“One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this”: Booker T. and W.E.B
Booker T. and W.E.B. (by Dudley Randall)
“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?”
“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.
“If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook,
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.”
“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”
“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws,
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”
“It seems to me,” said Booker T.—
“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.
With Dudley Randall‘s fine poem in mind, I revisit, here, as does he, an old debate between the Wizard of Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois. I say at the outset that my intention is to understand DuBois’s arguments against Washington’s policies. I do not mean to take sides, or personally to diminish Washington. But it will be clear to any reader of these pages that I find DuBois’s writing uncommonly compelling. The dispute between the two men had many inflections, including social class. But both left incontestably valuable legacies—Washington in Tuskegee University; DuBois in the N.A.A.C.P., both as one of its founders, and as the first editor of its influential magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; in his untiring antagonism to colonialism, which anticipated so much of what we now call post-colonial studies; and in his many books, without which American literature, historiography, and sociology would alike be impoverished. So, with that for my disclaimer, I begin.
In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the first essay in The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois sketches out, in brief, the history of the post-war period for African-Americans. There was the Emancipation itself; then, with passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, the granting of citizenship and suffrage; then what DuBois bitterly calls “The Revolution of 1876” (white Southerners called it the “Redemption” of the South from Republican Party rule). With that, the freedmen and their sons and daughters were left to wander, like forsaken Israelites, in a desert somewhere between Pharaoh and an imaginary “America” they could rightly call home.
In this “wilderness” appeared before the freedmen, like the Biblical “Pillar of Fire,” what DuBois calls “the ideal of `book learning’; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan.” “Cabalistic” letters, says DuBois, choosing his adjective carefully: the Cabbala is a set of esoteric teachings, handed down by Moses to the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud. DuBois is setting up a rather exact sort of allegory in The Souls of Black Folk. “Ten thousand thousand” black Americans are adrift, and two men would be their “Moses”—DuBois with his Cabbala (all the recondite “book learning” of the West), and his political urgency; Washington with his Tuskegee program of “industrial/vocational training,” and his political moderation. The one tends to the “souls” of black folk, the other rather more to their “bodies”—at least as DuBois sees it. I’ll consider this in detail.
The chief underwriters of black educational institutions in the South in the post-Reconstruction period were organizations whose funds came for the most part from Northern capitalists. The money was disbursed largely through two organizations: the Southern Education Board and the General Education Board.
As historian David Levering Lewis points out, “a partial roster of the officers and trustees of the S.E.B. was a roll call of the arbiters of the Industrial North and the New South”—railroad money, money from the Wanamaker Department Store fortune, from Wall Street, from Standard Oil, etc.
The S.E.B. (founded in 1901) and the G.E.B. (1902) disbursed some $176 million to white colleges and universities and some $21 million to black colleges and universities between 1902 and 1930. The directors of the organizations sought reconciliation between North and South, and the development of Southern labor and resources by Northern capital. These goals required that they defer to Southern opinion on what was then called “The Negro Question.” “The rich and dominating North,” DuBois explains in Souls, “was not only weary of the race problem, but was investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed any method of peaceful cooperation.” Booker T. Washington perfectly suited the purposes of “the rich and dominating North” after his ground-breaking 1895 speech at the Exposition in Atlanta, familiarly known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” Bear in mind what he said there: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted, I would repeat what I have said to my own race: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your fireside. Cast down your bucket among these people who have without strikes and labor wars tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, just to make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South” (my emphasis). Washington reports in Up From Slavery that “one of the saddest things” he ever saw was a young black man “sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.” The youth, Washington implied, would be much better off, and much happier, if he practiced a trade instead of studying “big books” with “high sounding names.” To which DuBois dryly retorts in Souls: “One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this.” Well, what Northern capital had to say to it was plain enough. Washington on the merits of studying French grammar was music to their ears. He soon became a salaried field agent for the S.E.B., with the result (among other things) that DuBois’s Atlanta University was ignored by Northern benefactors, while Tuskegee flourished. DuBois later remarked of the period in his autobiography Dusk of Dawn: “The control [of the S.E.B. and G.E.B.] was to be drastic. The Negro intelligentsia was to be suppressed and hammered into conformity.” All of which explains why DuBois’s attack on Washington in The Souls of Black Folk is so utterly devastating, despite the fact that DuBois manages, throughout, to sustain an essentially temperate, even cordial, tone. His iron fist is velvet-gloved.
In his 1895 Atlanta speech, Washington agreed to put off demands for real political, civil and labor rights in favor of economic development. “As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past,” Washington said to his white audience, “nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This accession to “social separation” was offered even as the Plessy v. Ferguson case made its way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1896, it would place American apartheid on a Constitutional foundation. The studied “humility” of the address struck DuBois as embarrassing. The concession to “social separation” struck him as reprehensible.
The heart of DuBois’s argument against Washington is this:
Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. 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 intensified; and Mr. Washington’s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.
In the story DuBois tells, Washington is an instrument in the hands of white supremacy and of capital. Both institutions—the political and the economic—”employ” him (without portfolio, so to speak) for the purpose of re-enslaving the freedman, of “adjusting” him, more or less bloodlessly, to “submission.” (The bloodier instruments of this “adjustment” were wielded chiefly by rogue elements of the Southern white working class, under the protection of the local Democratic Party.) DuBois associates Washington with what might be called the capitalist extremism of the Gilded Age, which, in its “astonishing commercial development,” had grown “ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes,” and which henceforth would be “concentrating its energies on Dollars,” as he phrases it in Souls. This “unusual economic development”—the word “unusual” carries the considerable force of DuBoisian understatement—had come to comprise as well the acquisition and administration of colonies in Hawaii, the West Indies, and the Philippines. The reassertion of white supremacy at home, in the post-Reconstruction period, was but a part of a larger project: the consolidation of white authority over peoples of color everywhere in the world—by the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, and Belgium.
When he is set in this larger, global context, Washington emerges, under DuBois’s direction anyway, as a veritable agent of colonial rule—as a figure who would sell out black “manhood,” and who would, in fact, pander his race to a white ravisher. He had become—or so DuBois clearly implies in the phrasing of Souls—the Great Emasculator: he had “sapped the manhood” of the race, advocated an unmanly “policy of submission,” withdrawn the demands of Negroes “as men,” acquiesced in their relegation, again, to a “servile caste,” yielded up their “manhood rights,” “overlooked certain elements of true manhood,” and “[belittled] the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and [opposed] the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds.” I could go on, but the point is well enough made. It is exactly as DuBois would have it in the epigraph he chose for this essay (and assay) “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”: “From birth to death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!” The line is from Byron, and it comes in a passage often cited in the literature of the more fiery abolitionists of old: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” It is no accident, as the saying goes, that when DuBois convened a 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement, an organization dedicated to the fight for full and immediate political rights, he chose as the site Harpers Ferry, where John Brown—the “meteor of the war,” as Melville put it—had staged his armed abolitionist insurrection in 1859.
A word more might be said here about John Brown and Booker T. Washington. In November, 1903 Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer invited DuBois to write a book about Frederick Douglass for the “American Crisis Biographies” series, of which Oberholtzer was the general editor. DuBois agreed at once, only to have the invitation rescinded several months later. It turned out that Washington wanted the volume on Douglass for himself. Given Washington’s fame, Oberholtzer gave the title to him, offering an irritated DuBois the chance to choose another subject for his own contribution. DuBois proposed a biography of Nat Turner, leader of a bloody slave insurrection in 1831. But when that was declined on the grounds that Turner was too incendiary a figure, DuBois accepted Oberholtzer’s suggestion that he write about John Brown instead.
Any reader should bear in mind the book’s origins in these prickly negotiations because John Brown obliquely, but devastatingly, extends DuBois’ unforgiving critique of the accomodationist strategies he associated with Washington (though Washington is never mentioned by name). A kind of unspoken analogy lies behind the book. DuBois is to Washington what John Brown was to the “moderate” abolitionists of his own day—a figure absolutely unwilling to compromise his principles, and whom time, in due course, would fully vindicate. In identifying with Brown, as he surely does, DuBois identifies with a prophet as misunderstood and feared in his own day as he would (or will) be held in awe by generations to come. At a time when even relatively liberal Americans spoke of Brown with wary embarrassment—to many he was little better than what we now would call a “terrorist”—DuBois made no bones about it. His book, he announces in a brief preface, is “a tribute to the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”
DuBois points out, rightly enough, that “the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents” of Washington “is a dangerous thing. It leads some of the best of the critics to unfortunate silence and paralysis of effort, and others to burst into speech so passionately and intemperately as to lose listeners.” DuBois’s great difficulty in Souls is to criticize the Wizard of Tuskegee candidly and thoroughly, but to do so subtly, so as not to “lose listeners,” or at least not many. He says he writes “in all sincerity and utter courtesy.”
But surely there is something disingenuous in that claim, coming, as it does, from a man who has just hailed Washington as “the most distinguished Southerner since Jefferson Davis.” DuBois is past master in the suave art of damning with faint praise. His solution to the problem of dealing with Washington in such a way as not to “lose listeners”—though Washington’s loyalists would hardly have been persuaded—is to stage the most devastating phase of his attack allegorically, in a parable he tells of Atalanta, Hippomenes, and the Golden Apples, in what is by my estimation the richest essay in Souls: “Of the Wings of Atalanta.”
“Of the Wings of Atalanta” is many things. It is an essay about the “New South,” whose unofficial capital was the city of Atlanta, a city which had risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the war, reinventing itself as a center of commerce and industry. It is an essay about America in the post-Reconstruction “Gilded Age,” for which Atlanta serves, here, as a kind of epitomizing symbol. It is also an essay about education—about the fate of DuBois’s own Atlanta University in an era when the monies of a madly money-making nation were directed ever more exclusively, at least when it came to the education of black Americans, into schools of vocational training. And it is an essay, above all, about what sort of nation America should become in the century that, for DuBois, loomed so ominously ahead—the twentieth.
In the years after Reconstruction ended, “they of Atlanta,” writes DuBois, “turned resolutely toward the future; and that future held aloft vistas of purple and gold:—Atlanta, Queen of the cotton kingdom; Atlanta, Gateway to the Land of the Sun; Atlanta, the new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world. So the city crowned her hundred hills with factories, and stored her shops with cunning handiwork, and stretched long iron ways to greet the busy Mercury in his coming. And the Nation talked of her striving.” Mercury is the god of commerce and the market; Lachesis is one of the Fates (here, she spins, out of Southern cotton, a web of trade and finance that would bind to her the far-flung markets of the world). The question DuBois lays before his reader is simple. Shall the “fate” of the on-looking nation be to sell its “soul” for this great promise of “gold and purple”—of wealth and power? Shall it prostitute its Declaration of Independence in market-driven idolatry before the mercurial gods of “greed” and “lust,” whose instrument at home is “Jim Crow,” and whose instrument abroad is Empire? DuBois continues:
Perhaps Atlanta was not christened for the winged maiden of dull Boeotia; you know the tale,—how swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who out-raced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way. She fled like a shadow, paused, startled over the first apple, but even as he stretched his hand, fled again; hovered over the second, then, slipping from his hot grasp, flew over river, vale, and hill; but as she lingered over the third, his arms fell round her, and looking on each other, the blazing passion of their love profaned the sanctuary of Love, and they were cursed. If Atlanta be not named for Atalanta, she ought to have been. Atalanta is not the first or the last maiden whom greed of gold has led to defile the temple of Love; and not maids alone, but men in the race of life, sink from the high and generous ideals of youth to the gambler’s code of the Bourse; and in all our Nation’s striving is not the Gospel of Work befouled by the Gospel of Pay? So common is this that one-half think it normal; so unquestioned, that we almost fear to question if the end of racing is not gold, if the aim of man is not rightly to be rich. And if this is the fault of America, how dire a danger lies before a new land and a new city, lest Atlanta, stooping for mere gold, shall find that gold accursed!
Atalanta/Atlanta is “swarthy” and “wild.” Her great energies, libidinous in their intensity, might issue in the downward-looking appetites of a “blazing passion,” as perhaps would befit an immature daughter of “dull Boetia” (it was a proverbially “backward” sort of place). Or else they might, so to speak, be sublimated, through aspiring self-discipline and sacrifice, into “high and generous ideals.” Greed and lust exist, for DuBois, in a kind of equation. Each is a species of materialism, of sensualism—a tendency always to reduce humanity to “bodiliness,” to “defile the Temple of Love,” and to “befoul” the chaste “Gospel of Work.” Slavery had done all of these things, had degraded both slave and master. Now, the new “slavery” of Empire and “Jim Crow,” on which the United States seemed to DuBois to have embarked in its Gilded Age, promised to do it all again. Will Atalanta/Atlanta be allowed—indeed encouraged—to grow out of the “Boetian” stupor into which her first slavery had driven her? Or will a “second slavery” now arise to replace the first, the better to keep her benighted—and, what is worse, to do it with her own connivance? After all, Hippomenes is “wily.”
Out of this strange allegory emerges the full force of DuBois’s decision to speak of the souls of black folk. For DuBois, it is as if the “white” mind forever sexualizes the black body—forever sees in it something “swarthy” and “wild.” With what he intimates is a “wanton license of fancy,” post-Reconstruction era sociologists “gleefully count [the freedmen’s] bastards and prostitutes.” This lewd sociological imagination, which would reduce black souls to mere flesh is but a refinement—a translation into more rarified academic quarters—of a will to power over black men and women that had, to be sure, itself impressed on those bodies, as a token of utter domination, what DuBois calls “the red stain of bastardy”: “two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women” under slavery “meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.” Atalanta is vulnerable indeed. Her burden is not merely to save herself, but to “save” her tempter as well, because she is the last best hope of the nation—the “truest exponent of the human spirit of the Declaration of Independence,” as DuBois believed. Her “chastity” is of great moment in The Souls of Black Folk.
“Two figures,” DuBois says, “ ever stand to typify” the epoch of slavery “to coming ages”:
A gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;—and the other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife;—aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after “damned Niggers.”
The formula DuBois develops in this “typifying” allegory goes like this: Master is to slave as man is to woman, and as ravisher is to ravished. Bondage had “feminized” the slave, “unmanned” him. It had put him in a “feminine” position with respect to the “master class.” The “mother-like” figure in the passage above is “representative,” of course: in her are comprehended both men and women. And “even today,” DuBois says, in an apostrophe to the “Southern Gentleman,” “the masses of the Negroes see all too clearly the anomalies of their position and the moral crookedness of yours”: “When you cry, deliver us from the vision of intermarriage, they answer that legal marriage is infinitely better than systematic concubinage and prostitution. And if in just fury you accuse their vagabonds of violating women, they also in fury quite as just may reply: The rape which your gentlemen have done against helpless black women in defiance of your own laws is written on the foreheads of two millions of mulattoes, and written in ineffaceable blood.” So much, then, for the decadent legacy of the planter. So much for his peculiar husbandry of Southern “institutions.” I have now to address his successor in the “New South” that emerged after 1876—a successor whose good “husbandry” even of the “body” of the land itself is in doubt.
“The Wizard of the North—the Capitalist—had rushed down in the seventies to woo this coy dark soil,” we are told. The land, to be sure, had been “raped” by the old regime of mono-crop slave-based agriculture. Now, by the abusive system of tenancy that arose in slavery’s wake, the land would be raped again, or at any rate “wooed” (the “new” slavery was a bit less forthright). All of lower Georgia, DuBois explains, was now being “ravished into a red waste.” The very “soil” is described in such a way—“coy, dark”—as to suggest its affiliation, if not identity, with the dark, politically “unmanned,” laborers who work it. Plainly, the relation of Northern capital to Southern labor—to labor everywhere, DuBois believed—was to be abusive in the extreme. Landlord is to land as white man is to black, as man is to woman (under patriarchy), and as rapist is to victim: that is the bleak equation we arrive at. The point merits re-emphasis.
The decades-old tendency “born of slavery” had been “quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism” of the 1890s with the result, as DuBois says, that “human beings” were ranged “among the material resources of a land to be trained with an eye single to future dividends.” No wonder, then, that when DuBois takes his “Gentle Reader” down to what had been the “Egypt of the Confederacy,” the Black Belt of Georgia, he finds there a “pretty blue-eyed quadroon.” Thinking of the competition among the European nations for their place in the sun, and for cheap, colored labor, he writes: “Plain it is to us that what the world seeks through desert and wild we have within our threshold;—a stalwart laboring force, suited to the semi-tropics; if, deaf to the voice of the Zeitgeist, we refuse to use and develop these men, we risk poverty and loss. If, on the other hand, seized by the brutal afterthought, we debauch the race thus caught in our talons, selfishly sucking their blood and brains in the future as in the past, what shall save us from national decadence?”
Such, anyway, is the tendency, and such the legacy, of a culture that “debauches” everything it touches, that everywhere turns “souls” into “bodies.” Ours is simply a “a happy-go-lucky” sort of nation, as DuBois dryly puts it, “which goes blundering along with its Reconstruction tragedies, its Spanish war interludes and Philippine matinees, just as though God really were dead.” In the midst of it all Atalanta-Atlanta now begins the difficult race of her new American life. As she goes, so goes the nation.
After our brief “democratic” experiment of 1868-72, under Grant’s first administration, we Americans set about to re-establish white supremacy: at home, through the establishment of the new “Jim Crow” apartheid, and abroad, through the suppression of Filipino republicans—men who had trusted the promise of self-government held out in our own Declaration of Independence when they took up arms, with our encouragement, against Spain. As DuBois saw it, we were selling out nothing less than the “New World” promise of America itself. In the following passage, notice the metaphors of sexual encounter, and of degeneracy, so characteristic of DuBois’s writing in Souls, and notice as well the quiet reminders of our forsaken American errand.
In the Black World, the Preacher and Teacher embodied once the ideals of this people—the strife for another and a juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing; but today the danger is that these ideals, with their simple beauty and weird inspiration, will suddenly sink to a question of cash and a lust for gold. Here stands this black young Atalanta, girding herself for the race that must be run; and if her eyes be still toward the hills and sky as in the days of old, then we may look for noble running; but what if some ruthless or wily or even thoughtless Hippomenes lay golden apples before her? What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life? What if to the Mammonism of America be added the rising Mammonism of the re-born South, and the Mammonism of this South be reinforced by the budding Mammonism of its half-wakened black millions? Whither, then, is the new-world quest of Goodness and Beauty and Truth gone glimmering? Must this, and that fair flower of Freedom which, despite the jeers of latter-day striplings, sprung from our fathers’ blood, must that too degenerate into a dusty quest of gold;—into lawless lust with Hippomenes?
DuBois draws his allegory sharply. He warns his gentle readers lest black Americans—again, those ”truest exponents” of the Declaration of Independence—bed down with the Golden Apples of “white” capital. The “defilement,” the “lawless lust,” would in this case be double, for it is, by the inexorable logic of the allegory, a figure for the most “rapacious” sort of “husbandry” both of our “natural” and of our “human” resources. It is the sort of husbandry, DuBois makes clear in Souls, that antebellum white planters, post-1876 absentee landholders, and colonial bureaucrats alike indulged in, mutatis mutandis. All the while, the demagogic constabulary of the Democratic Party of an un-Reconstructed South seldom let slip an opportunity to get up lynching parties with whispers of fates worse than death visited on the pure White Magnolias of the South. (Nor was the lynching terror limited to the South.) Harsh words, these. But they are simply what DuBois implies. Booker T. Washington’s role in the whole pageant, at least as scripted in Souls, is hardly enviable. DuBois’s careful phrasing does allow for the possibility that Washington might merely be a “thoughtless” Hippomenes, rather than a “ruthless” or a “wily” one (the latter two, I suppose, stand in for his wealthy Northern backers). But that is thin absolution.
What, then, is to be done? Well, DuBois suggests, after unwinding this devastating allegory of America in its Gilded Age “debauch,” “the hundred hills of Atlanta are not all crowned with factories”:
On one, toward the west, the setting sun throws three buildings in bold relief against the sky. The beauty of the group lies in its simple unity:—a broad lawn of green rising from the red street and mingled roses and peaches; north and south, two plain and stately halls; and in the midst, half hidden in ivy, a larger building, boldly graceful, sparingly decorated, and with one low spire. It is a restful group;—one never looks for more; it is all here, all intelligible. There I live, and there I hear from day to day the low hum of restful life. In winter’s twilight, when the red sun glows, I can see the dark figures pass between the halls to the music of the night-bell. In the morning, when the sun is golden, the clang of the day-bell brings the hurry and laughter of three hundred young hearts from hall and street, and from the busy city below;—children all dark and heavy-haired;—to join their clear young voices in the music of the morning sacrifice. In a half-dozen classrooms they gather then;—here to follow the love-song of Dido, here to listen to the tale of Troy divine; there to wander among the stars, there to wander among men and nations,—and elsewhere other well-worn ways of knowing this queer world. Nothing new, no time-saving devices, simply old time-glorified methods of delving for Truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living. The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is today laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal,—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.The vision of life that rises before these dark eyes has in it nothing mean or selfish. Not at Oxford or at Leipsic, not at Yale or Columbia, is there an air of higher resolve or more unfettered striving; the determination to realize for men, both black and white, the broadest possibilities of life, to seek the better and the best, to spread with their own hands the Gospel of Sacrifice;—all this is the burden of their talk and dream. Here, amid a wide desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jars and vagaries of a deep race-dislike, lies this green oasis, where hot anger cools, and the bitterness of disappointment is sweetened by the springs and breezes of Parnassus; and here men may lie and listen, and learn of a future fuller than the past, and hear the voice of Time: “Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.”
The very architecture of the place is modest, chaste, and retiring: “plain,” “half-hidden in ivy,” “simply decorated,” and conducive to rites of “morning sacrifice.” Students at Atlanta University in 1903 would presumably have recognized that last bit of German as a line from Goethe’s Faust, a poem DuBois no doubt studied at the University of Berlin, and which he here ascribes to “the voice of Time” itself: “Deny yourself, you must deny yourself.” True, it is a somewhat monkish ideal—hardly the sort of thing marketing offices at most universities now say to prospective students. But its “unworldiness” is precisely the point: “bodies” are of the world merely, “souls,” it seems, are not. I have already quoted DuBois’s retort to Washington’s easy dismissal of that young black man bent over a French grammar in a tumbledown hovel in Virginia. I am quoting, here, his full answer. Deny yourself (he says, with Goethe). Chasten yourself. America—and, in an age of empire, all the world—is alive with “golden apples.” Tend to the souls of black folk more than to their bodies, shun Hippomenes, and you will help this nation realize, at last, its “errand into the wilderness”: to “reform” a world that “white” Europe, at its worst, had left reeling and debauched.
Let us spell it out, then. In the larger story DuBois would tell, black America is Atalanta, the last best hope of the nation; Booker T. Washington is her “thoughtless” Hippomenes. The Golden Apple he holds out—his Tuskegee program of “industrial training,” social “separation,” and “humility”—is the characteristic poison of a Gilded Age. Mere bread-winning, obliquely in the service of white supremacy. So, DuBois implies, should Atalanta turn to whoring, and take all of America with her, we will know pretty well who pandered her off. DuBois’s assessment of his extraordinarily powerful rival—and, more important, of his rival’s promoters on the G.E.B and the S.E.B., for they are the “ruthless” and “wily” ones—is just that unforgiving, no matter how suavely delivered.
But what of the trivium and quadrivium? What of the course pursued at DuBois’s own Atlanta University, as at the great universities of Old World? This curriculum, of course, is but a token of a larger, and decidedly political, promise, which we can approach, by inference, from what DuBois says below. “The Wings of Atalanta,” he explains, “are the coming universities of the South”:
They alone can bear the maiden past the temptation of golden fruit. They will not guide her flying feet away from the cotton and gold; for—ah, thoughtful Hippomenes!—do not the apples lie in the very Way of Life? But they will guide her over and beyond them, and leave her kneeling in the Sanctuary of Truth and Freedom and broad Humanity, virgin and undefiled. Sadly did the Old South err in human education, despising the education of the masses, and niggardly in the support of colleges. Her ancient university foundations dwindled and withered under the foul breath of slavery; and even since the war they have fought a failing fight for life in the tainted air of social unrest and commercial selfishness, stunted by the death of criticism, and starving for lack of broadly cultured men. And if this is the white South’s need and danger, how much heavier the danger and need of the freedmen’s sons! how pressing here the need of broad ideals and true culture, the conservation of soul from sordid aims and petty passions! Let us build the Southern university—William and Mary, Trinity, Georgia, Texas, Tulane, Vanderbilt, and the others—fit to live; let us build, too, the Negro universities:—Fisk, whose foundation was ever broad; Howard, at the heart of the Nation; Atlanta at Atlanta, whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers. Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plant deeply and for all time centres of learning and living, colleges that yearly would send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men of broad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands to other hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace?
Here, we have to do with no committee meeting wrangle as to whether young black men will, on the one hand, study Goethe and Hume and French grammar, or, on the other, accounting and “hospitality” and agriculture—or, as at most public universities today, some unsatisfying combination of them all.
No, at stake for DuBois, startling though it may seem, is nothing less than the fate of men everywhere in the twentieth century, for the history of slavery and empire—this great “squabble of the Races”—had indeed, by 1903, made the debate unspeakably urgent in Alabama, in Georgia, in the Belgian Congo, in the Philippines, and in the veldts of southern Africa (it would only be the more urgent down through 1945 and beyond). Are we really to treat men and women of color as “bodies” alone—as Calibans? Who is to say what Caliban might become, and allow us to become in turn, if we didn’t appeal to his “body” alone?—if we supposed, at the outset, that he was a thing in apprehension like an angel, as Hamlet says? And are we, to seal the devil’s bargain, to “ravish” the “body” of the earth itself, in an economy of depletion such as had threatened, already by 1850, even the forgiving soil of the Deep South? Shall we let the market’s “golden apples” direct all the energies of our production? Is there no other end to the race? Every one of these questions is somehow entailed in DuBois’s injunction that we “conserve our souls from sordid aims and petty passions” (never mistake his at times ascetic language for mere late-Victorian prudery). Only in light of these questions can we understand the full force of his chastening allegory about the dubious fate, in 1903, of the body of this so thoroughly American Atalanta, and about her tempter at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, Mr. Booker T. Washington: “When night falls on the City of a Hundred Hills, a wind gathers itself from the seas and comes murmuring westward. And at its bidding, the smoke of the drowsy factories sweeps down upon the mighty city and covers it like a pall, while yonder at the University the stars twinkle above Stone Hall. And they say that yon gray mist is the tunic of Atalanta pausing over her golden apples. Fly, my maiden, fly, for yonder comes Hippomenes!”
N.B. The best on-line resource pertaining to DuBois is “DuBois Central,” a site maintained by the University of Massachusetts. For a link to the full text of The Souls of Black Folk, click here. For Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, click here. For a list of other pages within The Era of Casual Fridays bearing on the topic of racism and empire, click here. For the Booker T. Washington National Monument, maintained by the National Parks Service, click here. For the collection of materials pertaining to Washington at the fine “Documenting the American South” web-site, click here. For a link to documents by or pertaining to DuBois at the same site, click here. For the main page for “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” click here.