Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Week 05, Washington, DuBois, and London

Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery Ch. XIV (760-68) and W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (876-901).

General Notes on Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Chapter 14, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (760-68). (Speech given in 1895; book published in 1901.)

Even though black/white relations by no means constitute the whole of American racial history, it has long been acknowledged that African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality has played a vital role in American history since its Puritan beginnings. The Civil War of 1861-1865 was a defining moment in our history, and by 1863 when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that war revolved around the issue of slavery. Before 1863, the war was fought mainly between white people over the preservation of the Union. Still, the political struggle between North and South had always involved strongly held convictions about slavery—whether it ought to be restricted, abolished, or extended into new territories in an expanding country. Lincoln said in the 1850’s that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and his statement neatly summed up the nation’s dilemma over slaveholding. To understand American history, one must understand something of African American history. Of course, the term “history” doesn’t even begin to address the great contribution to American culture made over several centuries by writers, artists, and musicians of African descent. Here are some general things to consider when reading African American literature:

1. How do various writers and activists define “action” in both an individual and a collective sense? Upon what philosophical and experiential bases do they offer such definitions? In relation to the collective sense, what program for advancement does the writer set forth?

2. To what extent do they view resistance (of whatever kind specified) on the part of individuals and groups as likely to succeed? What role do violence and fear play in black/white relations during the period concerned?

Booker Washington speaks almost twenty years after the end of Reconstruction in 1876 with the disputed election of Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had to allow southerners their “states’ rights” in order to avoid Democrat Samuel Tilden’s challenge to his election. The 1890’s were times of robber-baron capitalism and colonial expansionism. Northern merchants and manufacturers who had complained about the South’s “unfair” use of unpaid labor before the Civil War aimed to benefit from that same labor pool after Reconstruction. The North cared little for the plight of black southerners left to the mercies of their former masters. The era was caught up in accumulating wealth and preaching the gospel of self-help. Washington was very much a product of the age—he, too, preached the gospel of self-help. To be fair to him, however, we should recognize that his cooperative attitude is a response to dire threats against black people. White southerners clearly felt threatened by the possibility of black equality set forth by radical Republicans during Reconstruction. Historians estimate that over 100,000 people—mostly black—were murdered by white supremacists from Reconstruction to Booker Washington’s time. (D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation chronicles, in romanticized form, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War.) So Washington offers a compromise—if white people will stop killing black people, the latter will keep to themselves rather than assert their full equality and will concentrate on bettering their condition in a “non-threatening,” apolitical way. They will work with white people like a closed fist of unity in economic matters, but the races will be separate as the fingers in all things social and political. That’s what Du Bois later calls disdainfully “the Atlanta Compromise.”

Page-by-Page Notes on Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Chapter 14, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (760-68).

762. This page lays bare the conflict in the Address: the loyalty Washington invokes resembles the “loyalty” that whites expected an enslaved people to show for those who had enslaved them. Moreover, Washington says that the “purely social” can be kept separated from economics. The paragraph beginning “There is no defence” makes an attractive suggestion: “casting down your bucker where you are” might turn out to mean “let’s start out on the sure path towards full development of the nation’s resources and of black people’s potential as full citizens.” But that is not how the racist element among southern whites would react to such a statement. To them, the “highest intelligence” of black people would certainly not imply anything like eventual equality of opportunity. So even if Booker’s deal pays 1000% interest, it’s fair to ask who will receive nearly all of the profit. Economic cooperation doesn’t necessarily lead to social equality. And does black “self-help” doctrine amount to absolution for the white people who had done such enormous injustice?

763. But to be fair to Washington, we should also say that part of his pitch is an appeal to respect universal justice and to acknowledge a Law beyond the one promoted by racist local sheriffs, or even, for that matter, by entire states similarly biased against black people. In some southern towns, a black person could scarcely go to the law for redress of grievances since “the law” was indistinguishable from the KKK. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, gives a good sense of how powerful was the white paranoia/supremacy complex that blacks confronted. Since Washington is working against lynch law and mob rule, we might credit him with making a pretty decent playing hand out of almost nothing. Up until the time he wrote Up from Slavery, the only attitude towards African American labor in the South seems to have been resentment, and any demands for greater liberty and equality were generally met with contempt or worse.

Questions on Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, Chapter 14, “Atlanta Exposition Speech” (760-68).

1. Washington’s advice to fellow African Americans is, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” How does he illustrate that statement, and what does the illustration reveal about the primary means Washington believes will lead to progress? In what way is his praise of the Atlanta Exposition linked to this belief?

2. After the Civil War, the federal government attempted to transform the South by pursuing a policy of “Reconstruction.” By 1877, however, many African Americans found themselves in the grip of resentful white southerners. In what way is Washington’s 1895 advice a response to that situation? What “compromise” does he offer to whites?

3. Why might Washington’s advice to African Americans generate in that group a great deal of bitterness against him and his program of action? What alternate course or courses of action would oppose his program? At what points in his speech, if any, does Washington anticipate the bitterness of black opponents or the possible misconstruction of his argument by white listeners?

General Notes on W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 3, “Of Booker T. Washington and Others” (876-901).

Style reveals attitude, and it’s easy to see that Du Bois’ lyrical and by turns elegiac, mystical, and sharp-tongued style cuts against Washington’s pure optimism. While Washington embraces the forward-looking expansionism of 1890’s America, Du Bois takes a sidelong glance at it and doesn’t place much stock in Washingtonesque “cooperation” between white and black people. In terms of substance, Du Bois disputes his rival’s increasingly acknowledged position as a “black leader” (a concept that modern race-discourse seems to find outmoded since nobody is widely acknowledged today as a “black leader” in the style of, say, Washington or, later, MLK and Malcolm X. As Henry Louis Gates writes, black Americans now find it possible to have an “unmediated relationship to power” rather than one mediated by some major figure.) By whom exactly, Du Bois wants to know, was Washington “chosen” to speak for African Americans if not by white people whose interests were thereby served? Du Bois finds that Washington’s compromise strategy is bound to bear bitter fruit and compromise black integrity.

Du Bois wants to fight white power in the courts and in the classroom, especially in the college classroom. Legal equality and higher education of all sorts are cornerstones of his approach and that of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded by Du Bois and others in 1909), which organization he served for a time before resigning over philosophical disagreements. Du Bois explains Washington’s program in historical and political terms not too different from the ones I mentioned in my entry on Washington: after 1876, black self-assertion was dealt a blow with the end of Reconstruction. So Washington comes along with his “submissive” commercialist compromise, which pleases Northern capitalists who are investing in the South and Southerners who will not grant black citizens anything like equality. In effect, as Du Bois describes it, Washington’s attitude in “The Atlanta Expo Address” is, “we know our place.”

In our selection, Du Bois casts himself as a model intellectual—a skillful writer capable of both pointed criticism and soulful lyricism, a man who believes that striving is the central fact of human life. Washington may reduce the ideal for black people to expression and material prosperity through physical labor, but Du Bois will not follow this path to financial security. It is only the Age’s crass ideal, not something that a people really ought to strive for as the purpose of life. That higher ideal, in Du Bois’ view, is essential the romantic, Hegelian one of self-transcendence. So the “twoness” he announces on 877, difficult though it may be to bear, causes the sort of dissatisfaction that should spur African Americans towards self-transcendence—the problem of “twoness” will be deeply involved in black people’s attempts to arrive at adequate self-expression as individuals and as a race, to arrive at genuine cultural autonomy and political equality. Du Bois writes as a sociologist and historian, and he finds it necessary to describe black history in America in these terms, not just to submerge it hastily into “the American Dream” or conjoin it with the era’s commercialist imperatives. Du Bois makes demands upon white people—he is not interested in letting them off scot-free for the oppression wrought in previous centuries or the present one. Much of the chapter we are examining insists that one can only negotiate well from a position of strength on all levels—intellectual, spiritual, and material. No level of striving should be sacrificed to the others. Black people have already contributed much to “America,” he points out—so why should they supinely agree to start over again at the bottom of the ladder?

On 879, Du Bois’ emphasis on striving shows. History proceeds not through accommodation and compromise, he insists, but rather though individual and collective struggle. The “veil” metaphor—“the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” Hegel’s “Master/Slave Dialectic” from The Phenomenology of Mind would be an appropriate frame of reference here. In the unsatisfactory relationship Hegel describes, the slave or bondsman, compelled as he is to labor for the master’s benefit, comes to know more about himself and the master than the master knows about either. Vital to self-knowledge is mutual recognition by both parties, both of whom must be capable of granting such recognition without coercion. But that capacity is what’s missing from the master/slave (or former slave) relationship as Hegel describes it. A slave or social inferior cannot grant free recognition, and most white people saw no need to acknowledge the value of black labor, or intellect, or culture. Nonetheless, the bondsman or (here) ex-bondsman achieves through labor and suffering a kind of self-understanding, however dissatisfying and limited. I believe Du Bois is suggesting that African Americans have a special understanding of what “America” means, and that they should by no means be willing to compromise, Washington-style, on the value of their contributions to American culture, prosperity, and history. At the same time, Du Bois calls for black people to assert and achieve a strong measure of autonomy as a people—advocacy of full legal and civic equality does not reduce to a paean to the “melting pot.” The kind of limited self-knowledge attained through suffering and bondsmanship demands a movement towards self-transcendence, it demands dissatisfaction and a willingness to confront and overcome injustice. All in all, Du Bois’ historicization of programs for black advancement (i.e. his tracing out in the selected chapter of various strategies over the centuries) tells him that Washington, in embracing his age’s rampant commercialism and will-to-material-progress, has failed to achieve a sense of the alternatives available to him and to the black people he means to lead forward. And based on the history he describes, Du Bois emphasizes the value of being constructively at odds with one’s era, at odds with its values and practices. On this point, see page 888 bottom especially.

Questions on W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 3, “Of Booker T. Washington and Others” (876-901).

1. Du Bois’ chapter consists partly in a history of African American strategies in dealing first with slavery and then with the state-supported racism that took hold after the Civil War’s end. What strategies does Du Bois say have been available, and under what circumstances have they been employed?

2. What specific things does Du Bois praise Booker T. Washington for doing? How much credit does he give his rival?

3. What reasons does Du Bois offer for thinking that Washington is pursuing the wrong strategy for black advancement? What harmful effects will Washington’s “compromise” have?

4. Although much of this chapter offers a critique of Washington, Du Bois nonetheless promotes a strategy for black advancement in the face of white hostility and oppression. What, then, does Du Bois believe should be done?

Even though black/white relations by no means constitute the whole of American racial history, it has long been acknowledged that African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality has played a vital role in American history since its Puritan beginnings. The Civil War of 1861-1865 was a defining moment in our history, and by 1863 when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that war revolved around the issue of slavery. Before 1863, the war was fought mainly between white people over the preservation of the Union. Still, the political struggle between North and South had always involved strongly held convictions about slavery—whether it ought to be restricted, abolished, or extended into new territories in an expanding country. Lincoln said in the 1850’s that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and his statement neatly summed up the nation’s dilemma over slaveholding. To understand American history, one must understand something of African American history. Of course, the term “history” doesn’t even begin to address the great contribution to American culture made over several centuries by writers, artists, and musicians of African descent. Here are some general things to consider when reading African American literature:

1. How do various writers and activists define “action” in both an individual and a collective sense? Upon what philosophical and experiential bases do they offer such definitions? In relation to the collective sense, what program for advancement does the writer set forth?

2. To what extent do they view resistance (of whatever kind specified) on the part of individuals and groups as likely to succeed? What role do violence and fear play in black/white relations during the period concerned?

Booker Washington speaks almost twenty years after the end of Reconstruction in 1876 with the disputed election of Republican Rutherford Hayes, who had to allow southerners their “states’ rights” in order to avoid Democrat Samuel Tilden’s challenge to his election. The 1890’s were times of robber-baron capitalism and colonial expansionism. Northern merchants and manufacturers who had complained about the South’s “unfair” use of unpaid labor before the Civil War aimed to benefit from that same labor pool after Reconstruction. The North cared little for the plight of black southerners left to the mercies of their former masters. The era was caught up in accumulating wealth and preaching the gospel of self-help. Washington was very much a product of the age—he, too, preached the gospel of self-help. To be fair to him, however, we should recognize that his cooperative attitude is a response to dire threats against black people. White southerners clearly felt threatened by the possibility of black equality set forth by radical Republicans during Reconstruction. Historians estimate that over 100,000 people—mostly black—were murdered by white supremacists from Reconstruction to Booker Washington’s time. (D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation chronicles, in romanticized form, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War.) So Washington offers a compromise—if white people will stop killing black people, the latter will keep to themselves rather than assert their full equality and will concentrate on bettering their condition in a “non-threatening,” apolitical way. They will work with white people like a closed fist of unity in economic matters, but the races will be separate as the fingers in all things social and political. That’s what Du Bois later calls disdainfully “the Atlanta Compromise.”

For the London notes, please see next week’s entry.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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