Sunday, February 23, 2014

W.E.B Du Bois: Of The Color Line, the Class Line, and a Boyhood in Western Massachusetts

Photo by Ruth Kraut, 2010
To close out Black History Month,* I thought I'd share some thoughts I had about a visit I made a few summers ago to the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in western Massachusetts. Before that, I knew about Du Bois' as a wonderful thinker. I had read--more than once--his book The Souls of Black Folk, in which he wrote that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." [Read the Souls of Black Folk online here, check it out from the library, or invest in a copy!]

Photo by Ruth Kraut, 2010
I did not realize, until I passed this historic site, and stopped to visit, that Du Bois had graduated from the mostly white high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I wonder how that experience affected his thinking about education?

In Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois spends some time talking about the Talented Tenth, the idea that an elite group of intellectually-motivated black students should be encouraged in intellectual pursuits.

In Chapter 3 of Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois also takes on the legacy of Booker T. Washington, who promoted the idea of industrial/trade education for the majority of black students.

Photo by Ruth Kraut, 2010
Photo by Ruth Kraut, 2010. Part of the caption here reads,
"Violence is black children going to school for 12 years
and receiving 5 years of education."
Taken together, these two trains of thought--W.E.B. Du Bois' Talented Tenth on the one hand, and Booker T. Washington's belief in trade education on the other hand, created--and continue to elucidate--our understanding of education for people of color today.

Yet as I once heard Ted Shaw, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund say (paraphrasing here, I wasn't taking notes at this speech! but I think I found an account of the speech here): "If the issue of the 20th century was the color line, the issue of the 21st century is likely to be the class line."

According to this account, Shaw also commented that: "Race has always masked class differences in the United States. . . Why are educational opportunities at the best universities and colleges so limited? . . .
Shaw described the tracking, sorting and labeling of young students by ability as 'diabolical.'"

Are we--should we be--training students to be automatons, cogs in an industrial machine? Or are we--should we be--training students to be intellectual leaders? And are those our only choices? I find echoes of these discussions in the arguments around the narrowing of the curriculum that is in part caused by high-stakes standardized testing and the reduction of the arts in public schools.

I'll close with this excerpt from Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 1, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, because in this excerpt Du Bois writes of his time in the western Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains:
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.
*As it happens, I have been thinking about writing this post since I took these pictures in the summer of 2010, and because of Black History Month I decided that I should finish the post now. As I was getting ready to hit the "publish" button, I came across something that gave me Du Bois' birthdate--February 23, 1868. And the date of today's post? February 23, 2014. Today is, in fact, the 146th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois. He died in Accra, Ghana (in self-imposed exile!), the day before the 1963 March on Washington. So much of what Du Bois wrote, over 100 years ago, is still relevant now. And that's why, if you haven't yet picked up and read the Souls of Black Folk, I'd recommend you put it on your "short list" of books to read in 2014. 

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