Monday, July 6, 2020

Towering Defiance: W. E. B. DuBois

1903: Atlanta
Dr. W. E. B. DuBois

Babies are named after him, organizations founded in his honor, grave risks run complying with his constant calls for action.

Brilliant, eloquent, and hungry for knowledge, by age twenty-seven he had completed a Ph.D. in Sociology at Harvard and all coursework for another in Economics at Humboldt University in Berlin, the leading economics department in the world. After that, he wrote the first work on American urban sociology, the first social scientific treatise on the slave trade, and a powerful collection of essays worthy of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

A trail of Yankee and European admirers regularly seeks him out, staying in hotels segregation forbids DuBois himself to enter. Such cruel ironies have etched a half-sneer on the good Doctor’s face, and the scorn only deepens when his requests for research funds are routinely dismissed or ignored.

Condescended to by his inferiors, DuBois responds with volleys of lucid indignation that may subside but never entirely disappear. Seeing the wrath that greets what they take to be their good intentions, Southern “gentlemen” shake their heads and conclude smugly that cities breed a deracialized “uppityness” in general and racial Frankensteins like DuBois in particular.

Teacher, scholar, activist, sociologist, historian, writer, and world traveler, DuBois uses his lyrical voice, analytical rigor, and passionate advocacy with the supreme dignity of an avatar entrusted with the guidance of his entire race.

Boundless ambition marked him early. While still a teenager he decided to “prove to the world that Negroes [are] just like other people.”

Sources: David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. DuBois – Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, (Henry Holt and Co., 1998) pps. 3, 32, 98, 272, 350, 469, 500, 505; Playthell Benjamin and Stanley Crouch, C-SPAN Book TV, April 2, 2003 

1959: Beijing
Portrait of a Harvard Ph.D.

Seeing a lynching victim’s blackened knuckles in a display case jolted him out of brilliant scholarly detachment and converted him to activism.

Decades of distinguished accomplishment later, universities shun him, well-to-do blacks disdain him, and intellectuals refuse to write about him. Only the Communists and the National Guardian risk publishing him, while his sole financial support comes from the pennies of the poor.

Heretical groups, their coffers empty and their leaders always on the brink of jail, compete to have him grace their gatherings with unpaid speeches, which he delivers with aplomb. Always he says exactly what needs saying in an eloquently prophetic voice worthy of Robeson. In private conversation he prefers listening to monopolizing the floor, but whenever he opens his mouth a hush falls over the room.

Prolific author, spellbinding orator, tireless organizer, proud socialist, champion of a hundred causes Dr. DuBois speaks from Beijing University on his 91st birthday: “I speak with no authority, no assumption of age nor rank; I hold no position, I have no wealth. One thing alone I own and that is my soul. Ownership of that I have even while in my own country for near a century I have been nothing but a ‘nigger.’ On this basis and this alone I dare speak.”

Sources: Cedric Belfrage and James Aaronson, Something To Guard: The Stormy Life of the National Guardian 1948-1967, (Columbia, 1978) pps. 137-40, 252; Mary Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Harvey J. Kaye, The American Radical, (Routledge, 1994) pps. 113-20

1903: The Alabama Black Belt
  The Tuskegee Machine
The gatekeeper of rewards, the key to black advancement, Tuskegee Institute champions hard work and savings, the purchase of respect, and a gradual alleviation of racism’s miseries.

Perpetually under construction, the school is built by students whose lessons consist of laying cement, transporting hods on scaffolds, and planing wood in the carpentry shop. Commencement valedictories witness seniors quickly assembling demonstration houses while buildings bearing the names of Northern philanthropists rise up all over campus the whole year round.

Masters of cabinet-making, plastering, masonry, and steam-fitting, Tuskegee graduates never lack for jobs. According to the Tuskegee creed, practical education is worth temporary political subservience, for a man without a vocation is no man at all.

Liberal arts mean nothing to menials locked in caste subordination, and higher degrees merely glorify idleness. Music, literature, and foreign language can wait until blacks become rich, while the vote is a useless thing. Carpentry pays better, and invites no trouble.

Sources: David Levering Lewis, Kent, W. E. B. DuBois – Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, (Henry Holt and Co., 1998) pps. 233, 262, 309, 341, 353; Noel J. Kent, America In 1900, (M. E. Sharpe, 2000) p. 123

1903: The Urban North

The Talented Tenth

Collusion with oppression and meek acceptance of inferiority is turning black society on its head, warn these learned blacks, a self-surrender that awards starring roles to sharecroppers, skilled mechanics, and domestics, while black teachers, preachers, doctors, and undertakers are forced off the stage. In the past accomplished black people traveled and pondered, read more than just the Bible, and at least aspired to express themselves nobly, but today all march to segregated prosperity behind Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Machine.
“In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached has been that manly self-respect is worth more than land and houses,” W. E. B. DuBois reminds his tormented race. Dignity comes before utility, he adds, and knowledge of values will forever trump obsession with prices.
      Educated blacks insist that work and money can do their race no ultimate good until it has the vote, higher education, and the power to defeat discrimination. A refinement of character, not material success, is the true measure of humanity. Years ago, Dr. DuBois warned that education should not be confused with a Meal Ticket: “Never make the mistake of thinking that the object of being a man is to make a carpenter; the object of being a carpenter is to be a man.”

Sources: David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. DuBois – Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, (Henry Holt and Co., 1998) pps. 108, 288; W. E. B. DuBois – The Fight For Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, (Henry Holt and Co., 2000) p. 2; Thomas R. Frazier, ed., Afro-American History – Primary Sources (Harcourt, 1971) pps. 119-28)

W. E. B. DuBois Calls For Economic Sanity

“What has gone wrong? It is clear the workers don’t understand the meaning of work. Work is service, not gain. The object of work is life, not income. The reward of production is plenty, not private property. We should measure the prosperity of the nation not by the number of millionaires, but by the absence of poverty; the prevalence of health; the efficiency of the public schools; and the number of people who can, do read worthwhile books. 

Toward all this we do strive, but instead of marching breast forward, we stagger and wander thinking that food is raised not to eat, but to sell at good profit; houses are not to shelter the masses, but to make real estate agents rich; and solemnly declaring that without private profit there can be no food or homes. All of this is ridiculous. It has been disproven centuries ago.

The greatest thinkers of every age have inveighed against concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and against poverty, and disease and ignorance in the masses of men.

We have tried every method of reform. A favorite effort has been force by war. But the loot stolen by murder went to the generals and not to the soldiers. We tried through religion to lead men to sacrifice and right treatment of their fellow men, but the priests too often stole the fruits of sacrifice and concealed the truth.

In the 17th century of our modern European era we sought leadership in science and dreamed that justice might rule through natural law, but we misinterpreted that law to mean that most men were slaves and white Europeans were the right masters of the world.

In the 18th century, we turned toward the ballot in the hands of the worker to force a just division of the fruits of labor among the toilers. But the capitalists, happening on black slavery and land monopoly and on private monopoly of capital, forced the modern worker into a new slavery which built a new civilization of the world with colored slaves at the bottom, with white serfs between, and the power still in the hands of the rich.

But one consideration halted this plan. The serfs and even the slaves had begun to learn to think. Some bits of education had stimulated them and some of the real scientists of the world began to use their knowledge for the masses and not solely for the ruling classes. It became more and more a matter of straight thinking.

What is work? It was what all must contribute to the common good. No man has a right to be idle. It is the bounden duty of each to contribute his best to the well being of all, of what men gain by the efforts of all have a right to share, not to the extent of all that they may want, but certainly to the extent of what they really need.

You must let the world know that this is your simple and unwavering program: the abolition of poverty, disease and ignorance the world over among women and men of all races, religions and color; to accomplish this by just control of concentrated wealth, and overthrow of monopoly to ensure that income depends on work and not on privilege or change; that freedom is the heritage of man, and that by freedom we do not mean freedom from the laws of nature, but freedom to think and believe and express our thoughts and dream our dreams and to maintain our rights against secret police, witchhunters or any other sort of a modern fool or tyrant.”

--W. E. B. DuBois at the 1953 California Peace Crusade

Source: Heather Gray, Another Look at W. E. B. DuBois, Counterpunch, November 19, 2007

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