Holiday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — W. E. B. Du Bois


”There can be no democracy curtailed by race and poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even peace.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois

This weekend is capped by Martin Luther King’s birthday holiday, so it seems fitting to derive the wisdom from one of the most prominent precursors to Dr. King whose work still influences us to this day.  The photo and quote that begin this post have been on a poster that has followed me in the various I have lived across the United States.  It hung in my office when I taught at the old Navy School in Athens, Georgia.  It hung in my office at the Naval Air Systems Command in Arlington.  It hung in my office at the Pentagon.  And it has hung in my offices since leaving the Navy.

I keep it with me so that I can look at the portrait of the man who penned them, see the quiet desperation in his eyes to be recognized for the man that he is.  I have studied the formality of his clothing and the fastidiousness of his grooming, all outward devices to show:  “look at me, I am a person of accomplishment and intelligence, worthy of acknowledgment and decency.”  I read his words as a reminder of the connection between the two great unresolved issues born into our societal DNA when we were formed as a nation–those of race and class.  We embraced democracy and republicanism, but not so much on these two issues that would threaten the powerful institutions and people that could undermine the whole undertaking.  And so the founders punted them down the road, leaving them to later generations, and to us.

To me, were it not for W. E. B. Du Bois the impact of Martin Luther King’s actions would not have been successful.  King was the embodiment of the emotional and moral urgency behind civil rights.  Du Bois provided the intellectual and ethical foundations upon which King acted.  Political movements often rely on propaganda, but when they only have propaganda and no firm basis in the world of fact to give them foundation, they must either fail or devolve into some great tyranny.  As such, W. E. B. Du Bois was part of the great American Pragmatist line of philosophical thought, which continues to be a powerful force for advancement, progress, and socio-economic change.  All of us owe a great depth of gratitude to W. E. B. Du Bois.

Both Dr. Du Bois and Dr. King came to the conclusion that the attainment of civil rights for African Americans was only one revolution in the chain of American revolutions extending American freedom and the promises inherent in the Declaration and the Preamble of the Constitution.  The first of these revolutions was the original War for Independence which marked the slow undoing of the Divine Right of Kings and the presumptions of lordship and ladyship, which continued with the extension of universal male white suffrage.   The second was the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery.  The third was the extension of the franchise and civil rights to women, who were chattel up until that time.  The fourth was the completion of the work of emancipation to extend full civil rights to African-Americans and other previously disenfranchised groups.  We still see the work of that revolution working today in the extension of human and civil rights to the LGBT community.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which contained a small free black population for some time.  According to his own autobiographical reminisces in “My Evolving Program For Negro Freedom” published in 1944, his early life and schooling was free of racial prejudice, but he did experience a growing awareness of his own “differentness.”  He demonstrated great intellectual ability and had many friends among the wealthier families of the town. He graduated high school with high honors at the age of 16.  The mother who had nurtured him, however, suddenly died from a stroke.  Finding himself an orphan and with no relative to assist in his desired educational pursuits, the people of the town and his relatives raised the money for him to go to college.  Since he graduated at a relatively young age–and with no financial resources–it was determined by the adults around him that he would work for a season, which he did as a timekeeper for the building of a mansion by the widow of a local millionaire.  There he experienced his first taste of the world of work and labor, and the stratification of society.

Du Bois had selected Harvard as his choice of school but the father of one his friends, the Reverend C. C. Painter, who had worked in the Indian Bureau, had seen the failure of Reconstruction and felt that Du Bois could best apply his intellectual talents to the problem of the American South.  The town thus arranged for him to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from funds donated by his neighbors and the members of the First Congregationalist Church of Great Barrington.  It was during his time in Nashville, from 1885 to 1888, that he experienced southern racism for the first time, institutionally borne of the Black Codes and Jim Crow, and its de facto racism in societal interaction; both enforced by the threat of vigilantism.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at Fisk, he then attended Harvard College back in Massachusetts from 1888 to 1890 by raising funds through his own labor, loans from friends, scholarships, and an inheritance.  He completed a second degree at Harvard in history, graduating cum laude.  It is during this time that he was greatly influenced by the philosopher William James and the historian Albert Bushnell Hart, who were his professors.  It was James who convinced him to change his concentration from philosophy to history in order to make a living.  He pursued additional degrees from Harvard in sociology that was interrupted by some time at the University of Berlin in Germany.

He his first teaching engagement at the African Methodist Episcopal Church-run Wilberforce University in Ohio where, due to his things did not go as well as he had hoped.  According to his interview by Moses Asch in 1961, which informs a good deal of this post, he spent two years there but it was at that point that he received the opportunity that would change both his life and the arch of history.

The Year That Changed History

That year was 1896.  It was the year in which he became the first African-American to receive a PhD. from Harvard with the publication of his thesis entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, which became the first volume of the Harvard Historical Series.  It is still considered to be the definitive work on its subject, so meticulous its research and methodology.  In it Du Bois outlines the southern plantation economy, the role of Northern traders and industrialists in the slave trade, and the efforts to eliminate it.

It was also the year he was invited by the University of Pennsylvania to provide a study on the Philadelphia Negro population of the city’s 7th ward.  Philadelphia was a city with the reputation of being one of the most poorly run and corrupt cities in the country.  Despite this widespread acknowledgment, it was the opinion of many of the city’s politicians and citizens that the actions and living conditions of the Negroes in this slum area was the basis of many of the city’s ills.  While it was widely believed that this was the case, there was no scientific basis for the belief.  The University of Pennsylvania could not offer Du Bois a position to teach on the faculty, so they made him as “Assistant Instructor” of Sociology and gave him great freedom to conduct his study, which was his only assignment.

The result was the first sociological study of African-Americans, later published in 1899 entitled, The Philadelphia NegroAside from the subject matter Du Bois’ methods were revolutionary for the time, applying quantitative methods and statistics to derive his conclusions.  His use of bar graphs and charts, delineation of the population characteristics, and the application of empirical methods to the field of sociology were unique for the time, admired, and used as the analogue for similar studies for many years.  Du Bois’ experience in Philadelphia had its challenges.  He was not entirely welcomed by the African-Americans of the 7th Ward, who viewed him with suspicion.  Despite these frustrations, he was able to objectively and scientifically identify the social conditions of the population and offer suggestions at amelioration through education, and overcoming the effects of slavery and discrimination.  Rather than accepting the deterministic sociology of Spencer, Du Bois refuted this quasi-ideological assertion masquerading as science through the use of empirical methods.

In “Strivings of the Negro People,” which appeared in the August 1897 edition of Atlantic Magazine, he outlines the combined weight of slavery and other injustices on African-Americans that came out of his study.  “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. He felt the weight of his ignorance, — not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet. Nor was his burden all poverty and ignorance. The red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home….A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems.”  He goes on later that “while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races. To which the Negro cries Amen! and swears that to so much this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress he humbly bows and meekly does obeisance.”

In these words Du Bois clearly outlines the desired explanation that is defeated by the facts.  These words also expose the artifice in similar writings in our own time such as the execrable 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Herrnstein and Murray; which attempted to reintroduce the discredited ideas of social Darwinism and racial determinism.  Old playbooks and old cons sometimes find themselves introduced by new cons to a later, less vigilant, generation that has forgotten or never learned about those of the past.

After the University of Pennsylvania, Du Bois received an offer from Atlanta University in 1897 for his next teaching assignment.  There he developed a curriculum dedicated to the “history of the American Negro.”  But it is in Georgia, where for many years lynching averaged one a week, that, in his own description, his emphasis changed from that of “knowledge” to one of advocacy with the lynching of a man by the name of Sam Hose.

Thus Du Bois represented a different set of African-American voices than the reassuring one Booker T. Washington provided to racist society.  Under Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” that grew out of his 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, the limitations dictated by Jim Crow would go unopposed in exchange for African-Americans receiving the bare essentials of citizenship–not including the franchise or personal safety, of course.  Instead a very basic definition of the concept of education would be provided, and a modicum of economic opportunity.  Washington himself advocated for such an education for African-Americans restricted to practical disciplines in business, education, agriculture, and the industrial arts.

Washington’s rationale was that taking this position was the only acceptable course of action after the failure of Reconstruction.  He feared that a more aggressive stance in white society would only create a backlash that the African-American minority could not withstand.  This accommodationist stand was a Devil’s bargain, of course, and Du Bois saw it as such.  Instead he advocated full equality, but–unlike what he saw as the full assimilationist position of Frederick Douglass in which black identity is completely obliterated in favor of white European norms–one in which black people maintain their ideals and identity in gaining a seat at the table of American society.  This was not black nationalism or separatism, which he vehemently opposed during his lifetime.  It was, instead, the advocacy that the nation in embracing equality had to accept people simply as they were.

The Souls of Black Folk

Thus this was a very fertile and active time for Du Bois.  In 1903 he published his classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  This treatise consists of a thirteen essays and one work of fiction, sandwiched between a foreword and an afterword.  Some of the essays had been published in periodicals previously, but were revised and expanded for the book.  Each of the chapters is headed by a poem by a white author or a passage from a black folk song which he calls “Sorrow Songs,” that has the effect of showing both similarity and separateness.   This is a theme that is common to all of his writings: the two identities of being black in America–both black and separate but American and the same.  “It is a peculiar sensation,” he writes in Chapter 1, “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.”

The book begins very powerfully in the foreword in which he lays out the thesis of the book which he labels “The Forethought”:

“HEREIN lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  — W. E. B. Du Bois, Foreword to The Souls of Black Folk

He describes black people as living within the “Veil.”  This Veil is what separates white from black–the perspective of each toward the other borne from the color line and prejudice–which distorts the way in which the world is viewed: its possibilities, its limitations, its fears.  For African-Americans this Veil is both a blessing and a curse because it both limits them but also provides them with comfort and “second sight.”

In the first two chapters he discusses the effects of emancipation on African-Americans, what it meant to them, and its aftermath.  In the third chapter he takes on the accommodationist stance of Booker T. Washington, carrying on the argument “both within and without the Veil” in the next two chapters regarding education to include the liberal arts in order to create leaders.  This position went on to support his concept of the “Talented Tenth,” the 1 in 10 members of the African-American community that would pursue a classical education in order to write and become active in social change.

The next three chapters concern a historical overview of the slave trade and sociological studies of African-Americans, the negative stereotypes of them that are belied by the facts, and the deleterious effects of segregation, racism, and terrorism from white vigilantism.

He then steps within the Veil and in Chapter X discusses the central and essential role of the black church to African-Americans: it’s organizing principles and characteristics in maintaining black social structure and black hope against overwhelming odds.  He follows this with a heartbreaking autobiographical essay on the untimely death of his small son that explores the meaning of life and death within the Veil and a short biography of Alexander Crumwell, a black Episcopal priest lost in a white world.

Chapter XIII, “Of the Coming of John,” is a fictional work about a black man from Altamaha, Georgia, which lies near the Atlantic coast, who is sent north to be educated and soon begins to become aware of the condition to which he was born.  He returns to his home to work, which he been part of his long term plan, only to find that he is isolated from the world of his people and hated by the white society around him for his education.  A chance encounter with his white playmate from when he was a child, who does not recognize him, results in an act of racial discrimination that hastens his return to Altamaha.  Another encounter in the town with that same childhood friend ends in tragedy.  The last chapter discusses the black music, the Sorrow Songs, which he defends as not simply an artifact from slavery to be discarded, but the only native music of the nation that deserves preservation and continued development.  That this did occur in what today we identify as jazz and blues demonstrates once again the prescience of this powerful mind.

It is amazing to me that Du Bois could, in the space of such a small volume, so effectively sum up the complicated history and sociology of the black condition in America.  It is also a lesson in history that, despite such honest and powerful depictions and arguments, that it would be another 60 years before many of ills about which he writes would not be addressed–and then only with concentrated commitment and persistence, and the additional spilling of blood sacrifice.

From Scholar to Civil Rights Leader

Thus we see the development of a first rate academically-centered mind to someone who is becoming a leading voice of the civil rights movement.  After the publication of The Souls of Black Folk his already sizable reputation blossomed.  He helped to create the Niagara Movement in 1905, which organized to place into action the alternative course from that laid out by Washington.  The next year President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers based on the specious allegations of the racist white citizens of Brownsville, Texas, who resented the presence of black troops.  Later that same year in September, Atlanta was overwhelmed by riots by white males, who hunted down, beat, shot, lynched, and raped black citizens, burning their houses and their businesses over allegations of the rapes of several white women–a charge instigated by competing candidates for governor.

The ramifications from these events had both short-term and long-term effects.  Most immediately, it was viewed by the African-American community as a breach and repudiation of Washington’s accommodationist approach, which placed Du Bois and other more aggressive advocates of civil rights at the forefront.  Roosevelt’s action began the long disassociation of African-Americans from their support of the Republican Party, which they had overwhelmingly supported up to that time due to the actions of Lincoln.  This shift was a swift one, coming as it did with the simultaneous abandonment of the party by the progressives toward Democratic candidates in the north, the farm states, and in the west, presaging their long domination of 20th century American politics, combined with Republican Progressives, that revealed itself briefly with the election of Woodrow Wilson, but which overwhelmingly dominated American politics for more than two generations beginning in 1930.

The flowering of Du Bois during this period cannot be completely summarized without taking note of two additional works that he authored that have since been viewed as groundbreaking.  The first was John Brown, published in 1909, in which he traces the roots of Brown’s antislavery views and actions, countering the “Lost Cause” legend promulgated by southern historians who dominated the period, which characterized Brown as either a dangerous fanatic or madman, or both.  The book was largely ignored by his contemporaries not only for its contrary stance but also because, according to one of his biographers, the editor of The Nation, who was working on his own Brown biography, gave it a scathing review.  But it was influential within the civil rights movement, which saw their work as completing the emancipation project begun by Brown.

Du Bois was the first African-American to be invited to attend the annual convention of the American Historical Association (AHA).  At the December 1909 annual conference he presented his paper, Reconstruction and its Benefits, which would become the magisterial Black Reconstruction, published in 1935.  As with his work on John Brown his research and conclusions went well against the grain of the dominant view at the time, which characterized Reconstruction as proof of the inability of African-Americans to handle full citizenship or to govern.  So controversial was his presentation, that laid the blame for the failure of Reconstruction squarely on the inability of the federal government to effectively support the Freedman’s Bureau, the AHA would not invite another African-American to their conference for another 31 years.  In addition, he pointed out that the state legislatures that came to be dominated by newly elected African-Americans expanded the intent and meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution, expanding democratic participation, instituting public education, and addressing socio-economic ills.  Today, with additional research and scholarship–and the passions of the time long since gone–it is Du Bois’ view that is the dominant one in historical interpretation.

By 1910, Du Bois’ position in Atlanta, due to his criticism of Washington and his strong advocacy for civil rights, was in peril.  He then moved to New York and in attending the National Negro Congress he helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People–the NAACP.  Du Bois specifically the word “colored” in lieu of black to include the hues of all dark skinned disenfranchised groups.  This universal acknowledgement of the civil and human rights of everyone is a theme that was to continue to the remainder of his life, to include his opposition to the European colonial empires.

Beginning that year and for the next 23 years served as the Director of Publicity and Research for the NAACP, which included editing The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the organization.  From there it is very difficult to summarize the life of this man.  So involved was he in effort major issue of the 20th century that one must write about each of those issues in order to fully address the influence and impact that he had on American thought and action.  His giant intellect and amazing perspicacity served not only his cause but the nation as a whole.

His detractors and those who tried to slime him as a radical and Communist, especially on the right during the McCarthy years and under the psychopathy of J. Edgar Hoover, fall away before the achievements and humanity that he demonstrated, his commitment to education and the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads, to human rights, to peace, to democracy, to human dignity.  He passed away on August 27, 1963, in Ghana working on his “history of the Negro,” one year before the Civil Rights Act would achieve his life’s work.

“Where Do We Go From Here”

But the work is not over, which will go against the grain of the many self-congratulatory speeches and editorials that have come to mark this day.  Not simply because of the issues of societal separateness that we still see among the ethnic groups within our own society in places like Sanford, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri; and New York City–and the fear that these differences apparently spawns; but also the tremendous issues of economic inequality that the latest economic revolution–the Information Revolution–has created.

Both Du Bois and King saw the strong linkage between the enjoyment of civil rights once attained and the ability to exercise and enjoy those rights in the economic system.  Thus, we are back to the issue of class, after race.  The fact that recidivist and reactionary groups–using the money power, police power, the surveillance power, and the war power–would turn the clock back, provides sufficient evidence that the democratic experiment and its series of revolutions that have expanded human rights and dignity, must continue to move forward into the economic realm.  Only then can human conflict deriving from the instincts of fear borne of self-preservation and survival be overcome.

To me, just as Lincoln observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand…permanently half slave, and half free,” so too the contradiction between a political system founded on democratic processes and republican institutions, and an economic system based on a command system build under the presumptive oligarchy of money and power.  It is left to this generation to grapple with this contradiction–all under the shadow of the existential threat of global warming, which has a direct link as well to that issue.  These are the overriding problems of the 21st century.