Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect of W.E.B. Debois. I’ve had his “The Souls of Black Folks” from 1903 on-deck here on my desk for the last month or so. Knowing that there was within a critique of Booker T. Washington I made sure to read his autobiography first. Yesterday. It’s hard not marvel at Mr. Washington’s progression slavery, through utter destitution to glimmers of education which germinate into a forceful intellect and singularly impactful leader for the African America People. And Booker T. Washington was willing to accommodate. And he was skillful at knowing what was possible and what might be something one could stretch for and his good efforts built an enduring black institution in Tuskegee. But DeBois, a free, northern born contemporary, born twelve years later in Great Barrington, Massachusetts acknowledges the triumph of Washington while gracefully and forcefully taking him to task: It is not possible to accept a racial categorization of inferiority, it is wrong to settle for anything less than African Americans striving for and involved in higher education and blacks must have the vote to be acknowledged as real men. “Wow,” because I wasn’t expecting him to be so artful. On Atlanta:
“It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream; to see the wide vision of empire fade into real ashes and dirt and to feel the pang of the conquered, and yet know that with all the Bad that fell on one black day, something was vanquished that deserved to live and something killed than in justice had not dared to die; to know that with the Right that triumphed, triumphed something of the Wrong, something sordid and mean, something less than the broadest and best. Al this is better hard; and many a man and city and people have found in it excuse for sulking and brooding and listless waiting.”
Once again I am struck by the parallels to the emergence of China and what a singularly remarkable thing that was to live through. In the essay on the “Meaning of Progress” he revisits a small country school he’d taught at when he was young. Some of the people have grown up crooked. Some of the facilities have been plowed under a highway. And the rich description of the simplicity of the school he taught in brought to mind not only the simplest of class rooms in China but the even more spartan set up of students in a village we were brought to in Malawi, the pictures of which occasionally rotate into my screen saver which were tragic and heroic in equal measure.
I marvel at his turn-of-phrase. I doff my hat to his gentlemanly deference coupled with his rapier thrusts. I imagine hearing his voice and inject, perhaps erroneously, an African American brogue to emphasize a point here or an ironic question there. He died in 1963 in Accra, which is a chapter I’ll have to find to find out more about. Perhaps there are recordings of him speaking. (It took me all of eight seconds to find a recording of him from 1960 entitled: “Socialism and the American Negro.”) That’s a story unto itself, I’ll have to explore some other time, when the pianist Randy Weston and the intellectuals like Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture) was in Guinea while W.E.B. DeBois was not far away in Ghana.
My older one attends Reed College in Portland, when there isn’t a pandemic on. She finished out here freshmen year like the rest of the country, sitting in her room, banging out classes on zoom, remotely. One class, Intro to Anthropology decided to have a number of the class photographed for a project it was conducting, into; life during the virus. And unexpectedly, for the first time in many months, we had a visitor today. A young man, who is a freelance photographer, has come into our world, like a visitor in a Turgenev novel. My daughter and he are sitting outside talking. I am intrigued by this. So is my wife. Our younger one has opinions as well. And it dawns on me, at least, how isolated we’ve all been when a visitor becomes the most remarkable component of anyone’s day. He said he’d come back when the sun was better, and he did. They’re out there now in the evening light.