Of the Coming of WEB Du Bois

Author’s note: This part of my unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

WEB Du Bois clearly understood that journalistic portrayals of African Americans were drenched in racism, and that black journalists had an obligation to serve as ”the voices of the black nation.” In a 1943 article, he argued that black journalists were needed because,

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

In “Of the Black Belt,” Du Bois is a tour guide leading us into the real South behind the bougainvillea-and-mint-julep facade. From the beginning, we know that our guide is black  – we are reminded that we must travel in the Jim Crow car. The stage is set by a panoramic view of the region’s geography (“the stretch of pines and clay”) and history – from the time of the De Soto and the conquistadors, to “where Sam Hose was crucified.”(Du Bois, 103)

That Du Bois was playing to a white readership is also clear — at various points, he assumes his imaginary white reader’s point of view, and then carefully challenges what he sees as commonly held misconceptions. His challenges must be framed carefully for several reasons: they must conform to his evidence; he can not stray too far beyond his own Victorian sensibilities and finally, an intemperate tone risks not only alienating his white readers, but could precipitate racial violence.

The titles and epigrams of the two chapters are noteworthy for their ironic allusions. According to David Blight, The Black Belt referred both to the density of its black population and to Booker T. Washington’s description of its rich dark soil. (Du Bois, 208) While it would have been common to think of a black region as something evil and forbidding, Du Bois opens with haunting lines from the Song of Solomon: I am black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem –“[italics mine]. (Du Bois, 103.) Du Bois’ use of the phrase also connotes a belt holds together the economies of the North and South, the past and the present.

Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece” borrows its title from the myth of Jason, who sets out in search of a golden ram’s fleece that he believes belongs to his family. Du Bois may be suggesting that those who are striving for a share of the region’s wealth – whether dispossessed plantation owner, Northern investor, or struggling black peasant – is seeking, against great odds, to recover what each sees as a birthright. However, because poetic dissection of the region’s economy gives particular attention to the grinding exploitation and racist belief system that spawned and sustained sharecropping and peonage, it is clear that to Du Bois’ thinking, the black peasantry is the heir denied.

For Du Bois, Dougherty County  —  “The Egypt of the Confederacy” –is representative of life throughout the “New South” of that day, “from Carolina to Texas across that Black and human sea. ” (Du Bois, 117) At the dawn of the last century, Dougherty County was a faded jewel in the crown of King Cotton – “the shadow of a marvelous dream.” (Du Bois, 107) It was a land of deserted plantations with nameless Northern owners, of dogged black farmers and desolate white widows, of families broken by death, desertion, desperation and despair. Cotton prices had been falling steadily during the last 40 years of the 19th century. Natural disasters, racism and economic strife fomented lynching, demagoguery and mass emigration to southern port cities and northern factory towns.

Implicitly, Du Bois’ compact and comprehensive description rebutted the dominant racial mythology of the period. This was the period in American history now known as the Nadir; in those days, it was commonly referred to as the Redemption. Jim Crow segregation was becoming entrenched, both in law and custom. Mainstream academic, popular and religious discourse characterized blacks as “beasts” (Carroll) who had contributed nothing to civilization (Hegel) and who could never be more than “half-devil and half-child.” (Kipling) No less an authority than New Jersey governor, future president and renowned historian Woodrow Wilson had portrayed the Civil War as a tragic fight between white brothers, and the Confederacy had become known as the noble Lost Cause. (Griffith)

Against this backdrop, Du Bois holds up the people of Dougherty County – taking care to present them as rounded characters, not caricatures. On a Saturday afternoon, he tells us, the county seat of Albany is filled with  “black, sturdy, uncouth country folk, good-natured and simple, talkative to a degree, and yet far more silent and brooding than the crowds of the Rhine-pfalz of Naples or Cracow.” (Du Bois 105)

We meet Benton, “an intelligent yellow man with a good sized family” who “might be well to do they say, but he carouses too much in Albany.” (Du Bois, 106) We see black tenant farmers whose endless toil will never satisfy the absentee landlord whose hand “stretches out of the gray distance to collect the rack-rent remorselessly, and so the land is uncared-for and poor. Only black tenants can stand such a system, and they only can because they must.” (Du Bois 107)

There were churches and schools that vary from “log-huts” to “a great whitewashed barn of a thing that seats 500.” (Du Bois 108) Mutual aid societies “to care for the sick and bury the dead” were flourishing.

Beyond and over everything, though, there is debt. “[T]he merchants are in debt to the wholesalers, the planters are in debt to the merchants, the tenants owe the planters, and the laborers bend beneath the burden of it all.” (Du Bois, 112)

Here and there, Du Bois meets a black landowner such as “gaunt, dull-black Jackson,” owner of 100 acres, who declares, “I says, ‘Look up!’ If you don’t look up you can’t get up.” (Du Bois, 112)

At the opposite extreme, he describes an encounter with a dispirited “big red-eyed black” who asks for news about the rumored police killing of a black boy in Albany, then adds:  “Let a white man touch me, and he dies; I don’t boast this — I don’t say it around loud or before the children, — but I mean it. …” (Du Bois, 114)

But Du Bois gives us much more than anecdotes. He gives us analysis, as in his advancement of the four reasons for the ragged homes in which the blacks live:

1.      The slavery-era tradition of giving blacks the worse housing on a plantation had persisted in the post-bellum era.

2.      The blacks make no demands for better housing.

3.      Unenlightened landlords fail to invest in proper maintenance.

4.      Harsh conditions have forced many blacks off the farm (Du Bois, 119-20)

He also gives us data – on marriage rates, economic classes, and population density. We get a precise breakdown of the class structure that is reminiscent of The Philadelphia Negro, which included a similar enumeration. Here, too, are the talented tenth (“the well-to-do and the best of the laborers”) and something like an incorrigible ‘submerged tenth’ (“at least nine percent are thoroughly lewd and vicious.” (Du Bois, 121)

Dougherty County, in short, is a place in which possibility seems inextricably yoked to pain, where fairness seems elusive, and where the pluckiest individuals find themselves buffeted by cruel circumstance.

“Honest and careful study” of black life, Du Bois is saying, required acknowledgment of this fundamental unfairness. It also required recognition of the full range of black humanity, and the development of its full potential through investments in higher education and the conferring of civil rights. Most importantly, it required recognition of human interdependence. “So the  Negro forms to-day one of the chief figures in a great world  industry, and this for its own sake, makes the field-hands of the cotton industry worth studying.” (Du Bois,118)

As progressive as Du Bois’ vision was for its time, his Victorian sensibilities infect his reporting with class bias and anti-Semitism. Both prejudices reflect blind spots in Du Bois’ thinking and interpretation of his own life experience.

First, Du Bois’ concept of mutuality draws upon Hegel’s idea that both master and slave could only attain true self-understanding by seeing themselves as they are seen by each other. [7] As with his acceptance of Hegel’s assertion that Africa and her progeny had yet to contribute to history, Du Bois’ position implied an acceptance of race, class and culture hierarchies that he would later reject.

Second, Du Bois makes several casual references to Jews as avaricious landowners that led to questions about whether he was anti-Jewish. In “Of the Black Belt,” he alleges that “[t]he Jew is the heir of the slave-baron in Dougherty;”(Du Bois 112)and that “[O]nly a Yankee or a Jew could squeeze more blood from debt-cursed tenants.”(Du Bois, 113)

In a note written for but not used in the 1953 edition, Du Bois acknowledged that the references “[illustrate] how easily one slips into unconscious condemnation of a whole group.” (Du Bois, 210) Du Bois’ use of language is particularly ironic in light of the fact that as a student in Europe, he sometimes experienced the prejudices of people who took him to be either a Jew or a Gypsy, and he saw bigotry visited upon people who were members of those groups. (Lewis, p.141)

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Author’s note: This part of an unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

“‘[T]he sheriff came and took my mule and corn and furniture —

‘Furniture?’ I asked; ‘but furniture is exempt from seizure by law.

‘Well, he took it just the same,’ said the hard-faced man.'”

— WEB Du Bois in Dougherty County, Georgia

Of the Black Belt,” Souls of Black Folk, 1903.’

“It’s alright now/

alright now/

I gave it over to Jesus/

And it’s alright now.”

— sung at St. Mary’s Holiness Church in Hamlet, North Carolina, May, 2002

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Before he became a scholar, activist and would-be Bismarck of his race, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a journalist. As a teenager in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, young Willie was a correspondent for the New York Globe, Freeman and Springfield Republican; at Fisk; he edited the school newspaper. After two commercially unsuccessful attempts to create his own journal of news and opinion, his Crisis magazine would be integral to the birthing of the modern civil rights coalition as well as the Harlem artistic movement of the 1920s.  After both of his departures from the NAACP, in 1934 and 1948, he became a regular contributor to several black and later, radical news organs.

The Souls of Black Folk is suffused with the best journalistic sensibilities: vivid description, pithy characterization, abundant but carefully chosen detail, and evocative narration. This, along with its seminal influence on racial thought, explains why the faculty of New York University gave Souls and his Crisis columns on race two separate spots on its list of the 100 best works of journalism of the 20th century. (NYU) Despite this, and the growing scholarly attention to Du Bois’ writings, the consideration of his work as journalism has been slight. Most of the attention that has been accorded has gone, understandably, to study of The Crisis.

Du Bois’ reporting was part of an evidentiary brief that, if heeded, would lead to greater support for the policies he advocated for black advancement: fair wages, rents and opportunities for land ownership investment in higher education, and physical safety. In using journalism as one of his weapons, he seems to have understood what media scholar Michael Schudson meant when he declared of 20th century reporting,

“…[T]he power of the media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in its power to provide the forms in which the declarations appear. News in a newspaper … has a relationship with the ‘real world,’ not only in content, but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any conversation at all.” (Lule)

This essay will consider two journalistic essays in Souls of Black Folk. Particular attention will be given to what Du Bois saw as the proper aim of journalism, and the proper role of the black journalist. The power of Du Bois’ journalism in Souls lies in the specificity with which he placed black life in the context of the social and historical forces that shaped its essential character and defined its structures of opportunity. We get a glimpse of his nascent ability to draw out the multiplicative ways in which African Americans adapted to and agitated against their oppression. However, when viewed in terms of the evolution of racial discourse however, it may be that the most profound effect of Du Bois’ journalism was his ability to demonstrate the centrality of black labor, black culture and black action to American prosperity, identity and well-being. Ironically, we shall see that it is this example that contemporary African American journalists find themselves most challenged to follow.

In Souls, Du Bois the reporter is most evident in Chapters Seven and Eight, “Of the Black Belt” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece.” Both chapters are portraits of Dougherty County, Georgia. As works of journalism, they presage what Tom Wolfe preciously called the New Journalism of the 1960s — the blending of observation, contextual data and narrative technique. There is, however, another way in which the work has contemporary resonance: as a black journalist whose audience and markets crossed racial lines, Du Bois had to grapple with an oppressive and intricate racial ideology that constrained and discounted not only about such southern blacks as were found in Dougherty County, but also  educated northern blacks as himself.

Du Bois had to convince his readers that he was an authoritative interpreter of African American experience – a task made more difficult by the fact that his objective was to supplant what his readers thought they know about his subject. His task was complicated by several unique factors. One the one hand, he had to contend with those who would argue that Du Bois’ mixed racial background made him incapable of understanding the souls of real black folk. On the other, Du Bois faced the personal challenge of understanding people whose skin tones resembled his or his family members, but whose lives under Reconstruction and Jim Crow differed radically from his comparatively Edenic boyhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Finally, he had to contend with emerging standards both of scholarship and of journalism that discounted traditional rhetorical strategies employed by earlier black writers, such as appeals to emotion, biblical authority and first-person narratives.

If he faced unique challenges, Du Bois was also unique in the resources that he brought to the task of destroying and rebuilding the foundations of racial discourse. He could rely not only on his youthful reporting experience, expansive knowledge base and considerable literary gifts, but also the data collection that he was beginning to amass through his work for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and his direction of the Atlanta University studies. (Lewis, Biography, p. 195) Du Bois was a pioneer in the emerging field of empirical sociology, and the AU studies were part of his lifelong effort to build a comprehensive data portrait of every imaginable aspect of black life — from schooling to economic development to religion and family life. He had invented many of the fields’ methods of data collection and analysis during his first major sociological project, The Philadelphia Negro — among other things, he personally interviewed 3000 black residents of Philadelphia’s seventh ward.

According to Lewis, his principal biographer, Du Bois bragged that his knowledge came from having “lived with the colored people, joined their social life, and visited their homes.” He was particularly scornful of the “car-window sociologist,,, the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting a few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unraveling the snarl of centuries….” (Souls, p. 128) In other words, he practiced immersive reporting long before there was a name for it.

Above all, Du Bois struggled to hold to his sense of personal and racial mission. As one of a small number of African Americans who had access to an elite education, Du Bois believed fervently that the future of the race depended on the disciplined, clear-eyed leadership of liberally educated men and women. He had declared, early on, his intention to be one of those leaders. On his 25th birthday, alone in his graduate student quarters at the University of Berlin, Du Bois wrote in his journal, “These are my plans: To make a name in science, to make a name in literature, and thus to raise my race.” (Lewis, Biography, p. 135)

Du Bois was not alone in his efforts to expose the fetid underside of American industrial development. This was, after all, the era of combat between the muckraking journalists and the robber barons. Ida Wells had published her anti-lynching expose, The Red Record. Lincoln Steffens was exposing The Shame of the Cities. Ida Tarbell was publishing her voluminous analysis of Standard Oil.

In fact, Tarbell’s disclosures specifically motivated the Rockefellers to disburse millions to establish the General Education Board (GEB) and the Southern Education Board (SEB) — two foundations that, in the absence of federal involvement in public education, would dominate African American education policy at all levels for decades to come. (Lewis 265-268) Emphasizing ”scientific philanthropy,” the GEB directed most of its funding to industrial and moral education programs at schools such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The GEB was composed of some of the most powerful men in America, so their positions on black education limned the boundaries of mainstream thinking on race.

Freedom of the Press, part 1: Ideals and Ideas

These slides accompany an assigned reading of John Milton’s Aeropagitica for my Race, Gender and News class.  My goal is to demonstrate that the ideals underlying the libertarian model of the press contain embedded assumptions about human nature that ensured unequal access to the marketplace of ideas.
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