Note: This is my take on chapter three of “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is the chapter on Booker T. Washington:
Blacks face three main choices in every period of US history (Du Bois’s words, my numbering, bolding and formatting):
“the attitude of the imprisoned group may take three main forms, –
- a feeling of revolt and revenge;
- an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or, finally,
- a determined effort at self-realization and self-development despite environing opinion.”
Nat Turner is an example of the first, Booker T. Washington the second, and Du Bois the third.
Among Whites, almost none believe in the first when it comes to Black people, some believe in the third, and nearly all believe in the second. Booker T. Washington would not have had nationwide appeal unless he chose the second.
Booker T. Washington was an improbable figure. Who would dream that a Black man would help Whites North and South come together after the Civil War? Who would dream that a Black leader would tell Blacks not to fight for their rights?
White Southerners liked Washington because he did not push for Black civil rights.
White Northerners liked Washington because they had grown tired of pushing for Black civil rights – and wanted to get on with making money in the South.
“resented, at first bitterly, signs of compromise which surrendered their civil and political rights, even though this was to be exchanged for larger chances of economic development.”
And so the nation came together at the cost of Black civil rights.
“Thus, by national opinion, the Negroes began to recognize Mr. Washington’s leadership, and the voice of criticism was hushed.”
Washington did help Blacks – he opposed lynching, he raised millions for Black education, he was a Black voice Whites would listen to, even the president. Many Blacks bit their tongues to not undercut him.
But Washington’s limited vision – economic uplift without political rights, industrial training without higher education – was riven with paradox:
- Economic gains are hard to defend without the right to vote.
- Self-respect through material success is hard to achieve while accepting second-class citizenship.
- Industrial training schools are hard to run without Black colleges that produce teachers.
And he let Whites believe in the Bootstrap Myth, as I call it, the idea that the main thing holding Blacks back is a lack of hard work. It was a cheap, self-serving belief in 1903 – and it still is in 2017.
In a democracy, according to Du Bois, no leader, Black or White, should be above criticism, most especially those who do not stand for equal rights for all:
“it is wrong to aid and abet a national crime simply because it is unpopular not to do so.”
“We have no right to sit silently by while the inevitable seeds are sown for a harvest of disaster to our children, black and white.”
– Abagond, 2017.
- Booker T. Washington
- W.E.B. Du Bois
- The Souls of Black Folk
- The Souls of White Folk
- Nat Turner
- Obama retrospective
- Black Liberals
- Bootstrap Myth
- Books I wish I had read sooner