The Road to Character

Liberty & Equality


W. E. B. Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (our family visited his birthsite there last year) where he did not experience the racial discrimination common in other places in the country.  When he did later in life it was such a shock to him.  Gary Dorrien writes of the importance of Congregationalism in Du Bois development:

New England Puritanism pressed deep into his mind, persuading Du Bois that truth is a moral absolute transcending mere data.  Though Du Bois shucked off New England theism after he got to college, he never relinquished its belief that liberty is the conformity of one's will to moral duty.

Even as a young man Du Bois experienced a sense of call--"I rejoice as a strong man to run a race, and I am strong--is it egotism--is it assurance--or is it the silent call of the world spirit that makes me feel that I am royal and that beneath my scepter a world of kings shall bow."

Dorrien points out two of Du Bois's early contributions to sociology--he discussed "the moral corruption of the nation in its hallowed constitutional beginning" and he "conceived the color line in international terms."  

Du Bois's overriding question was "What  does it feel like to be treated as a problem?"  Dorrien writes that Du Bois wanted a Hegelian synthesis of what he had gained from black and white experience.  He writes, "Du Bois had a vision of black and white joining together to create a nation based on human equality and freedom."

The radical change for Du Bois came when he moved to Atlanta and experienced "naked hostility."  Dorrien writes, "Du Bois could not produce calm social science when African Americans were being brutalized and lynched."  And then personal tragedy struck.  His two-year-old son became ill and no white physician would treat him.  There were only three black physicians in Atlanta and Du Bois was unsuccessful in reaching.  The boy died before he could be treated.

Du Bois was not initially a critic of Booker T. Washington's.  Dorrien writes, "Du Bois recognized that Washington walked a daily tightrope merely to survive in Alabama, and he knew that Washington was not as accommodating as his cagey speeches to white audiences."  What ultimately led him to criticize Washington was the latter's influence. 

Du Bois believed that Up from Slavery was not the book that African Americans needed to survive the upsurge of lynching and repression, and he shuddered at Washington's growing eminence. The latter factor was decisive.  It was terrible enough that blacks were terrorized and oppressed.  Even worse was that violent white repression was becoming taken for granted, so normalized that white politicians and clergy did not feel compelled to apologize for it.  Du Bois saw it happening in Atlanta.  He despaired that colleagues treated Washington as the final word on racial politics.  The tyranny of Bookerism was degrading and suffocating; Du Bois later recalled, "Things came to such a pass that when any Negro complained or advocated a course of action, he was silenced with the remark that Mr. Washington did not agree with this."  So Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk.

 My previous post in this series was on Alexander Crummell and his christology and his influence upon Du Bois.


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