Let's hear from Booker and W.E.B.

February 22, 1997|By Harold Jackson

AS ANOTHER African-American History Month prepares to fade into, well, history, let me take this opportunity to do what some expect of black newspaper columnists each February -- write about black history.

Actually, we write about it almost whenever we want. But why disappoint people by failing to acknowledge the 28-day frenzy of those publications that show little regard for African-Americans of historical significance during the other 11 months?

Besides, I'll use any excuse to talk about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The differing race-relations philosophies of those two black men set the stage for the modern civil-rights movement, the subsequent age of affirmative action and the current emphasis on self-reliance.

Today's ''workfare'' strategies are steeped in the logic of Washington, who built Tuskegee Institute on the premise that former slaves could achieve equality only by making themselves valuable as working contributors to American commerce. But it's less work to let Washington speak for himself. In his 1901 autobiography, ''Up From Slavery,'' he eschewed what we now call affirmative action: ''I have always been made sad when I have heard members of any race claiming rights and privileges, or certain badges of distinction, on the ground simply that they were members of this or that race, regardless of their individual worth or attainments. I have been made to feel sad for such persons because I am conscious of the fact that mere connection with what is known as a superior race will not permanently carry an individual forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior race will not finally hold an individual back if he possesses intrinsic, individual merit.''

Tuskegee students were required to learn an agricultural or industrial trade. ''The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race,'' said Washington.

In his 1895 address at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, he said of blacks and whites, ''In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.''

Social equality

This seemed an admission of defeat to Du Bois and others who were vigorous in their pursuit of social equality and voting rights for blacks and believed Washington wrong to disparage the aspirations of those descendants of slaves who had proved themselves capable of higher education.

In a 1901 essay that later became the crux of his 1903 book, ''The Souls of Black Folk,'' Dubois chastised Washington: ''So far as Mr. Washington preaches thrift, patience and industrial training for the masses, we must hold up our hands and strive with him. . . . But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds -- so far as he, the South, or the nation does this -- we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them.''

Somebody say, right on!

We must remember, though, that Du Bois spoke as a college-educated man of color born of free parents after the Civil War in fairly tolerant Massachusetts.

Washington's speeches reflected both his familiarity with subservience as a former slave and the realities he faced in a post-Civil War South that had since birthed the Ku Klux Klan. He said as much as he believed white folks could stand to hear from a black man, a black man who depended on white benevolence to keep Tuskegee alive. Those who sound like him today have their own reasons.

=1 Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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