W.E.B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People” (#Review)

W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, which has released this digital image under the CC0 license

While I knew of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), it wasn’t until I read Nella Larsen’s Passing earlier this year that I was inspired to read something by him. Americans will probably know him well, but Wikipedia (linked on his name) describes him as a “sociologist, socialist, historian and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist”.

He grew up, continues Wikipedia, in “a relatively tolerant and integrated community” in Massachusetts, and from quite early on was involved in the equal rights movement for African Americans. In 1909, he was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wikipedia writes that:

Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of racial uplift, and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

Du Bois and Larsen were both involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Du Bois, says Wikipedia, wrote that “a black artist is first of all a black artist.” While I love art with meaning, I don’t necessarily like prescription in the arts. However, when a group is so powerless, I completely understand the desire to expect all who can to put their shoulder to the wheel. We are certainly seeing a lot of it here in First Nations writing, and I’m loving (and learning from) the truths being told.

I am still in Melbourne so don’t have my copy of Passing, with its excellent introduction, but the idea of “racial uplift” underpins much of the novel. It is supported by its main female protagonist Irene who belongs to the new Black bourgeoisie and is committed to the “uplifting the brother” project. But Larsen also explores through this novel, Du Bois’ theory concerning “double consciousness”, which, originally, says Wikipedia, referred to the

psychological challenge African Americans experienced of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt”. The term also referred to Du Bois’s experiences of reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.

In other words, he’s saying that African-Americans have this two-ness or split whereby they are always conscious of how they view themselves and of how others view them. I don’t think things have changed much for people of colour. It must be exhausting, this being conscious, whether you like it or not, of how others view you (and then worrying about what behaviour that might bring).

Strivings of the Negro People

So, now Du Bois’ piece. The Atlantic published “Strivings of the Negro People” in August 1897. It is still available via their site. They introduce the article with a quote from within it:

“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.”

This refers to the moment when, still a young boy, Du Bois realises that although he is just like everyone else (“like … in heart and life and longing”), he is excluded from the white world by “a vast veil”. The piece explores what this means. It’s a plea and a treatise on the treatment of African-Americans, a reasoned argument on the value to both “races” of recognising and appreciating each other. It’s also an analysis of the failure of the hope and promise of emancipation over the three decades between 1865 and the writing of the article in 1897.

I found the analysis telling. He explores the trajectory of hope and action decade by decade, pinpointing the failures. But, he starts with the observation that no matter how hard a black person might study and work, might even do better than their white peers, “he” always faced a wall that was “relentlessly narrow, tall and unscalable to sons of night”.

Then, comes the plea:

He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

Then he turns to emancipation which had taken place thirty years before, and observes that “the freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land”. In the first decade there was “merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom”, but as the second decade dawned there was an awareness of another possibility, the ballot. With enthusiasm, black men “started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom” but “the decade fled away” bringing nothing but “suppressed votes, stuffed ballot-boxes, and election outrages that nullified his vaunted right of suffrage”. (You get the gist, I’m sure, given recent history.)

However, another idea also raised its head in this second decade, ‘the ideal of “book-learning”’ (education). Again, he resorts to biblical language (though apparently he was agnostic, if not atheist):

Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.

It might take longer, but … and so, he writes,

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work.

It didn’t achieve the desired goal, but it did something, “it changed the child of emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect”. People started to understand and analyse their burden. And what did they find? Poverty, yes – “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships”. And ignorance. But also “the red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race”. This meant, he writes, “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 social and moral degradation.

At this point, Du Bois turns to discuss the “shadow of a vast despair”, the shadow being “prejudice”. It’s interesting, because he suggests that prejudice is ‘the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races’. “The Negro” would support, he continues, “this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress”. BUT, the black man is

helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy … the all-pervading desire to inculcated disdain for everything black.

Still, they press on with hope – not for “nauseating patronage” but for ‘a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress, with … the chorus “Peace, good will to men.”’

So, he gets to the third decade suggesting the attempts and strivings of the first two were of “a credulous race childhood”. The ballot, education and freedom (“of life and limb”… “to work and think”) are still needed, but through “work, culture and liberty” must be fostered the “traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity with, the greater ideals of the American republic, in order that some day, on American soil, two world races may give each to each those characteristics which both so sadly lack”. His arguments become somewhat idealised but his point is valid – that African Americans had much to offer the nation.

Interestingly, his Wikipedia article tells how his 1935 history of Reconstruction which argued for the active and constructive role played by black people in this period ran counter to the “orthodox interpretation” of white historians (surprised?). It was virtually ignored until the late 1960s when it ‘ignited a “revisionist” trend’ in Reconstruction historiography. By the 21st century, his book had become a foundational text in these studies!

A very interesting man, whose legacy continues for his forward, clear thinking about the social and psychological mechanisms of race.

17 thoughts on “W.E.B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People” (#Review)

  1. How interesting! Bois was mentioned a lot in the bio I’ve just read of Richard Wright, but *frown* when I consult the 30 pages of notes I took before sending it back to Della Rowley who’d lent it to me, I can’t find much except that they didn’t get on. They were on opposite sides of Cold War rhetoric, with Wright being stridently anti-Communist and (at a conference in Bandung) criticising communism in the emerging independent nations of Africa, and Bois objecting because he said there weren’t any communist states in Africa.
    (BTW I’m not suggesting that they should have had the same political opinions just because they were both Black. Rowley’s bio makes it clear that there wasn’t a united position on this or other aspects of Black politics, and that seems perfectly reasonable to me.)

    • Thanks Lisa … I didn’t read Wikipedia down to his later politics, thoug I saw a Cold War, heading, but in terms of the whole how the progress the freedman he disagreed with Booker T Washington’s approach. As you say, Black peoples don’t have to agree any more than any of the rest of us do though sometimes they are expected to aren’t they?

      • Well, it probably helps if they do.. I’m thinking of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and what Thomas Mayor says about it. Obviously there wasn’t 100% agreement but it was consensus.
        IMO those who disagree e,g, that woman who spoke out on Q&A, run the risk of adding fuel to the naysayers’ fire and will be used by conservative forces to block the referendum. It may be a case of the pure being the enemy of the good…. I’d rather have something flawed than nothing at all, but it’s not place to decide these things.

        • Oh yes, it always helps if you are acting for change to have your side in agreement, but human nature being what it is we can’t expect it – and we shouldn’t use their disagreement against them which people love to do. But, like you I agree that it would be good to have something rather than nothing. But it’s not for us to say (though it does affect us in the sense that we all want to progress this, don’t we? I just mean we can’t “tell” them how to go about it because that just continues the colonial project?)

        • Exactly.
          But they have responsibility too.
          I would like to be an advocate for change, as best I can. But I can’t do that if I’m not sure about what to advocate for. So at some point, there needs to be some kind of consensus about what this is.
          I believe that the Uluru Statement from the Heart offers that consensus so that’s where i position myself…. but I’m prepared for the possibility of criticism for choosing that stance.

        • Yes, I think the Uluṟu Statement is still the main game. I know there are those who naysay it, but I understood that that was the starting point for Linda Burney and the Government.

  2. A very interesting post, Madame Gums. Du Bois was a hero of my American youth, along with Wright. The blight of slavery poisons America still. The refusal of conservatives here to recognise colonial usurpation, frontier wars and the implications of the lack of a treaty is a similar, if milder version of the disease. I remember the lynchings. Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were all divided cities when I was growing up. And I have to say antisemitism was rife too. I remember only too well being spat on by a woman who called me a ‘dirty Jew’. The United States I was born in was not a country to emulate and is even less so now.

    • Oh it’s lovely to hear from someone who “knows” him Sara. Nothing you say surprises me … and it’s all very sad, particularly after what has just happened in the Supreme Court. It just feels like a country that’s becoming increasingly divided rather than one coming together.

  3. I wonder if Strivings is the same book as The Souls O Black Folk which, in a Dover thrift edition, stands on my bookshelves? I must read it. Du Bois’ approach to emancipation is often contrasted to Booker T Washingtons more “pragmatic” direction.

    • Good question Ian. I’m not sure. Strivings is I think might also be the title of a collection of essays, but I think a different collection to The souls … However, that’s not to say Dover hasn’t put together their own collection?

      Yes you are right about Du Bois vs Booker T … I guess in my life I tend to the practise the pragmatic but admire the idealistic.

    • I was going to mention to Sue that if she wants a counter to du Bois to check out Booker T. Washington, who believed in uplift through building trade schools and hard work. He said book learning was great, but exactly how does studying poetry feed you?

      Also, check out the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

  4. Thanks for this post, Sue. It’s a wonder to me that I lived so long before hearing of du Bois – such a great writer, as you point out. The Souls of Black Folk us a wonderful collection of essays where ‘the Veil’ looms large (if a veil can loom),

    • Thanks Jonathan … can a veil loom? I’m sure a poet could make it do so! And yes, it’s a wonder sometimes the people we discover that are so worth knowing of but for some reason we hadn’t.

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