“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.
Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.
From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.
So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.
Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?
Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia?
Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”
W.E.B. Dubois, The Soul of Black Folk (1903)
I came across the above while reading the comments to THIS fantastic article in prospect. Dr W.E.B. DuBois was a contemporary of my great-great-grandmother (Mattie Lawrence, one of the first Fisk Jubilee Singers) and, as well as graduating from both Fisk and Harvard, wrote some incredible, prophetic treatises on civil rights for black Americans, was an activist, sociologist, journalist and much more. The Wikipedia piece on him goes into loads of detail and is well worth reading.
He had a mammoth falling-out with Marcus Garvey. As far as I can make out, the ideological disagreement was over DuBois believing that African Americans could live equally with white people. DuBois said blacks have a “Double-Conscious” mind in which they have to know when to act “white” and when to act “black”. Garvey took issue with the idea that anyone should have to assimilate or “fit-in” in the first place.
It wasn’t that gentlemanly a disagreement. DuBois, fearing Garvey would undermine is efforts towards black rights, said: “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.”
Garvey suspected DuBois was prejudiced against him because he was a Caribbean native with darker skin. DuBois once described Marcus Garvey as “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head.” Garvey, in return, called DuBois “purely and simply a white man’s nigger” and “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro … a mulatto … a monstrosity.”
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t talk much afterwards.
It’s astonishing, writing this in London, watching people of all races walking around in the street outside – and making up the small team I work and play with here – that the fathers of civil rights, lionised by poets and politicians alike, should talk about one another that way. Astonishing and a little sad. Perhaps it was just symptomatic of the times, and their language is out of context in my modern, politically-corrected lexicon. Most conversations I have about civil rights and race are exactly that – conversations. I wouldn’t be able to do that had it not been for the likes of Garvey and DuBois. Given the scale of the fight for equality before them, and the – to my mind at least – utterly unimaginable unfairness of daily life and the basic rights they were fighting for, the fire and passion, the sardonic anger of that first quote, are more than understandable.
And, as promised, some words from W.E.B. DuBois (1868 – 1963):
It is 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.
To stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires.
When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books You will be reading meanings.
If there is anybody in this land who thoroughly believes that the meek shall inherit the earth they have not often let their presence be known.
The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression.