W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk was, for me, a delight. After recently encountering various works of political economy by Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Mill, the beauty and power of Du Bois’ masterpiece, at once a philosophy and a treatise on the rights and needs of America’s freedpeople in the decades following the Civil War, held me in thrall.

Du Bois, the first Black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard University, became an intellectual leader widely known throughout the United States starting in the late 1800s, a time dominated by waves of education reform which attempted to respond to “the Negro problem” – a general term used to address the poverty, inequity, and political uncertainty of newly freed former slaves – which was, he argued, deepened by post-war government apparatuses such as the Freedpeople’s Bureau, Sumner’s Bill, and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Problematic to the freedpeople’s self-view, Du Bois averred, was the concept of “double-consciousness” (9), the objectification of one’s own self through the subject position of another, the duality of being both Black and American. (I pause to reflect on this process of self-objectification of Black Americans through the dominant White American gaze, which seems to have reached a new level in modern social media outlets that trivialize and reduce the lived experience of 45 million people to a consumable product.)

Du Bois describes the recursive, complicated processes of establishing schooling in the post-Civil War South, lauding the central though complicated success of the Freedmen’s Bureau in establishing free schools for Southern Blacks along with elementary education for all Southerners (29). What was intrinsic still to the American mentality, according to Du Bois, was an inevitable contradiction: that freedpeople were officially emancipated by decree, given the right to education and the right to vote, and yet these concessions were limited by social, economic, and political realities. Du Bois critiques Booker T. Washington, whose prioritization of industrial education over social and political equality (given through voting rights, the ability to own property, and access to higher education) distinguished the two thinkers in the new millennium. Washington’s unwritten “Atlanta Compromise” united radical and conservative groups together under what Du Bois observed as the burgeoning national prioritization of economic growth, especially in terms of education. These were times which foreshadow our more modern concept of human capital, i.e., seeing human beings as generators of value for the economy; a Northern philanthropist in the late 19th century, William J. Baldwin (as cited in Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South), stated:

In the Negro is the opportunity of the South. Time has proven that he is best fitted to perform the heavy labor in the Southern States. ‘The Negro and the mule is the only combination, so far, to grow cotton.’ (82)

Du Bois, rather than accepting the sacrifice of political and civic rights for young Blacks, asked whether economic progress was actually possible under such marginalizing political conditions (42).

I referred to certain Western political philosophers in the beginning of this post because I believe that Du Bois’ intellectual views, reflective of Enlightenment thinking about the cultivation of the mind, seem at times curiously at odds with his social philosophy. A clearly powerful writer, he uses allegories from Greek myth to describe the growing American obsession with profit and argues convincingly for the need for Black schools as sites of intellectual cultivation. Yet I struggled with a subtext also included in parts of his commentary: that of “the rule of inequality:– that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig.” (62) He saw himself as a member of the “Talented Tenth” (78), an intellectual class of Black men who had graduated from college; though he advocated a liberal education to develop men, not just workers, among all classes, he also seemed to support hierarchical vision of labor premised on a naturalistic view of inborn intelligence (which from the post-modern/social contructivist perspective can be difficult to swallow). For me this resonated with a comment made by Dabny (again in Anderson) about the education of Blacks: “Nothing is more ridiculous than the programme of the good religious people from the North who insist upon teaching Latin, Greek, and philosophy to the negro boys who come to their schools.” (Anderson, 85) I suppose I struggle in general with the notion that certain people should receive an education of higher ideals or knowledge and others a lower one, divided by future work and social class, a reality documented by Jean Anyon in “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (seehttp://www.jeananyon.org/docs/anyon-1980.pdf).

Nonetheless, Du Bois’ passionate commitment to the improvement of American life for his people was clear. Irrespective of whatever intellectual or even geographically-derived biases he might have had, he was convinced that Southern Blacks, free under law but unequal as “inferior” and “ignorant” wards of the State, needed more than basic industrial training to begin to move beyond the initial promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. The teachers and schools of the freedpeople, thus, needed to be grounded in learning in well-developed institutions of higher learning – “by founding the common school on the university, and the industrial school on the common school” (66) – in order that the potential for civilization, growth, and enlightenment could one day heal the American nation and its varied inhabitants.