize, however, was that under the circumstances he confronted, the most urgent needs were the most basic needs.

Like Washington, DuBois was a very superior man. Unlike Washington, DuBois did not - and does not seem to have much cared - to close the distance between himself and the rest of humanity. While Washington wrote from inside the experience of the freed slaves, DuBois observes them loftily from above. Neither Washington nor DuBois was a religious man, but only DuBois would have written a description like this of the religion of black Americans: more than the high style, the detached spirit of the observation would have been alien to Washington.

The Negro has already been pointed out many times as a religious animal,—a being of that deep emotional nature which turns instinctively toward the supernatural. Endowed with a rich tropical imagination and a keen, delicate appreciation of Nature, the transplanted African lived in a world animate with gods and devils, elves and witches; full of strange influences,—of Good to be implored, of Evil to be propitiated. Slavery, then, was to him the dark triumph of Evil over him. All the hateful powers of the Under-world were striving against him, and a spirit of revolt and revenge filled his heart. He called up all the resources of heathenism to aid,—exorcism and witchcraft, the mysterious Obi worship with its barbarous rites, spells, and blood-sacrifice even, now and then, of human victims. Weird midnight orgies and mystic conjurations were invoked, the witch-woman and the voodoo-priest became the centre of Negro group life, and that vein of vague superstition which characterizes the unlettered Negro even to-day was deepened and strengthened.

DuBois' elitism is the foundation of all his thinking and observation. Some people - black and white - simply are more and better than other people. Civilization begins with them, and emanates from them to the rest of the community.

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[O]f the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig … some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should be made a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a free workman among serfs. And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite.

And for the inescapably materialistic aspirations of that blacksmith, DuBois did not have much regard.

[T]he habit is forming of interpreting the world in dollars. The old leaders of Negro opinion, in the little groups where there is a Negro social consciousness, are being replaced by new; neither the black preacher nor the black teacher leads as he did two decades ago. Into their places are pushing the farmers and gardeners, the well-paid porters and artisans, the businessmen,—all those with property and money. And with all this change, so curiously parallel to that of the Other-world, goes too the same inevitable change in ideals. The South laments to-day the slow, steady disappearance of a certain type of Negro,—the faithful, courteous slave of other days, with his incorruptible honesty and dignified humility. He is passing away just as surely as the old type of Southern gentleman is passing, and from not dissimilar causes,—the sudden transformation of a fair far-off ideal of Freedom into the hard reality of bread-winning and the consequent deification of Bread. 10

In the Black World, the Preacher and Teacher embodied once the ideals of this people,—the strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing; but to-day the danger is that these ideals, with their simple beauty and weird inspiration, will suddenly sink to a question of cash and a lust for gold.

DuBois, a career educator, was at heart a mandarin. His disdain for trade and commerce leads him, bizarrely, to expressions of something close to nostalgia for the slaveholding South - and something even closer to anti-Semitism, a recurrent discordant note in The Souls of Black Folk.

The rod of empire that passed from the hands of Southern gentlemen in 1865, partly by force, partly by their own petulance, has never returned to them. Rather it has passed to those men who have come to take charge of the industrial exploitation of the New South,—the sons of poor whites fired with a new thirst for wealth and power, thrifty and avaricious Yankees, shrewd and unscrupulous Jews. Into the hands of these men the Southern laborers, white and black, have fallen; and this to their sorrow.

Southern slaveholding was of course itself a commercial system, as DuBois well knew, and one of the most merciless ever invented, as DuBois surely knew too. Yet again and again, his sympathy for what he calls "the best" among Southern blacks leads him tip-toeing toward the "moonlight and magnolias" view of the South so prevalent in the decades after the Civil War. How else to explain the following astounding passage, which occurs in the midst of an otherwise keen-eyed description of residential segregation that had emerged in the cities of the South after the Civil War?

[S]egregation by color is largely independent of that natural clustering by social grades common to all communities. A Negro slum may be in dangerous proximity to a white residence quarter, while it is quite common to find a white slum planted in the heart of a respectable Negro district. One thing, however, seldom occurs: the best of the whites and the best of the Negroes almost never live in anything like close proximity. It thus happens that in nearly every Southern town and city, both whites and blacks see commonly the worst of each other. This is a vast change from the situation in the past, when, through the close contact of master and house-servant in the patriarchal big house, one found the best of both races in close contact and sympathy, while at the same time the squalor and dull round of toil among the field-hands was removed from the sight and hearing of the family. One can easily see how a person who saw slavery thus from his father’s parlors, and sees freedom on the streets of a great city, fails to grasp or comprehend the whole of the new picture. On the other hand, the settled belief of the mass of the Negroes that the Southern white people do not have the black man’s best interests at heart has been intensified in later years by this continual daily contact of the better class of blacks with the worst representatives of the white race.

(Bolding added.)

Booker T. Washington was not above invoking the supposed closeness of the races in slavery times himself. But - a child of slavery himself - he delivered these invocations as a rhetorical device, when speaking to white audiences, as a means to allay their fears. Here he is in his famous/notorious Atlanta Exposition speech of 1896:

[Y]ou can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours ….

This is salesmanship, and of the most ingeniously manipulative kind. DuBois' references on the other hand are intended as sociology - descriptions of how things once were, intended to cast light upon how things now are. At other times, DuBois dispensed with these illusions. The second-last chapter of Souls of Black Folk presents a short story about the doomed struggles of an intelligent young Southern black man in the generation after the Civil War. Returning to his native place from his own truncated schooling, he appeals to the leading figure among the local whites for aid in opening a school for black children.

The Judge sat in the dining-room amid his morning’s mail, and he did not ask John to sit down. He plunged squarely into the business. “You ’ve come for the school, I suppose. Well, John, I want to speak to you plainly. You know I ’m a friend to your people. I ’ve helped you and your family, and would have done more if you had not got the notion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place, your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we ’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land. Now, John, the question is, are you, with your education and Northern notions, going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were,—I knew your father, John, he belonged to my brother, and he was a good Nigger. Well—well, are you going to be like him, or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads, and make them discontented and unhappy?”

“I am going to accept the situation, Judge Henderson,” answered John, with a brevity that did not escape the keen old man. He hesitated a moment, and then said shortly, “Very well,—we ’ll try you awhile. Good-morning.”

The story ends when the judge's son - John's childhood friend - attempts to sexually assault John's sister. John kills the son and is in turn lynched. No illusions there.

DuBois was a man of many ideas; Washington, of just one: the proverbial contrast of hedgehog and fox. DuBois made many misjudgments. Before he was wrong about communism, he was wrong over and over about American politics - and most notoriously in his bet that Woodrow Wilson would prove a racial modernizer.

Enraged at Washington's friend Theodore Roosevelt over his maltreatment of black soldiers in the Brownsville Affair of 1906; disgusted by William Howard Taft's unconcealed disdain for black people; DuBois avidly supported the Sphinx-like Wilson in the three-way race of 1912. At Wilson's inauguration, DuBois published an enthusiastic public letter in the magazine he edited for the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Your inauguration to the Presidency of the United States is to the colored people, to the white South and to the nation a momentous people, to the white South and to the nation a momentous occasion. For the first time since the emancipation of slaves the government of this nation — the Presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives — passes on the 4th of March into the hands of the party which a half century ago fought desperately to keep black men as real estate in the eyes of the law.

Your elevation to the chief magistracy of the nation at this time shows not simply a splendid national faith in the perpetuity of free government in this land, but even more, a personal faith in you.

We black men by our votes helped to put you in your high position. It is true that in your overwhelming triumph at the polls that you might have succeeded without our aid, but the fact remains that our votes helped elect you this time, and that the time may easily come in the near future when without our 500,000 ballots neither you nor your party can control the government.

True as this is, we would not be misunderstood. We do not ask or expect special consideration or treatment in return for our franchises. We did not vote for you and your party because you represented our best judgment. It was not because we loved Democrats more, but Republicans less and Roosevelt least, that led to our action.

Calmly reviewing our action we are glad of it. It was a step toward political independence, and it was helping to put into power a man who has today the power to become the greatest benefactor of his country since Abraham Lincoln.


Six months later, DuBois had to confess himself miserably mistaken.

Sir, you have now been President of the United States for six months and what is the result? It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful. Vardaman, Tillman, Hoke Smith, Cole Blease, and Burleson are evidently assuming that their theory of the place and destiny of the Negro race is the theory of your administration, They and others are assuming this because not a single act and not a single word of yours since election has given anyone reason to infer that that you have the slightest interest in the colored people or desire to alleviate their intolerable position, A dozen worthy Negro officials have been removed from office, and you have nominated but on black man for office, and he such a contemptible cur, that his very nomination was an insult to every Negro in the land.

To this negative appearance of indifference has been added positive action on the part of your advisers, with or without your knowledge, which constitutes the gravest attack on the liberties of our people since emancipation, Public segregation of civil servants in government employ, necessarily involving personal insult and humiliation, has for the first time in history been made the policy of the United States government.

In the Treasury and Post Office Departments colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings. We are told that one colored clerk who could not actually be segregated on account of the nature of his work has consequently had a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years. Mr. Wilson, do you know these things? Are you responsible for them? Did you advise them? Do you not know that no other group of American citizens has ever been treated in this way and that no President of the United States ever dared to propose such treatment? Here is a plain, flat, disgraceful spitting in the face of people whose darkened countenances are already dark with the slime of insult. Do you consent to this, President Wilson? Do you believe in it? Have you been able to persuade yourself that national insult is best for a people struggling into self-respect?

President Wilson, we do not, we cannot believe this. The Crisis still clings to the conviction that a vote for Woodrow Wilson was NOT a vote for Cole Blease or Hoke Smith.

Yet DuBois got one big thing right. Booker T. Washington's plan for black self-advancement depended on the assumption of a working rule of law in the South. If people can be defrauded with the connivance of the authorities, if property can be stolen with impunity, who will bother to work to accumulate property? Washington's assumption proved unreliable, and his hopes were disappointed. The rule of law had to be imposed first - and that imposition would have to await agitation from outside the South by exactly the kind of educated leadership that DuBois championed. Then, and only then, were the predicates in place for the rediscovery of the truths of the Booker T. Washington method - a method vastly more relevant today than when it was promulgated more than a century ago.