Home > Uncategorized > Booker T is like Obama, Du Bois like T. S. Eliot

Booker T is like Obama, Du Bois like T. S. Eliot

I presume that all knowledgable readers will agree with historian John H. Bracey’s opinion that both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were doing their best at addressing the politics of that period of black disfranchisement that Rayford Logan called “the nadir,” and that they behaved heroically in a grim and terrifying moment in history.  Fair enough and I agree.  Even the dean of Marxist historians, Eric Foner, in his Give Me Liberty, allows that Washington’s undeniable support in the black community “arose from a widespread sense that in the world of the late nineteenth century, frontal assaults on white power were impossible and that blacks should concentrate on building up their segregated communities.”

This trite-but-true doctrine, that both leaders were doing their best with the limited means available to them has been made repeatedly, and indeed tediously, but it must be added that Booker T had an agenda more practical, and more laden with implicit political compromise than that of Du Bois.  Booker T. Washington’s historical task was the precursor of Barrack Obama’s, and fraught with the same pitfalls.  Washington’s responsibility was not with the creation of a literary, artistic or intellectual tradition, and neither is Barrack Obama’s.

Du Bois’s project was as undoubtedly political as T. S. Eliot’s, but as did Eliot’s, his ambitions included an additional layer that neither Booker T Washington, in his day, nor Barack Obama in his, have had the luxury of addressing.  Du Bois assumed an agenda in the realm of abstract artistic and intellectual endeavor, a merger of folkish values with elite literary and intellectual ideals.  This involved a concept of the interdependability of high and low culture, and of peasant and proletarian culture which would serve as the roots and nourishment of the talented tenth, who would be both leaders of and servants to the masses.  For this conception of the interaction of high and low culture, he was indebted to Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Germany’s pioneering cultural linguists, but Du Bois was an independent trail-blazer in his own right, and probably more comparable to Richard Wagner as a literary theorist, and innovator in the arts.

Du Bois, between 1896 and 1934, resembled Tony Morrison and Cornel West, in that he merged, and simultaneously represented folk traditions to fashion an elite literary and “high-cultural” agenda.  His concerns as a writer and intellectual leader, were luxuries that few political leaders believe they can afford.  Like Alexander Crummell, Du Bois felt that abstract intellectual activity was an important aspect of black civilization.  Booker T. Washington, who has notably been called, “builder of a civilization,” in an important early biography by Emmet J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe, saw “civilization” as necessarily founded on Yankee Protestantism and industrial education.  Crummell certainly never denied these two building blocks, nor in any practical sense, did Du Bois, but they also saw the immediate necessity of non-material ideals.  In all fairness, Booker T Washington was not a pure materialist, either.  He admitted that what Crummell called “Civilization” and what Du Bois called the “civilizing message,” must go hand in hand with what Washington called “Character Building,” and what Crummell called, “Character, the Great Thing.”

But Booker T was primarily focused on confronting the realities of administering and economically sustaining a bricks and mortar institution, just as Barack Obama clearly has his own bricks and mortar concerns.   Everyone knows, there is a difference between an institution such as the government of the United States of America, and the Tuskegee Machine.   The similarities exist only in that both involve practical politics and economics on the national and international stages, although the relative sizes and impacts are oceans apart.

Du Bois, in addition to being “Propagandist of the Negro Protest,” had a literary and “high-cultural” agenda, and literary art meant little to BTW, who did not care about writing a book like Darkwater.   In fact, it obviously meant little to him that his major works were all secretly ghostwritten.   For Du Bois, composing a poem like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” was a matter inseparable from his personality, and affecting the depths of his soul, just as such a matter was fundamental to Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and T. S. Eliot.  And Du Bois can bear comparison to any of these authors, according to my literary methodology, on which I shall not elaborate, due to a lack of any observable demand.

If Du Bois were to come back, I don’t know if he would be capable of doing what Obama is doing, while I think Booker T would be able to handle the task, at least as well.

Bettye Collier-Thomas, Darlene Clark Hine, and others have made the indisputable point, that the debate was not the central concern of African Americans during the Nadir.  Black women, for example worked heroically at the grass-roots level of institution building, a point that is undeniable.  In the city of Detroit, I have a sister, named Miriam, who devoted many years to working at the grass roots level as a community organizer, a teacher, and a character builder.   But I am afraid Detroit’s problems are beyond the efforts of grass roots workers, alone.  They are of macro-economic proportions.  They cannot be solved by the NAACP, the NACW, or the NCNW, or by the Churches.   Such organizations are not capable of addressing the problems of interfacing the Japanese auto industry, or vying with computer production in China, or determining the relationship between the dollar and the Euro.

They can “Go tell Michelle” anything they wish, but grass-roots groups have little useful to say to her, respecting national or international politics or economics.  Like Condolleeza Rice, Michelle is better educated, and better informed than most of her gushing admirers.

Booker T was, alas, not able to build a rival to MIT, but he grasped the importance of making such an attempt.  Marcus Garvey was not able to build another Ford Motor Company, but he understood the problem!   By the time he wrote Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois had finally come around to the Booker/Garvey position on institution building.

Du Bois, although an able social scientist, was always primarily a humanist, a man of letters, committed to projects in the arts and sciences that exceeded the limits of the immediately practical.  Where Washington would have directed a gifted young mathmatician to become an atomic scientist or an aerospace engineer, Du Bois might have encouraged that same young person to pursue the luxury of a career in quantum theory, astrophysics or analytic philosophy.

Black Americans today, with or without the leadership of President Obama encounter a set of material and intellectual challenges that exceed the immediately practical.  I don’t know if the solution to the collapse of the black metropolis of Detroit is to be found in Black Institutional Nationalism, whether in the moderate form of the Tuskegee philosophy or in the more radical forms of the UNIA or Dusk of Dawn.  I don’t see that Black Nationalism is presently viable, without taking into account the macroeconomics of the current world situation in banking, commerce, industry, and communications.  Obama is trying to manipulate these factors, but his chances of success are obviously limited, just as were the chances of BTW.

Ken Hamilton, an avid supporter and financial backer of President Obama, has recently completed a manuscript on Booker T. Washington.  I have not seen the book, but over many years Professor Hamilton has shared with me, via numerous emails and primary documents concerning and quoting BTW, his belief that character building and industrial reorganization are at least part of the solution to the problems symbolized by a city like Detroit.   I don’t know if industrial Detroit can be rebuilt as a Black Nation in accord with Mr. Muhammad’s fantasy, or Booker T’s dream, but I doubt whether grass-roots community organization by black women’s groups, or intellectual and literary-intellectual activity are likely to make much of a difference in the neo-colonial situation of a city like Detroit.

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