Celebrating Booker T. Washington, Du Bois


Lovemore Ranga Mataire The Reader
Black History Month, which is also referred to as the African-American History Month in America, is annually observed in United States, Canada and Britain as a period to remember prominent individuals and events that shaped the future of the African Diaspora. Black History month is celebrated in February in Canada and the US while in Britain is commemorated in October.

While credit is normally attributed to African-American historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History for coming up with the Negro History Week in 1926, it is the work of Booker T. Washington and William Burghardt Du Bois who pioneered the path for the respect and dignity of black Americans in the post-slavery era.

Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856- 1915) and William Edward Burgardt Du Bois (1868-1963) were two of the foremost assertive and eloquent African-American leaders who laid the foundation for the cause of the then Negros in America. However, critics of the two leaders have paid very little attention to the fact that their eventual different perspectives were inevitable given their varying backgrounds and upbringing.

It is thus the purpose of this essay to clearly explain the major different perspectives of Booker T. Washington and Du Bois and illustrate how these differences were influenced by their upbringing which shaped their thinking of what they thought were immediate needs of the freed Negroes. The essay will also highlight the fact that their varying perspectives were mere hyperbole as a close scrutiny of their strategies reveals a convergence in their ultimate goals.

Psychologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Delware, Clifford Geertz (1973) carried a study on the impact of childhood upbringing to adult life and the results were ground breaking.

The study established that the way someone behaves or views society or acquires knowledge is usually influenced by upbringing within a family set-up that construct our religious views, primitive judgments, moral values and expectations from life.

The study further revealed that the culture “we are brought up informs a certain ‘truth’ in our minds and depending on the ‘local truth’ a society has, common sense and stereotypes are formed and related and become bias and form prejudgments about certain areas of knowledge.

Similarly, in order for one to fully understand Washington and Du Bois’s views on what they thought ought to be done to improve black lives in the aftermaths of slavery, one has to go back to their upbringing and be able to construct a meaningful trajectory of their adult lives.

Born in 1856 in Franklin Country, Virginia, Washington spent his early childhood in slavery. His upbringing was full of adversity as his mother was a domestic worker for the white master. He never knew his father but it was suspected that his mother’s master could have been his father.

Describing his early childhood, Washington says, “ …from the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied with some kind of labour.”

Soon after being freed from slavery, the newly free slaves were faced with the dilemma of carving a niche in a society that once regarded them as nothing more than property. It was at this time that the young Washington was forced to work in a coal mine strove to educate himself after work.

Thus it can be seen that views on the sanctity and dignity of labour were much influenced by those early days where he worked in the coal mine and later as a domestic worker for a white family. Washington’s views on whites seem to be somewhat conciliatory in that along the way some white people seemingly handheld him like General Armstrong the head of Hampton Institute where he received his vocational education.

Washington felt that as people who were coming from slavery their most valued asset was labour and that black folks had to be taught about the dignity of labour.

This is shown by the assertion that: “The desire to gain material goods came with freedom, however, the ability to furnish this desire was still limited. The value of industrial education lay in granting these people the capacity in fulfilling their goals.”

Washington’s belief in the dignity of labour was further heightened by his experience at the Hampton Institute where he learned the value of education from a more practical perspective rather than simply what could be found in books or in the acquisition of material goods.

Hampton Institute was run by a white philanthropist, General Samuel Armstrong who believed that blacks should have practical trade and a Puritan work ethic instead of the arts and literature. The lessons of hard work and the proper role for blacks as described by General Armstrong profoundly affected the young Washington and shaped his ideologies in later life.

At Hampton, Washington’s studies focused on the acquisition of industrial or practical working skills as opposed to the liberal arts. It was because of his experiences at Hampton that Washington got the inspiration to become an educator as well as an avid supporter of industrial education, ultimately founding the Tuskegee Normal and Agricultural Institute. Washington felt that the best way for blacks to stabilize their future was to make themselves an indispensable faction of society by providing a necessity. He advocated that an “individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race.’ (page 155).

On the other hand, Born in Massachusetts in 1868 in Great Barrington, W.E. B Du Bois grew up free and in the North where he never experienced the harsh conditions of slavery that Washington experienced in the south. He grew up in predominantly white environment and attended Fisk University as an undergraduate and later became the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. In other words, Du Bois grew up an equal to whites and thus found the reconciliatory and accommodative discourse of Washington very repugnant to his upbringing.

In Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois elucidated his belief in “the talented tenth” of the black population, who through their intellectual accomplishments, would rise up to lead the black masses. Du Bois failed to relate with Washington’s emphasis on industrial education. His contention was that the solution to the problem of education was to be solved through allotting educational opportunities to African-Americans. With this academic preparation, the Negro would be equipped to engage in society. A complete man needed to learn about both practical matters and also about theory and academic ideals.

Du Bois does not completely negate the importance of industrial education but emphasised that classical and theoretical education was equally critical in the development of a well rounded African-American. White it is true that the black man needed vocational training; it was also true that education should have been able to ensure that the black man understood himself better in relation to his environment. It is clear that Du Bois’s upbringing and the kind of education he got from university made him averse to simple vocational training. He argued that there was a lot of success to be achieved by black people who would have attended institutions of higher learning. These people according to Du Bois achieved positions such as teachers, priests and even within the medical field. His definition of success is however relative as the black man in the south also achieved success through crop sharing and harvesting.

On the political front, Du Bois felt that blacks deserved equality with whites and that the granting of equal rights must not be piecemeal of gradual as what Washington proposed. In his view, the problem of the 21st century was the problem of race or what he called the colour line. Until the racial inequality was dealt with Du Bois felt that any other attempts to improve the welfare of the black man were bound to be peripheral and ineffective.

Du Bois was thus more militant than Washington and demonstrated his political beliefs through his involvement in the Niagara Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of the Coloured People, and served as editor of The Crisis, a black political magazine. He felt that blacks needed to educate themselves in the liberal tradition just like whites. Du Bois’s more radical approach was well received by other northern freemen who felt that Washington’s approach was tended to derail the speed advancement of blacks.

One of the biggest disagreements in philosophies between the two was over the issue of suffrage which Du Bois believed that in terms of voting the ballot was necessary as opposed giving the vote to the uneducated blacks. As a person who grew up in an integrated community, Du Bois felt that economic gains would not be secure unless there was political power to safeguard them. This is shown in his comment regarding Washington when he says: “He (Washington) is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage.”

Washington on the other hand felt that Du Bois militant agitation did more harm than good and served only to irritate southern whites. “I think, though, that the opportunity t freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing.” (page 234). It seems it was only natural for Washington to appear like compromising a lot in terms of immediate black advancement given the fact that certain individual whites had played a critical role in his life. Besides, his Tuskegee Institute received a lot of benevolence funding from some liberal whites and he felt that any radicalism would compromise his relationship with them.

Du Bois therefore was not much compromised as he had proven beyond doubt that blacks can excel better than whites in liberal education. Thus he in Souls of Black Folks he says:

The equality in political, industrial and social life which modern men must have in order to live is not to be confounded with sameness. On the contrary, in our case, it is rather insistence upon the right of diversity upon the right of a human being to be a man even if he does not wear the same cut of vest, the same curl of hair or the same colour of skin. Human equality does not even entail, as it is sometimes said, absolute equality of opportunity: for certainly the natural inequalities of inherent genius and varying gift makes a dubious phrase

On the other hand Washington’s attitude towards equality seems to have been shaped by the sea of ignorance which he witnessed among freed slaves of the south. In Up from Slavery, Washington emphasised that it was important for blacks to concentrate on economic and social improvement, arguing that political rights would follow. He believed that if Americans made themselves productive members of society, white America would not be able to withhold the rights that they deserved. Washington acknowledged the importance of black male suffrage but asserted that in order to claim the vote, African Americans must first improve their economic positions.

His views on equality are articulated in his speech at Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, which propelled him to fame. Speaking to a predominantly white audience, Washington argued that economic progress for African-Americans must achieve equality through hard work and self-improvement. He also accepted separation of blacks and whites when he said: “In all things purely social, we can be as separate as the five figures, yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. In others words he advocated that separation in terms of their dwellings and social interaction but could only meet when it comes to providing labour.

Washington goes further in advising his fellow blacks to: “Cast down your bucket where you are- cast it down in making friends…of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions.”

He conspicuously omitted politics and let fall an oblique endorsement of segregation. It was Washington’s belief that no race could prosper without learning first the dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem and that it was at the bottom of life that the black race had to begin and not at the top.

Some people like W.E. Du Bois who was to later experience racial segregation as an undergraduate at Fisk University in the south in Nashville, he felt that Washington was making a bad bargain by sacrificing the broad education and of civil rights for the dubious acceptance of white conservatives.

As a person who had earned a PHD in history, Du Bois understood that the problem of the black man was much broader than just being a “labourer”. He argued that Washington preached “a gospel of work and money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life.”

As a person who had attained liberal education, Du Bois argued that the mere attainment of vocational training was not enough to nurture leaders willing to bid defiance to segregation and discrimination. He called Washington’s speech the Atlanta Compromise and argued that the speech made Washington the leader of his race by the choice of whites.

In trying to bring a better comprehensive understanding of the black man in America, DU Bois came up with the concept of ‘double consciousnesses’ and ‘the veil.’ The term double consciousness was first used in an Atlantic Monthly titled “Strivings of the Negro People” in 1897. It was later published in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 under the title “Of Spiritual Strivings”. Du Bois describes double consciousness as:

“…….. a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face” (2-3).

On ‘the veil’ Du Bois refers to first the literal darker skin of blacks, which is a physical demarcation of difference from whiteness. It also suggests white people’s lack of clarity to see blacks as “true” Americans and lastly the veil refers to blacks’ lack of clarity to see themselves outside of what white America describes and prescribes for them.

In analyzing Du Bois’ background, it was inevitable for him not to conceptualize the black man’s problem for a socio-cultural perspective as a person who had studied history and anthropology. However, as a former slave, Washington felt that blacks had to be empowered with vocational skills needed for immediate survival after being freed from slavery.

While there were many points of contention between Washington and Du Bois, there were various areas of convergence. Both were vigorously opposed to lynching and opposed racially motivated violence. While Washington may have stressed industrial education over liberal arts, he acknowledged their importance.

Thus on page 203, Washington says: “I explained that my theory of education for the Negro would not, for example, confine him for all time to farm life – to the production of the best and the most sweet potatoes – but that, if he succeeded in this line of industry, he could lay the foundations upon which his children and grandchildren could grow to higher and more important things in life.”

Du Bois on the other hand, greatly appreciated and acknowledged many of Washington’s accomplishments. It is not in doubt that while the two men can be criticized on many various aspects, they were the key figures in the advancement of African-Americans.

What then separated their strategies and philosophies had more to do with their upbringing and education than any fundamental personality differences. Washington’s reconciliatory approach stemmed from the stark realization of the sheer poverty and desperateness of thousands of freed blacks who needed the benevolence of the privileged whites to curve a niche in the American society. Du Bois’s radical stance was as a result of the integrated society he grew up in which instilled the belief that blacks could equally make their mark in society through granting of political and civil rights.

Share This: