Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington

Feb. 23 marked the sesquicentennial of W.E.B. Du Bois' birth. Born in Great Barrington, Mass., he died 95 years later, in Accra, Ghana, on the day of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Du Bois is best known for his early 20th-century debate and dispute with Booker Taliaferro Washington. The issues contested in that conflict reverberates even now. Before exploring this, I want to sketch a portrait of perhaps the greatest American, of African descent, or otherwise.

Du Bois is the most important African-American scholar-activist in history.

In 1895, his "The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870" became the first publication in the Harvard Historical Studies. Within two months of its release, "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) entered its third printing. "Souls" is recognized as a literary classic and a groundbreaking work of sociology.

In his award-winning book, "The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology," Aldon Morris demonstrates "The Philadelphia Negro" (1899) was the first American work in the new social science of sociology.

Before its publication, U.S. sociology was speculative. Du Bois' masterpiece was grounded in empirical research. As Morris points out, Du Bois was "the first numbers-crunching, surveying, interviewing, participant-observing and field-working sociologist in America, a pioneer in the multimethods approach." He institutionalized his empirical approach in the paradigm shifting studies conducted by his Atlanta school of sociology.

In the midst of the Great Depression, "Black Reconstruction" revised the history of Reconstruction. "Black Reconstruction" provided an innovative Afrocentric, Marxist and international analysis. Constructed on a rich base of data and primary sources, Du Bois excavated the central role enslaved African-Americans played in the Civil War.

As Frantz Fanon would argue nearly 30 years later in "The Wretched of the Earth," Du Bois "stretched" Marxism to incorporate the particularities of racial oppression. And like C.L.R. James in Black Jacobins, Du Bois offered African-descendant people and "the dark peoples" a useful internationalist perspective to guide their struggle against imperialism and white supremacy.

Forming the Niagara movement in 1905, Du Bois tentatively waded into the dusky river of social movement activism. After the 1906 Atlanta pogrom, Du Bois realized scholarship and education were insufficient to liberate blacks. By 1909, when he co-founded the NAACP, his halting steps had become confident strides.

His conflict with Washington represented part of the process that pushed him off the campus and into the streets. Although well-known, the debate and dispute is largely misunderstood.

Many observers reduce the dispute to a debate over educational programs — whether African-American should receive only a vocational education or have access to a higher education. It concerned much more.

In the contemporary public imagination, Washington represented the interests of the common African-American. While Du Bois is depicted as espousing an elitist philosophy and strategy.

As the popular argument goes, Washington looked out for the typical Southern black worker. Like all myths, there is a kernel of truth embedded in this fiction.

In 1890 and 1910, 62 percent of southern blacks worked in agriculture, forestry and fishing. Beginning in 1892, Washington sponsored annual conferences for African-American farmers. In 1897, he initiated a Farmer's Institute and county fairs. Led by George Washington Carver and Charles W. Allen, these entities taught new farming techniques and provided black farmers with a vehicle to market their produce.

Washington believed black colleges should teach the trades and domestic skills. He argued that through efficient and hard work, blacks could acquire capital. Which they could then leverage into white respect and in time citizen rights.

On the other hand, Du Bois' seminal concept, "the talented tenth" rejected limits on African-Americans' access to education, and to social and political rights. Du Bois reasoned African-Americans should be led by their most educated classes.

These differences seem to confirm the myth.

However, their conflict did not turn on the differences between vocational education, for the masses, and higher education, for "the talented tenth." Du Bois readily acknowledged the easy reconciliation between these two forms of educational policy.

Rather, the dispute was driven by irreconcilable political differences and personal animus.

Funded lavishly by the leading white capitalists of his era, Washington conceded civil rights, quibbled over lynching, disparaged the black intelligentsia and blamed African-Americans for their plight. In addition, he used every power at his disposal to destroy those advocating alternatives to his approach.

Du Bois and Washington's disagreement remains unresolved.

Today, black conservatives and quite a few "practical" folks are excavating Washington's ideas.

Surprisingly, even in the midst of a militant resurgence, a significant percentage of black college students condemn Du Bois as an elitist, while praising Washington's emphasis on wealth attainment.

What is lost in this story is that Washington's strategy of accommodation was defeatist. It was a retreat, if not a surrender. And it was premised on his belief that the masses of black people were backward but possessed an "unusual amount of common sense."

The "talented tenth" proved to be a mistaken idea, which Du Bois revised in the 1940s. Yet, Du Bois' position of opposing all restrictions on black dignity, self-development and advancement, and emphasizing study, service and struggle remain the only sensible strategy for liberation.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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