23 February

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 23, 2011

W. E. B. Du Bois was born on this day in 1868. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a cornerstone document in African-American history, Du Bois takes issue with those contemporaries who advocated a patient approach to racial equality. Prominent in this group was Booker T. Washington, who believed that “it is the duty of the Negro … to deport himself modestly in regard of political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possessions of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights.” To advance his slow-change approach, Washington wanted young African-Americans to learn a useful trade; the highly educated Du Bois bristled at the idea of setting such limits, either from within or without. He also demanded answers to some tough questions:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song — soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. …Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, — we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

Biographer David Levering Lewis writes that Du Bois “attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity." This list omits fiction, unless Dark Princess, Du Bois’s 1928 romantic novel, is placed in Lewis’s “propaganda” category. Most contemporary reviewers noted the book’s “old white-hot indignation against racial oppression,” while noting the “flamboyant and unconvincing” plot. This turns upon the protagonist’s involvement in “a widespread and carefully planned uprising of American blacks,” beginning with the derailment of a trainload of KKK delegates.


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