(W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington)
I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email offered for free by the Academy of American Poets. It’s nice to wake up to a poem before you start dealing with your to-do lists and putting out the various fires of everyday life.
During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This was the poem for today (first published in 1909) by Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:
’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead For selling and for buying When yesterday we said: “Away With all good things but dying.” The world’s ago, and we’re agog To have our first brief inning; So let’s away through surge and fog However slight the winning. What deeds have sprung from plow and pick! What bank-rolls from tomatoes! No dainty crop of rhetoric Can match one of potatoes. Ye orators of point and pith, Who force the world to heed you, What skeletons you’ll journey with Ere it is forced to feed you. A little gold won’t mar our grace, A little ease our glory. This world’s a better biding place When money clinks its story.
Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave,
believed that it was economic independence and the ability to show themselves as productive members of society that would eventually lead blacks to true equality, and that they should for the time being set aside any demands for civil rights. These ideas formed the essence of a speech he delivered to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. There and elsewhere, his ideas were readily accepted by both blacks who believed in the practical rationality of his approach, and whites who were more than happy to defer any real discussion of social and political equality for blacks to a later date. It was, however, referred to pejoratively as the “Atlanta Compromise” by its critics. And among them was W.E.B. Du Bois. . . .
By the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were the two most influential black men in the country. Washington’s conciliatory approach to civil rights had made him adept at fundraising for his Tuskegee Institute, as well as for other black organizations, and had also endeared him to the white establishment, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who often consulted him regarding all matters black.
Do you think the poet, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr., agrees with Washington, or challenges him?
On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, an excerpt from whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk you have read, believed that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights came first.
At the time [the turn of the twentieth century]. the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.
In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.
Read the blog post “Race, Class, Art, and Consumption” and tell me what you think. Do you think the Carters are advancing the Du Bois or the Washington model?
It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music.