The Washington-DuBois Debate  W.E.B. Dubois

The source of one of Dubois's greatest criticisms for Washington stemmed from how Washington essentially built his power and exerted his charismatic influence at the expense of the black masses, politically. Washington was definitely sincere in how he centered his improvement program on the personal empowerment of the black masses through encouraging them to "cast down [their] buckets" in order to pursue and achieve economic independence. However, this tactic also accorded him tremendous unchecked clout in American politics.

It was Washington's program of conciliation with whites, not support from the then prominent black leaders that established his political platform. By encouraging vocational training over intellectual development, Washington perhaps unknowingly discouraged checks on his own power and program by young talent. Washington's neglect of intellectualism essentially created and re-created his position as the position as the pre-eminent leader for the black race. In addition, his program conceded advocating for political rights in favor of the economic empowerment black people which many leaders of the time felt was unacceptable

Dubois's criticism for Washington found root in how Washington's convenient privileging of a more blue collar black mass undercut or uprooted burgeoning political protest against his agenda; the convention which Dubois believed "is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society."(Dubois, Souls of Black Folk: ) Implied in this criticism is that Dubois believed the concessions that Washington made inhibited the race's ability to exercise the rights they had newly gained, and for the full expression of which he always fought.

He did so through emphasizing the need for development of talented black youth as well as through spearheading criticisms of racist practices. Consequently, for Washington to build his own power that was interestingly gained as a result of the same training from which he wished to discourage other Negroes, he also appears as a sort of opportunist, accommodating the white interest in neglecting to address the race problem.

In rejecting the prolific history of struggle-by way of slave rebellions led by the likes of Denmark Vesey, Gabriel, Nat Turner, and self-asserted the race-wide Negro leadership of Douglass, Bishop Daniel Payne, Alexander Crummell, Reverdy Ransom and countless others-Dubois contends that Washington's agenda "takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life" and practically accepts "the alleged inferiority of the Negro races" withdrawing "the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens." (Dubois, 87)

For an audio clip of Dubois reading a portion of his Autobiography, click here.

With this point stated, one can conjecture at his implied audience in his prose works. His writings of have as their aim to demonstrate the ability of the talented class of black Americans to the similarly "talented" elements of black and white America. In order to situate the conversation about Dubois program, it is necessary to examine more closely his background; the intellectual, philosophical and rhetorical traditions from which he emerges.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and educated at Fisk, Harvard, and Atlanta Universities, William Edward Burghardt Dubois was born to be an intellectual. The form of his essays in his prolific work entitled, The Souls of Black Folk, follow in the philosophical and Sentimental tradition of the writers like Bacon, Montaigne, Mill and others who set out to philosophically and thus to objectively discuss topics they believed were central to understanding the nature of the human condition. Though they employed form that suggests at least a gesture toward objectivity, Dubois's writings all held to his personal claim to use all his writings as "propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy."1

Conducting a conversation on a given topic according to the romantic/sentimental philosophical tradition to which his form alludes, it is first necessary to create space or establish the necessity for one's discussion. One might read his cynical treatment of whites and intellectual undercutting of Washington all from this viewpoint. Evidence for the former comes through his discussion of what he considers the "half-named race problem" in his essay "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." He proposes that the problem is half-named because the very term "Negro problem" suggests that Negroes are the problem, yet does not interpret the problem as the anxiety of whites about "things Negro." In his introductory paragraph, Dubois states:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously and compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I seldom answer a word.

To introduce the book he felt represented the very souls of black people in America, Dubois begins by expressing his ambivalence toward white people. This statement is significant in that it suggests that this ambivalence is not only characteristic of blacks, but understanding this issue is essential to comprehending the depth of the plight of the black American; the marked "two-ness" of being both African and yet American.

Perhaps most distressing, however, is Dubois's implied helplessness or victimization as a result of the warring set of ideals he experiences. Dubois described as a fundamental distance he perceived to have existed between blacks and whites at the turn of the last century. We see this through how describes white America as an "other world" with which he had little communion and from which he perceives little understanding.

One other note we find in this introductory paragraph is that though whites are a subject of this text, they are not the subject of the work. The significance of this distinction becomes clearer when we contrast this work with Washington's "Atlanta Exposition Address." In this address, Washington seeks to exhort blacks to diligent work but does so through first surrendering the legacy of "improving" the race through academic learning and other ideas like voting rights that many black leaders considered necessary for equality.

Whites are the primary audience of this work. As such, we can understand his claims as concessions to garner support, financial or otherwise, from these whites he seeks to please. Dubois emerges from a different standpoint. While his audience is arguably the same, he seeks to give voice to the "striving" souls of black folk under oppression, articulated in his relation of the question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" In asking this question, he tries to prick the consciences of whites in the legacy of moral suasion. His goal is to pursuade white people to show compassion for the plight of the black American through the medium of well-crafted English prose.

Doing so not only draws attention to black American affairs at the turn of the twentieth century but also shows white people that black Americans are capable of producing art and literature on par with their tastes. Ultimately, his view was that, rather than vocational training, it was indeed the task of the "talented" members of Negro society to uplift the race.

Because he is focused on a different class of Negroes from Washington; the black bourgeois intellectual class; it is logical that, Dubois believed Washington cooperated in squandering the natural intellectual prowess of the most gifted members of the black race in his address (Dubois, 85-6). He laid out his vision for these talented individuals in his article entitled The Talented Tenth. He begins saying: "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men." He goes to express that "The problem of education…among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth" or "of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races."

It is immediately obvious to any reader that Dubois has an extremely elitist notion of what is uplift. By juxtaposing his idea of the "Best" against an idea the "Worst" of the Negro race, he exposes a trickle-down notion of community. Since the Worst are liable to contaminate themselves, it is the responsibility of those who have knowledge of how to avoid such contamination to guide the implied "untalented ninetieth" away from ruin. In this statement, he reveals that education is the primary key to achieving anything great in life.

Dubois in 1918 meeting of leaders

Entering into specifics concerning his idea for education of these individuals, Dubois continues saying: "Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task" because while its "technique is a matter for educational experts," "its object" or ultimate aim "is for the vision of seers." On this point, he follows: "If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men," in an implicit critique of Washington's Tuskegee Institute. He concludes saying:

Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools-intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it-this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

This final quotation from "Talented Tenth" reveals the idea that achieving "manhood" is the only acceptable goal for education. Through using this language, Dubois implies that since the Negro race's dignity had been stripped away by the degradation of slavery and Jim Crow, the goal of any positive education would recover this sense of "manhood" or "personhood," which would ultimately make persons of those educated; a goal he feels cannot be achieved by making money or technical skill "the object of man-training."

Again as Dubois states, he believes this end can only be achieved through "intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it." Further, he believes that it is only "on this foundation", that black Americans can begin "build[ing] bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of mind". He concludes his statement again by indirectly critiquing the purpose of the Tuskegee Institute, which, according to these terms, "mistake[s] the means of living for the object of life." In summation, Dubois's program was one that advocated knowledge and action spearheaded by these talented individuals that would best remedy the issues of black America.

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1W.E.B. Dubois, "Criteria for Negro Art"

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