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About W.E.B. Du Bois: reviewing the review

By Roy Rydell, People's Weekly World, 9 November 1996

The Oct. 6 issue of the New York Times Book Review celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. To quote: "It celebrates 100 years of world-famous authors who changed the world and authors the world forgot. This centennial issue of the NYT Book Review includes more than 70 reviews as they first appeared. A chronology of literary events and selections from reviews that now seem a bit misguided."

Even with this introduction in mind, when I read the reprint of the 1903 review of "The Souls of Black Folk" written by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, it was a shock to see expressed openly the attitudes and thinking of the unnamed reviewer of the book, which appeared in the Times on April 25, 1903.

The review flatly states at the outset that Booker T. Washington represented the best hope of the African American people and that he did the most for his people "with the least friction with the whites who were most nearly concerned, namely, those of the South."

The review then went on to attack Du Bois' credentials because he was not born in the South like Washington but was educated in New England, and, therefore, didn't understand his own people in their "natural state" and could not understand the "Southern whites' point of view as did Booker T. Washington."

The reviewer conceded that "Souls of Black Folks" threw much light on the complexities of the "Afro American Problem," stating that the hope of African Americans is, in the reviewer's words, "the abolition of the social color line".

That this social color line must vanish was the firm belief of Dr. Du Bois, as the opposite was the equally firm belief of the Southern white man.

The review discusses Du Bois' views on the history of the Freedman's Bureau, and concedes it "had some value." (According to my encyclopedia, the Bureau was established as a U.S. government agency to aid and protect the ex-slaves in the South at the end of the Civil War, and that the Bureau, while doing some good, did much to persuade the freed slaves that 40 acres of land and a mule was not to be.

The reviewer conceded that while Du Bois claimed that it was impossible for a Black person to get justice in Southern courts just after the war, it was equally impossible for the white man to get justice in the proceedings of the Freedman's Bureau.

The reviewer further stated that while the whole book is interesting, and praises Du Bois for his "self-restraint," the most important part of the book is Du Bois' attack on the plans of Booker T. Washington. He pointed out that Washington was the so-called leader of his people, not by any vote of the African Americans but by virtue of white support. Du Bois criticizes Washington for confining the education of African Americans to "practical" education, the acquisition of property and "decent ways," thereby asking that Black people give up the struggle for political power and the insistence on civil rights and the right to a higher education in order to concentrate their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth and to conciliate the South.

Du Bois said that the result of these policies was disfranchisement of the Black people and the creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority and steady withdrawal of aid from institutions of higher learning for Black people. Du Bois asked for three things: 1) the right to vote; 2) civil equality, and 3) the right to education of Black youth according to ability.

The NYT reviewer ended by saying that Du Bois is a Black man of northern education who could not feel what southerners - Black or white - feel; that there are fundamental attitudes which are the product of conditions prevailing over centuries and are parallel to the attitudes of gentry to the peasantry in other countries.

I couldn't help thinking that in viewing Black people as the peasantry and Southern whites as the gentry, the reviewer agreed with the permanent subjugation of the Black people as inferior to whites.

Reading the review helped remind me of the need to keep up and extend the fight for affirmative action. It also helped me recall and put into proper perspective the role of Dr. Du Bois as an outstanding leader of the African American people, his internationalist outlook and his contributions to the struggle for peace and the fact that Du Bois, late in his life, joined the Communist Party.

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