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.