Saturday, February 25, 2012

Did W.E.B. Du Bois mischaracterize Booker T. Washington?

February is Black History Month, and I’ve made it an annual tradition to read something pertaining to black folk on Februaries. This year I’m reading Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a famous and prominent African-American educator. In previous years I’ve read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the first black man to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, and Booker T.  Washington’s The Story of My Life and Work. I read Du Bois’ book before I read Washington’s, which gave me a somewhat grimmer view of Washington’s views. Du Bois says this in chapter three of The Souls of Black Folk:
Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things—
     First, political power,
     Second, insistence on civil rights,
     Third, higher education of Negro youth—
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.
So says Du Bois when he published his book in 1903. Certainly I believed Washington to be wrong about black people giving up higher education. You can perhaps imagine how surprised I was when I read Washington’s The Story of My Life and Work published in 1900 and I found statements like this:
In certain quarters, for a number of years, a certain element of our people have opposed my plan for the elevation of the Negroes, on the ground that they have felt that I was not in favor of the Negro receiving a college education. This is an error. I do not oppose college education for our people, but I do urge that a larger percentage of our young men and women, whether educated in college or not, give the strength of their education in the direction of commercial or industrial development, just the same as the white man does. I have tried to show my approval of college education by giving as many college men as possible employment, and have on our pay roll at Tuskegee, constantly, from fifteen to twenty men and women who have been educated at the leading colleges throughout the country.
Note that this statement by Washington was published just a few years prior to Du Bois’ accusation that Washington was asking black people to give up on higher education, despite Washington contradicting this accusation in chapter thirteen (which the above quote was taken from) of The Story of My Life and Work. From what I gather, Washington approved of higher education but believed the bulk of the emphasis should be focused on vocational training. We can understand Washington’s reasoning also in chapter thirteen:
The young white man who graduates at college, in nine cases out of ten, finds a business waiting for him that he can enter into as soon as he gets his college diploma. The business has been created by his father, grandfather or great-grandfather years before him, but the black boy graduating from college finds no business waiting for him; he must start a business for himself; therefore, it is important, in our present condition, that the Negro be so educated along technical and industrial lines that he can found a business for himself. In the matter of technical or industrial education the blacks are not keeping up with the whites.
This is a very different impression than Du Bois gives, and sadly the The Souls of Black Folk book I read contained no footnote to correct the misimpression in reader’s minds. Du Bois seems to have created a straw man, where Washington’s real position of emphasis on vocational training over higher education, yet still approving of higher education, somehow got mistranslated into him allegedly asking black people to give up higher education.

What about giving up political power? Again, from best I can tell, Washington’s position on what is most important to emphasize became mistranslated. From chapter thirteen:
At this meeting I urged as strongly as I could that the colored people should cease depending so much on [political] office, and give more attention to industrial or business enterprises. This created a wide discussion among the colored people, especially among those who were in Washington seeking office. I have always held that the Negro has the same right to aspire to political or appointive offices as the white man has, but in our present condition we will be more sure of laying a foundation that will result in permanent political recognition in the future by giving attention at the present time in a very large measure to education, business and industry than merely by seeking political office. I would have the Negro give up no right guaranteed to him by the Constitution of the United States, but I am also convinced that the way for him to secure the opportunity to exercise his rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution is to make himself the most useful and independent citizen in his community.
Washington doesn’t seem opposed to blacks obtaining political power so much as warning people not to depend on it too much and that giving attention to education, business, and industry will help more than merely seeking political office.

What about giving up civil rights? In chapter fourteen Washington writes the following:
During the winter of 1898 a State Constitutional Convention assembled in New Orleans La., for the purpose of passing a law which would result in disfranchising a large proportion of the Negro voters. Some of the members of the Convention were very anxious to pass a law that would result in the disfranchising of the Negro voters without disfranchising any portion of the white voters. The passing of any such law seemed to me so manifestly unjust that I addressed an open letter to the Convention as follows:
Washington then quotes the letter which asks people not to pass such racially unfair legislation. This letter, says Washington, “was sent out through the Associated Press widely through the country.” And yet Du Bois is claiming that Washington is asking blacks to give up on civil rights? I’m not saying that Washington doesn’t deserve any criticism. Perhaps (for all I know) Washington did not put enough emphasis on securing civil rights or obtaining political power or higher education, but it seems to me that the idea that Washington was asking people to give up on such things was an unfair criticism.

I came away rather disappointed with Du Bois, whose book I found rather excellent otherwise. I found it unfortunate that the people who published The Souls of Black Folk did not contain any footnotes correcting any of these misimpressions the reader might obtain. By my lights, it would be better if professional historians annotated classic works like The Souls of Black Folk to mention such inaccuracies (as well as perhaps other noteworthy related historical facts) associated with the book. If nothing else, this unfortunate incident illustrates the importance of reading both sides of an issue. Mischaracterization can happen, even with great men like W.E.B. Du Bois.

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