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W. E. B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk–Chapter 3

May 30th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

We’re continuing our exploration of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk today with a brief overview of chapter three. Chapter three may well be one of the most timely in the entire book. Though primarily about Booker T. Washington, the issues that Washington’s work raised as well as Du Bois’s response read like something much more contemporary.

Du Bois’s Summary of Washingtonism

Before we turn to Du Bois’s treatment of his work, we need to discuss briefly what exactly Washington did and why it was both so popular and so troubling to Du Bois. Washington looked at the state of black America in the late 19th century and came to a simple, deeply American conclusion: The only way for black America to advance itself was to stop demanding revolutionary political change from the government and instead to put their heads down, get to work, and start building their communities up on a local level thanks to superior job training and communal discipline.

So Washington counseled against political activism and instead encouraged his followers to build vocational training schools, get good jobs, make enough money to maintain a stable life, and do the hard, slow work of building local communities.

Du Bois summarizes Washington’s program this way:

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. 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, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.

There are, of course, strong parallels between something like this and what you get today from more conservative black leaders (and many conservative whites as well) who likewise insist that black America needs to tend to its own affairs and get its own house in order before they begin demanding top-level political change. Consider the inevitable mentions of “black-on-black crime” whenever racial issues are discussed in the media as one example of this sort of thinking. “Stop clamoring for political change and take care of yourselves,” the right so often says.

Du Bois’s Response to Washingtonism

Interestingly, Du Bois is, in 1903 at least, not as critical of this approach as you might think. He distinguishes his (critical) response to Washington from the critical responses of more radical black leaders.

Here is the pivotal section, which I will just quote at length. It begins with Du Bois highlighting the three contradictions at the center of Washington’s work before going on to distinguish between the two responses to these contradictions:

The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic NO. And Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:

1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.

2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.

3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their graduates.

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute force?

The other class of Negroes who cannot agree with Mr. Washington has hitherto said little aloud. They deprecate the sight of scattered counsels, of internal disagreement; and especially they dislike making their just criticism of a useful and earnest man an excuse for a general discharge of venom from small-minded opponents. Nevertheless, the questions involved are so fundamental and serious that it is difficult to see how men like the Grimkes, Kelly Miller, J. W. E. Bowen, and other representatives of this group, can much longer be silent.

What is wrong with Washingtonism?

Du Bois then gets to the heart of the issue in an excerpt that could have been written in the 21st century as easily as it could the earliest days of the 20th:

Such men feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things:

1. The right to vote.

2. Civic equality.

3. The education of youth according to ability.

They acknowledge Mr. Washington’s invaluable service in counseling patience and courtesy in such demands; they do not ask that ignorant black men vote when ignorant whites are debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not be applied; they know that the low social level of the mass of the race is responsible for much discrimination against it, but they also know, and the nation knows, that relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation; they seek the abatement of this relic of barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and pampering by all agencies of social power from the Associated Press to the Church of Christ. They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schools supplemented by thorough industrial training; but they are surprised that a man of Mr. Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational system ever has rested or can rest on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college and university, and they insist that there is a demand for a few such institutions throughout the South to train the best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men, and leaders.

To summarize Du Bois’s concern, we might say three things in closing:

  1. While concerns about the state of black America may be valid, said state cannot be easily disentangled from the many sorts of state-backed injustice visited upon black America. To quote Du Bois, “relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation.”
  2. Thinkers who counsel an inward turn, “tending one’s own garden,” as Voltaire put it, and leaving political questions to the side will end up undermining their own cause. Any sub-community existing within a larger polis where it has minimal political power will be vulnerable to targeted political action which is either designed to weaken them or that will functionally weaken them. While we often do over-state the relative importance of politics, it is important that we recognize the positive role they do play in social order. The most virtuous minority community in the world may still find itself disintegrating under the burden of laws they played no role in creating.
  3. As we have said in other contexts here at Mere O, communities and institutions run on a certain kind of fuel. To be sustainable, these institutions must not only know what fuel they run on, they must also know how to replicate that fuel. Du Bois supports Washington’s call for vocational schools, but, he asks, who will teach in those schools if we abandon the universities and colleges? Vocational schools need teachers to run and the teachers come from somewhere. Washington’s proposals would undermine the very things necessary to sustain the works he wishes to pursue.

The Story of Rondo Avenue

A final note might illustrate all of this: When I lived in the Twin Cities, I worked in the Selby-Dale neighborhood, the oldest African-American neighborhood in St. Paul. My boss was an African-American man who had lived in the neighborhood for almost 30 years. Shortly after I was hired, I went with him to a street festival held on Selby Avenue. While there I heard the story of Rondo Avenue. Rondo, though it happened in the 1950s, is an illustration of what Du Bois is talking about above.

Rondo Avenue was in the first half of the 20th century said to be the Beale Street of the north. It was a thriving hub of African-American community with stable black families, stable black-owned businesses, and a deeply connected social life that benefited many others in the area. 85% of the city’s African-American population lived in the Rondo neighborhood. Then Interstate 94 came: By the early 1960s, more and more people had started to recognize the need for an interstate connecting the two cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. But to build the interstate, the state would need to acquire land to build the interstate on.

Due to a variety of factors, many of which represent forms of racism baked into the American social order, the property values along Rondo Avenue were artificially low. So that was the land the state bought. They used eminent domain to buy up all the land and bulldozed all the homes and storefronts. 600 black families were displaced. Many of the most stable and talented leaders of the community left for new cities which would be less hostile to black people. Those who couldn’t move were left behind and struggled to find work, leading to the community’s disintegration throughout the 70s and 80s during which it became one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

But who was responsible for that? Certainly, the members of that neighborhood bear some of the burden. But we must also ask what chance they had at recreating a stable neighborhood so quickly after being displaced and losing the community that had provided stability, membership, and (not least of all) employment to so many. And we might also ask what motivation they had to build another Rondo in the first place if the first Rondo could be taken from them so easily?

As Du Bois said, racism is more often a cause than a product of the erosion of black community in the United States. This, then, is why Du Bois told Washington, nearly 60 years before the Rondo disaster, that a community of the sort he envisioned would continue to be fragile and vulnerable no matter how virtuous they might be. At the end of the day, it is difficult to preserve communities that have no power themselves and which those in power view with such enmity.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).