Top positive review
How does it feel to be a “problem”?
Reviewed in the United States on September 19, 2016
Regrettably, for me, this has been a long overlooked classic. I’ve read my share of the works of black American authors, such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coats. Not having read Du Bois seems to have been the functional equivalent of not having read Homer.
William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois lived a full productive life which spanned the long era of “Jim Crow.” He was born in 1868, and died at the age of 95, one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Accra, Ghana, as a citizen of that country. He was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. His writings reflect a thorough grounding in the Greek and Roman classics, with references that were – at times, frankly beyond me. His prose is temperate, the “outrage” is left to the reader to conclude when the circumstances are described in measured terms, which often fully acknowledges the faults and predicaments of his own race. As the introduction says: “Du Bois achieves in his text a rare combination of pathos and dignity, presenting a portrait of black culture that commands respect.” For many years he would teach at the Atlanta University complex, and writes fondly of the 100 hills of Atlanta, the trees, and the red clay soil of Georgia. His wry introspection is demonstrated in the opening paragraph, where he asks the subject question.
The vast majority of these 14 separate but intertwined essays concern racial relations in the United States after the Emancipation and the year of publication, 1903. One in particular was not, which was reflective of his own experience, when his first-born son died in infancy. In the third essay he presents his arguments with Booker T. Washington, concerning the education of the Negro in “trade schools,” stressing the need for the classical education which Du Bois had, saying that they had “put up high schools and called them colleges.” “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission.” Washington asked them to give up three things – “Political power, Insistence on Civil Rights, and Higher Education of Negro Youth.” Du Bois was the one who insisted that all three were “musts.” Separately, Du Bois says: “for the South believed that an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro.” From my own experience, Du Bois is only looking at a sub-set, since I would add that, in general, anyone who is both educated – and questioning in a substantive way – of either race, South or North, is considered both “dangerous” and “a trouble maker.”
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, immediately established in the aftermath of the Civil War, and led by Major General Oliver O. Howard, from Maine, who Du Bois describes as: “an honest man, with too much faith in human nature, little aptitude for business and intricate detail” was another topic I was totally unfamiliar with. Du Bois describes the initiative of mainly white female teachers from New England as “the 9th Crusade” for their efforts in establishing schools in the South, for both blacks and whites, after the Civil War. When the Freedman Bureau died, Du Bois describes its child as the Fifteen Amendment to the Constitution.
In other essays, he describes his experience as a student at Fisk University in Nashville, and his subsequent experience teaching in very rudimentary log cabins for black students, and how he was housed in the homes of the student’s parents. In another temperate essay, he enrages the reader with the story of my “namesake,” John Jones, a black who had serious problems, both North and South. In NYC, he purchased an expensive ticket to see an opera, was seated, enjoying the performance when an usher, every so apologetically explained that the seat had been previously sold, and he would have to move (he was seated next to a white woman, and her husband had complained). Of course we will refund your money the usher explains. Jones decides to return to his native South, where the people seem more honest in their bigotry. There is a telling scene where Jones went to see “the Judge” who claimed he had “done so much for your people,” but Jones makes the mistake of going to the front door, and is rebuked for bringing those “uppity” Northern ideas back home.
By far the essay that was the most informative, and resonated the strongest was the one on Dougherty County, Georgia, at the west end of the “Black belt” in that state. In the 1880’s-90’s the population was approximately 10,000 blacks and 2,000 whites. Du Bois describes in detail the economics of growing cotton in that county, with its impact on the humans, and the mechanisms that were used to keep everyone in debt, and therefore under control (today, many a college graduate would understand well). Consider just one fact: Cotton was 14 cents a pound in 1860 and 4 cents a pound in 1898. In the early ‘70’s I would travel to Dougherty County on business on a monthly basis, and was utterly oblivious to these central historical facts. ‘Tis more than a bit embarrassing. And then there is the matter of those formative experiences with two of the progeny from Dougherty County, each living on a different side of what Du Bois would call “the Veil.” Further heightened embarrassment that I did not know. Better late than…
6-stars for Du Bois seminal perceptions.