The Du Bois Challenge

February 23: W. E. B. Du Bois was born on this day in 1868. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a cornerstone document in African-American history, Du Bois takes issue with those contemporaries who advocated a patient approach to racial equality. Prominent in this group was Booker T. Washington, who believed that "it is the duty of the Negro . . . to deport himself modestly in regard of political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possessions of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights." To advance his slow-change approach, Washington wanted young African-Americans to learn a useful trade; the highly educated Du Bois bristled at the idea of setting such limits:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

Biographer David Levering Lewis writes that Du Bois "attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity." This list omits fiction, unless Dark Princess, Du Bois's 1928 romantic novel, is placed in Lewis's "propaganda" category. Most contemporary reviewers noted the book's "old white-hot indignation against racial oppression," while noting the "flamboyant and unconvincing" plot. This turns upon the protagonist's involvement in "a widespread and carefully planned uprising of American blacks," beginning with the derailment of a trainload of KKK delegates.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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