For anyone interested in understanding and solving issues of race relationships (and that should be all of us), this book is an absolute must read. W.E.B. Du
Bois was not only extremely well educated at Harvard; (he was the first African-American to earn a Doctorate), he also lived a very long life.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Barrington Massachusetts in 1868 and died in Ghana in 1963 at age 95. He lived long enough to experience the difficulties in both the North and South post-war America, and died just one year before The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, that included many of the reforms for which he fought. Wikipedia has a lengthy article about Du Bois and his work.
While most of us today look upon the Civil War as horrible but necessary, and slavery of any human being as abominable, the freeing of the slaves presented a massive challenge—of displacement, and the need for support, education, assimilation into society, and employment. The first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" attempts to answer the question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" The second chapter, "Of the Dawn of Freedom," tells of the post-war era and the founding of the government agency called the Freedmen's Bureau. While there were many areas of failure, the Bureau also was successful in other areas, such as bringing teachers from the North to establish schools for Black children in the South.
In the third chapter, he talks about Booker T. Washington, and major philosophical differences in their approach and perception of the "Negro Problem." Washington was the first Black leader who was well-known by both blacks and whites, North and South. But his conservative approach focused more on the economical side, and sought a compromise between the races. Many Southern Blacks felt they were being sold out, and the civil rights aspect was downplayed in favor of economic prosperity. Quoting Du Bois:
This "Atlanta Compromise" is by all odds the most notable thing in Mr. Washington's career. The South interpreted it in different ways: the radicals received it as a complete surrender of the demand for civil and political equality; the conservatives, as a generously conceived working basis for mutual understanding.
And later, referring to Washington's focus on economics, Du Bois states:
And so thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity, that the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities.
And further on, Du Bois says:
Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore more intensified; and Mr. Washington's programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.
It is clear that Du Bois is determined to speak respectfully toward Washington, yet one can sense his inner contempt for Washington's policies. That becomes even more evident in the chapter entitled "Of the Wings of Atalanta.," speaking of the mythological woman, but referring to the city of Atlanta.
Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretense and ostentation.
Throughout each chapter, Du Bois clearly stresses the need to develop the character of Black people, striving
for honor, self-worth, honesty and responsibility, and of course, the self-realization that "All men are created equal, " both black and white.
In the essay entitled "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece," referring to the cotton industry, Du Bois speaks of the inability for Blacks to progress because of corrupt money-lending practice, high interest rates, and in general getting screwed by the ones who held the power. What goes around, comes around, I guess. Because these abominable practices were allowed by those who had the power to stop them, the scenario Du Bois has painted for Black society over one hundred years ago is now the norm in this country for both black and white people. I found this chapter extremely enlightening.
Each chapter begins with a few lines from a poem, and Du Bois's writing is also often poetic. Along with his philosophy and observations about the "Negro Problem" he includes heartfelt essays of his own personal life, such as his experience as a school teacher in the South, and the death of his first-born child, a son.
The final chapter, "The Sorrow Songs," gives an explanation of the snippets of music found at the beginning of each essay. These are slave songs, taken from African folk music and Americanized, becoming what are sometimes called "Negro Spirituals" and are truly authentic American music. They include well-known songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."
This is really an excellent book—a compilation of Du Bois's thoughts and experience, first published in 1903. It is a sensitive and emotionally moving assessment of the plight and struggles of Black people to gain their equal and rightful place in American society since the Civil War. Highly recommended.
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