Two Views on African American Advancement
The extract written by Dubois is clearly intended as a reply and a riposte to Washington’s account of his Atlanta Exposition Address and the responses to it. Indeed, he systematically attacks Washington’s ideas and puts forward a radically different vision of how African Americans should be educated and how their political and social integration should proceed.
Overall I feel that Dubois is fair to Washington. He calls him “ a useful and earnest man” (Dubois, 774) and states that in the North of the United States the initial reaction to Washington’s Exposition Address was, in some African American circles, that Washington’s ideas on education “ overlooked certain true elements of manhood, and that his educational programme was unnecessarily narrow (Dubois, 768). Dubois has the honesty to admit that some of this criticism was due to “ mere envy; the disappointment of displaced demagogues and the spite of narrow minds” (Dubois, 769) – which is a clever rhetorical device because it suggests that Dubois himself is not motivated by envy, but by a genuine intellectual disagreement with Washington.
Dubois does not disagree with the ideas and principles that Washington expounds and that he put into practice at the Tuskegee Institute; what he disagrees with is the idea that these principles and ideas be applied to all African Americans, regardless of their intellectual abilities and talents. He also feels that the educational programme advocated by Washington “ practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races” (Dubois, 772) and politically delays the moment at which African Americans can enjoy full civil and political rights. Educationally, Dubois admits that “ Work and Money” are served well by Washington’s ideas, but he cannot see how such a practical and utilitarian education will help to develop what he calls “ exceptional men” (Dubois, 773).
Dubois is fully aware of Washington’s fame and the widespread approval of his ideas by white America, and so he is careful to frame his attack on Washington’s ideas in careful language. He states that “ the hushing of criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing (Dubois, 769), thus cleverly positioning himself as an honest opponent and he goes on to argue that
Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched – criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society (Dubois, 769).
Dubois’s central argument turns on democracy. He acknowledges that Washington “ is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners” (Dubois, 773), but feels passionately that without “ the right of suffrage” – the right to vote – that they will have no real stake in the society they live in and will be reduced to “ industrial slavery and civic death” (Dubois, 775). In other words, despite Washington’s conviction that African Americans should show self-respect, Dubois argues that they can feel no real self-respect, while the South denies them civic and political rights, and insists on segregation.
I find Dubois’s extract much more convincing as an argument. Washington tends to talk about himself and the honors and accolades he has received. Dubois displays a broader sense of history by relating the current debate about African American society to earlier struggles of African Americans to be free or to achieve equality, mentioning earlier famous African Americnas by name. Washington’s focus is narrowly on himself, on the educational ideas propounded by the Tuskegee Institute and on the South; Dubois brings a national and historical perspective. I think the one area of Washington’s extract that Dubois ignores is the pace of change in the South. Washington believes that African Americans must be patient, that “ the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to” (Washington, 676). In this, however, if we look at history Washington was completely wrong: it took another six decades and the struggle of the Civil Rights movement to achieve what Dubois was insisting upon in 1903.
Dubois, W. E. B., 1903. “ III. Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” from The Souls of Black Folk, pages 766 – 777 in
Washington, Booker T., 1901. “ Chapter IV. The Atlanta Exposition Address” from Up from Slavery, pages 668 – 677 in