A Small Nation Of People: W. E. B. Du Bois And African American Portraits Of Progress, by Lewis, David Levering
- ISBN: 9780060817565 | 0060817569
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 10/1/2005
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W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress
A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and Black Americans at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
by David Levering Lewis
The African American newspaper the Colored American brought good news in July 1900: "Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois sailed this week for Europe." The stylish young professor -- who in Paris would pose in morning coat and top hat -- was sailing from New York with several trunks filled with materials for the Exhibit of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition, a world's fair celebrating the close of the nineteenth century. He left his wife, Nina, five months pregnant, in Atlanta, where Du Bois taught at the university. He recalled being "threatened with nervous prostration" after finishing his part of the Negro Exhibit and having "little money left to buy passage to Paris, nor was there a cabin left for sale." Knowing well that the exhibit would fail without him, he took steerage.
Du Bois had been enlisted to participate in the Exhibit of American Negroes at the Paris Exposition by his friend Thomas Junius Calloway. When they were undergraduates together at Fisk University, Du Bois described Calloway as carrying himself with the distinction of a United States senator. Tom Calloway was a man of studious purpose and racial pride whose virtues proved singularly helpful in the years ahead to the undertakings of Du Bois, his even more studious and racially focused classmate. Together they had run the Fisk Herald, the oldest of the Negro college magazines, with Du Bois as managing editor in 1887 and Calloway as business manager. When Du Bois, fresh from graduate study at the University of Berlin, applied to several institutions for a teaching position in the summer of 1894, he listed good friend Calloway, now principal of Mississippi's Alcorn College, as one of his references. Appointed one of the state commissioners for the Atlanta and Cotton States Exposition of 1895, Calloway became a valued lieutenant of Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute, whose oration at the Atlanta Exposition that year excited the nation. Washington called for whites in the South to allow blacks gradual economic progress in agriculture and business, in exchange for the latter's virtual surrender of the right to vote and social equality. His speech became known as the Atlanta Compromise.
At the turn of the century, Washington was the most influential man of color in America. In his congratulatory telegram to the Tuskegee educator on his speech, Du Bois doubtless spoke as much for himself as for Calloway in stating that Washington's accommodationist message to the white South was "a word fitly spoken." Two years later, Calloway accepted the position of assistant principal of Tuskegee. Publication of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, the book that would crystallize fierce antagonisms between the followers of Washington and Du Bois, was a half dozen years in the future.
The brief interval between the Atlanta Exposition of 1895 and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 was one of relative harmony and collaboration within the emergent Negro leadership class, in both the North and the South. The initial unease experienced by a tiny, mainly Northern minority upon reading Dr. Washington's race-relations prescriptions would simmer slowly at first as the century turned, erupting as full-blown, widespread skepticism only in the decade after the appearance of The Souls of Black Folk. Yet, even then, Du Bois himself would betray an astonishingly elitist indulgence of the franchise restrictions imposed by the states of the former Confederacy upon the black and white poor alike. "The alternative thus offered the nation," he wrote in Souls, "was not between full and restricted Negro suffrage; else every sensible man, black and white, would easily have chosen the latter." If Booker Washington and his disciples wagered their souls that the right to vote could be honorably traded for the privilege of black prosperity in the South, Du Bois and his allies defended the franchise not as a universal right but as a class privilege essential to promoting the highest civic virtue above, as well as below, the Mason-Dixon Line. That both formulas were tragically defective as solutions to the so-called race problem would lead to the paradox that the dominant Washington group and the Du Boisian minority blamed each other for the dismal state of race relations that was caused primarily by white America.
In the winter of 1899, however, when Thomas Calloway sent an appeal to leaders of the race to lend their support for a Negro exhibit at the Paris Exposition, all shades of opinion united in positive response. The letter perfectly exemplified the citizenship ideals of its recipients: men and women like Archibald Grimke, Mary Terrell, and Monroe Trotter, who thought of themselves first as Americans, who merely happened to be dark-skinned. They were people who preferred to conceive of identity in terms of nation rather than race. "The signs of the times are hopeful in every way for all our citizens regardless of race," trumpeted the Colored American, a weekly newspaper published in Washington, D.C., on November 24, 1900. Indeed, many, if not most, would come reluctantly to embrace the dichotomy of racial identity famously postulated by Du Bois when he wrote of an everlasting "two-ness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body."
Not until the time when all hope of political rights and social equality had been definitively foreclosed in the second decade of the twentieth century (the "nadir," as the era would be called) did Calloway and other leading black Americans think of themselves as Negroes first. Deploring "as deeply as any other member of my race the matter of drawing the color line at any time where it is not already drawn by the other race," Calloway in his letter to influential blacks eloquently justified the exceptional reasons for a Negro pavilion at the Paris Exposition ...A Small Nation of People
W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress. Copyright © by David Lewis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress by David Levering Lewis, Deborah Willis
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