Category Archives: WEB DuBois

A Glaring Omission

By Ronald Court

On Christmas Day, George Will wrote of a “Small Successful Government Program“ that purports to tell America’s story through some forty American works of art – primarily paint and sculpture. However, Mr. Will failed to note a glaring omission of this otherwise commendable governmental effort.

Yet again, as with so many liberal interpretations of American History, Booker T. Washington is treated virtually as a footnote–and controversial at that, for how else would interpreters of American History find a place to interject WEB DuBois in it? The fact is, the only notable role Du Bois plays in our history today is only as a footnote to Dr. Booker T. Washington’s significant, productive and immensely more constructive one. Indeed, if not for Washington, DuBois arguably, would have been dismissed and forgotten decades ago.
A Ladder For Booker T. Washington (1995)

Herewith is my comment to George Will’s article:
“Any attempt to tell “America’s Story” by “Picturing America” in forty or so images is bound to omit a significant chapter or two.

However, selecting Puryear’s 1995 sculpture “Ladder for Booker T. Washington” does this country’s “other great American named Washington” a disservice.

A better, more instructive and evocative sculpture would have been “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance” (below) sculpted by Charles Keck in 1922.

“Liftting the Veil of Ignorance”

The opportunity to engage students in discussion over differing viewpoints on Dr. Washington’s role in advancing civil rights, given the time and place of Dr. Washington’s efforts, would still be there without reducing Dr. Washington’s legacy to an abstraction that some choose to misinterpret as a ladder leading nowhere.

That American historians have accorded the honor of naming an era (1895-1915) “The Booker T Washington Era” should have clued the designers of this program into BTW’s positive impact on American history. Booker T. deserves much better.

The Horse’s Mouth

By Ronald Court

You can learn a lot by reading the actual words written or spoken by someone instead of relying on what others write or speak about them. That’s why we go to such effort to make it easy for you to read BTW’s own books, articles and speeches on this site.

WEB’s Autobiobraphy Similarly, I just read W.E.B. Du Bois’ autobiography to learn what made WEB tick. I wanted to get it from “the horse’s mouth” rather than possibly biased historians.

I learned more than I expected. At various times, WEB revealed himself to be jealous, resentful, idealistic, bitter and defensively full of himself. It seemed to me that he never quite felt at home in his own skin and consequently didn’t feel at home here.

Was he intelligent? Of course. Hard working? Sure. But history is littered with intelligent and hard -working people who traveled a wrong path. Even those who can back up their intelligence with power can get it wrong. Witness Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg. One’s belief in a cause, no matter how sincere or well-intentioned one may be, is no guarantee that it, or methods to achieve it, is right.

Bio notes on WEB Du Bois sometimes mention that he renounced his US citizenship, joined the Communist Party and exiled himself to Ghana before he died. All true. But there’s more. (Click the image to buy your own book.)

He was well-intentioned and correct in some ways, but terribly misinformed and mistaken in others. I hope to provide some glimpses into the man without drifting too far into THINK tank territory. I must remind myself that the Society is a DO tank. Our aim is to help youths live constructive, productive lives, not merely to talk about how to do so.

Still, I’ll quote from WEB’s autiobiography from time to time to hopefully shed light on the emotional and intellectual state of the man. Here’s one for openers:

I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools. (p. 285):

              W. E. B. Du Bois

What an astoundingly ignorant thing for WEB Du Bois to say. What say you?

My hero, Bill Cosby

By Ronald Court

Two years ago, (July ’05) when the Society was no more than an idea I was mulling over, I flew to Buffalo NY to attend a Harlem Book Fair. I especially wanted to meet Sarah O’Neil Rush, a great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington who was to participate in a panel discussion on the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and WEB Du Bois.

Mrs. Rush found herself in a debate with the other three panelists — all ‘DuBoisians’. Yet she acquitted herself admirably. Afterwards, I happened upon one panelist, Prof. Ronald W. Walters alone at a book signing table hawking his most recent book, Freedom is Not Enough.

I introduced myself and asked simply, “What do you think of Bill Cosby?” I wanted to know what others thought about Bill Cosby’s recent NAACP speech challenging blacks to take more personal responsibility.

Bill Cosby at the NAACP

Dr. Walters responded by characterizing Mr. Cosby with a derogatory epithet I shall not repeat here. I was astounded. I asked him how he could say such a thing. Dr. Walters said that Cosby didn’t know what he was talking about… that he wasn’t qualified to…”

I cut him off, telling him Cosby was as qualified as anybody as was Booker T. Washington. Furthermore, he had a degree…”

Dr. Walters then cut me off. “But not a real degree. He…” I cut in again, telling Walters that Cosby held a Doctorate in Education from the U of Mass and earned it after becoming rich and famous (that makes Cos, because he didn’t have to, a double hero in my book).

In retrospect, Dr. Walters may have been referring to the honorary degrees that Booker T. received from Harvard and Dartmouth. I can’t be sure, but surely, even an Honorary Masters from Harvard and an Honorary Doctorate from Dartmouth says more than Walters’ PhD from American U.

He said BTW was a tool of white industrialists, that BTW encouraged blacks to go North to fill the demand for menial labor in their factories. I had to correct Dr. Walters yet again by reminding him that BTW specifically called blacks to stay in the South in his famous 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech to, “Cast down your bucket where you are…”

Dr. Walters responded that he meant BTW in his later years. Then he abruptly ended the exchange by turning away, adding “Perhaps we’ll have a chance to talk again.”

I never anticipated such an exchange. It opened my eyes into a mind-set that seemed to find it too hard to consider even the possibility that accepting a degree of personal responsibility to improve oneself might alleviate some of the distress some blacks experience today.

If Dr. Walters wants to lay primary responsibility for blacks who fail in society at the feet of “whitey,” then it follows that primary responsibility for blacks who succeed in society should be attributed to whitey as well. Such would be the logical conclusion. But here’s a better way. Hear what hero Bill Cosby had to say here.

Meanwhile, Dr. Walters might do well to recall Booker T. Washington’s observation that…

There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs. There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don’t want the patient to get well.

(There’s more of Booker T’s wisdom & common sense here. Enjoy.

of W. E. B. Du Bois and others

By Ronald Court

For two years, I’ve debated with myself over whether to tackle the 800 pound gorilla in the room whenever anyone seems to mention Booker T. Washington. That is, the prevalent but faulty belief in academia that BTW was inferior to WEB Du Bois. I had concluded that, as Booker T. himself was too busy leading, uplifting and accomplishing to debate WEB in person, neither should I. Until now.

Booker T. died too young and early, leaving a vacuum that WEB never would have filled had BTW lived. Instead, WEB’s bitter world-view went largely unchallenged for the better part of a century so that many who claim to know and teach American History today simply reject Booker T. Washington as a “compromiser,” “accommodationist” “wizard” or head of the “Tuskegee machine.”

Let these teachers and students, mired in WEB Du Bois’s deeply, profusely written feelings of alienation and anger, lift the veil of ignorance from their own eyes.

Let them first rid themselves of the false notion that Booker T. campaigned against Du Bois. No, Du Bois plotted against BTW in forming the short-lived Niagara Movement as well as enlisting others to obtain “every scrap of evidence” to use against BTW.

The archives in The W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass quote WEB writing of “another and more bitter controversy. This started with the rise at Tuskegee Institute, and centering around Booker T. Washington, of what I may call the Tuskegee Machine.”

So Du Bois coins a disparaging term to describe BTW’s effectiveness and historians who should know better parrot it and thus become complicit in besmirching BTW’s good name. It is dishonest.

Further, Web disingenuously writes, “There came a controversy between myself and Booker T. Washington, which became more personal and bitter than I had ever dreamed.”

Really? What an interesting way to acknowledge an issue while implicitly disavowing responsibility. It ranks right up there with today’s currently politically popular, “mistakes were made” and “absent any controlling legal authority…”

Two-time BTW biographer Louis Harlan is hard put to find evidence that BTW entertained personal or bitter thoughts towards WEB. But that didn’t stop him from characterizing BTW as “devious” or labeling his speeches as “banal” and “hackneyed”. I’ve posted several speeches here. Judge for yourself.

I’ll say it again: BTW was too busy doing good to bother much with WEB… with one exception: Washington secretly financed Du Bois and others to challenge Jim Crow in the courts. Does that seem “personal and bitter” to you?

BTW was, however, not without fault. I believe Stephen Mansfield gets it right in his bio,
Then Darkness Fled” The liberating Wisdom of Booker T. Washington:

    “It is necessary to acknowledge what is true in the charges against him. It is true that Washington entrusted the future of his race to the goodness of America and was betrayed. He felt this himself all too keenly in the closing years of his life. Washington taught his people to invest in America for a harvest of respect, equality and prosperity. They received instead the Jim Crow fruits of a racist land…
    It is true also that Washington misunderstood the nature of racial prejudice. He assumed that those who hated his people did so because of who his people were, either because they were black or poor or illiterate or uncultured. In other words, he assumed that racial hatred was rational. Therefore, if he could change what his people were, he could remove the object of white hatred.
    The truth is, … racial hatred is irrational. It is simply hatred for the sake of hatred and rarely has any reasonableness about it… there is often little the hated can do to assuage the hatred against them… In 1915, it seemed that Washington, who believed in whites more than whites believed in themselves, had simply been deceived.”

Today however, is much different than 1915. Impediments to equality – at least as a matter of written law – are no longer, so anger and alienation no longer serves the purpose they may have “back in the day.” Today, they have become simply impediments to further progress. Du Bois no longer has a tenable solution to the problem of the color line. Rather, Washington’s approach, properly understood and updated in today’s context, is far more promising.

Ratatouille

By Ronald Court

While in North Carolina last week, my son and I saw Ratatouille, a delightful Pixar animated film that really is for all ages. It’s about a rat who becomes a chef. The villian (every film has one, you know) is a food critic aptly named, “Anton Ego.”

Ego’s monologue about being a critic is as ageless as it is priceless:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

It’s too bad DuBois couldn’t recognize the bitter truth instead of simply being, well, bitter. His literary prowess, such as it was, is nothing when measured against Booker T’s. accomplishments. It had to grate. Consider: Here’s DuBois, the first Negro with a genuine Harvard PhD, barely recognized for his work while this Southern (read “poor and poorly educated”) Negro gets high praise North & South, including an honorary degree from Harvard. So to get attention (why else?) what does he do? He praises Booker T., then seeks to work for him, then takes an opposite tack by criticizing him. Honest historians today would label DuBois a “flip-flopper.”

Continuing Anton Ego’s monologue from the film:

“…only now do I truly understand … Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest…”

Too bad DuBois failed to achieve the epiphany that Anton Ego did.

What’s Up With Tuskegee U.?

By Ronald Court

One would think that Tuskegee University would give Booker T. Washington adequate props. TU was born on the Fourth of July (1881) without land, buildings, staff or even teachers. Yet in just 35 years, TU was the pre-eminent Negro institution of higher learning with a several hundred acre campus, over a hundred buildings and a $40 million (today’s $$) endowment along the way. Thanks to Booker T.
Yet, Tuskegee’s website presents Booker T. simply as one of its leaders.

Tuskegee’s website appears to pay reluctant lip-service to the man who built this educational, agricultural, industrial and entrepreneurial powerhouse for Blacks out of Alabama’s red dirt – literally. Why?

Has its leadership and/or faculty been swayed by WEB DuBois’ century-old misrepresentation of Booker T’s Atlanta Exposition Address as a “compromise”? Has it been intimidated (indoctrinated?) by the resentful dissing of Booker T’s malevolent detractors? Or maybe they just feel that Booker T’s philosophy and values are irrelevant today.

Whatever. Booker T. deserves better, especially from Tuskegee.

Example: Tuskegee’s home page doesn’t even mention Booker T.

Example: Its Celebrating 125 Years page isn’t exactly enthusiastic about Dr. Washington’s legacy. “Political participation is important, where possible, but solid education community-building, creating jobs, on-the-job training, good health and character development are essential in Washington’s view.” What part of that is not TU’s “view” today?

Let me guess. The part where Booker T. put “political participation” behind all those other essentials.

Example: One page each is devoted to Tuskegee’s Presidents. The pages devoted to BTW’s successors carefully list every honor, honorary degree and prestigious membership of its subject. But no mention of the honorary degrees conferred on BTW by Harvard & Dartmouth. No mention that BTW founded the National Negro Business League. And no mention (one is left to infer) that Dr. Booker T. Washington brought George Washington Carver to Tuskegee in 1886. Were it not for Booker T’s prescience and managerial skills in bringing and retaining the tempermental Dr. Carver, the continued fame and fortune Carver attracted for Tuskegee after Booker T. died would likely have gone elsewhere.

There’s more. Stay tuned. What’s your take?