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W. E. B. Dubois’ Diametric Opposition to Booker T. Washington Concerning the Plan to Move the Black Race Forward: A Revisionist Narrative

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Abdul Momoh

Professor Theus

English 203

18 April 2017.

W. E. B. Dubois’ Diametric Opposition to Booker T. Washington Concerning the Plan to Move the Black Race Forward: A Revisionist Narrative

The opposing views between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois on the advancement of the black race is one well known to scholars and historians of the African American community. It is with DuBois Souls of Black Folk that he makes his historic break with the philosophies of Booker T. Washington.  Although Washington clashed with other black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and drew ire for his seeming acceptance of segregation, he is recognized for his educational advancements and attempts to promote economic self-reliance among African Americans. Across the landscape of the most anguished era of American race relations (1895-1915) strode the self-assured and influential Booker T. Washington. In response to the age of Jim Crow, Washington offered the doctrine of accommodation, acquiescing in social and political inequality for blacks while training them for economic self-determination in the industrial arts. Growing up during Reconstruction and imbued with moral as opposed to intellectual training, Washington came to believe that postwar social uplift had begun at the wrong end: the acquisition of political and civil rights rather than economic self-determination.

In his Atlanta Compromise address, delivered at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, Washington struck the keynotes of racial accommodations: He urged blacks, “Cast down your buckets where you are- cast it down in making friends in every manly way possible of all races by whom we are surrounded” (573).  He also further stated that, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem” (573). He announced to attentive whites, “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” (573).  His thoroughly bourgeois, antilabor, antidemocratic appeal stood for years as an endorsement of segregation.

        It is with DuBois’ “Souls of Black Folk” that he makes his historic break with the philosophies of Booker T. Washington. Washington's views of "racial uplift" for the masses are criticized by many todays as more conciliatory than in the definite interests of blacks in America. Washington’s views on "racial uplift" were that he offered black acquiescence in disenfranchisement and social segregation if whites would back the idea of black progress in education, agriculture, and economics. Agriculture to Washington was one of the soul ideas of his "racial uplift" theory. Dubois vehemently disagreed with many of Washington's opinions, but also garnered a respect for him as one of the first true black intellectuals who tried to help the black race. In his essay, The Souls of the Black Folks and in the chapter titled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and others”, he states: "One hesitates, therefore, to criticize a life which beginning with so little, has done so much. And yet the time is come when one may speak in all sincerity and utter courtesy of the mistakes and shortcomings of Mr. Washington's career as well as of his triumphs, without being captious or envious, and without forgetting that it is easier to do ill than well in the world" (695). Also, in the same essay, Dubois criticizes Washington for his stance on civil rights issues. An avid supporter of the rights of blacks everywhere, Dubois points out that civic equality, education, and the right to vote are fundamental human rights.  Kelly Miller also supported this notion of the right to vote, civic equality and the education of youth according to ability. Miller underscores the importance of social equality and how the Negro has been sidelined in a racially divided society. According to Miller:

If in this elegant quatrain we substitute “social equality” for conscience, although we mar the meter, we adapt the meaning to the social creed of the South. The interpretation which that section places upon “social equality” constitutes the crux of the race problem, and conditions all modes of rights, privileges and opportunity, whether they be political, civil, educational or industrial. By reason of its exactions, the Negro is not desired by the white man to vote for the same candidate, work at the same handicraft, enjoy the same public and civic privileges, to worship at the same shrine, or to be buried in same graveyard. It is indeed the ruling passion strong in death. Race prejudice which this phrase evokes is not amenable to the formulas of logic; it is impatient of fact, and intolerant of argument and demonstration. It does not reason, it asserts and asservates. Its traditional method is a word and a blow. (110)

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