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The History of the American Negro - W.E.B. Du Bois

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The history of the American Negro has been long and bitter. After prevailing centuries of oppression as slaves, the Negroes became a resilient social group in post-Civil War America. A group with forgone expectations that nonetheless still hoped for a change. Even though slavery was no longer present, the Negro remained a subject of racial injustice. Facing a new burden to overcome, the Negroes divided into two separate groups. Some Negroes joined the social justice fight, refusing to concede to an institutionalized segregation as a solution for social equality. Others, however, embraced defeat. They adopted the “old attitude” of the enslaved Negro: lost, hopeless, and submissive (CITATION). Enduring centuries of suffering, they opted to embrace their “alleged inferiority” in a modern society. Instead of continuing the fight for absolute social equality, they assumed a different position, conceiving a distinct submissive behavior. (CITATION).

In his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”, renowned author W.E.B. Du Bois condemns this sort of behavior and its prime advocate, Booker T. Washington. Du Bois exposes Washington’s solution to the “Negro burden” (FOOTNOTE), strongly discrediting his cause and his authority as a leader. Moreover, he questions the outcome of this policy of submission, contrasting with the attitudes of those not accepting defeat. Du Bois therefore creates formal discussion between both perspectives. Heavily biased by personal views, however, the essay imparts a persuasive tone. Using criticism as an argumentative tool, it engages the reader, seeking to convey a point of view by inadvertently disproving the opposing view. Du Bois thus asserts an instructive nature, seeking to influence the reader by undermining Washington and his proposition of submission as a solution to social injustice.

Booker T. Washington is recognized as one of the most significant leaders in the history of the African American people. W.E.B. Du Bois himself described him as “one of the most notable figures” in the Negro nation and admired his enthusiasm and faith in the future of his people (Du Bois, 34). Washington arose as a natural leader, one willing to unite the North and the South in the midst of resentment against the Negroes. Under a formal compromise (FOOTNOTE), he offered to surrender Negro civil and political rights for larger chances in economic development. Although he was initially met with opposition within the Negro community, self-realization and weariness of the racial problems eventually led to his welcoming as a leader (Du Bois, 37). Gradually, most Negros began to support his advocacy of submission to please the country.

Independently, nevertheless, Du Bois questions the impartiality behind Washington’s leadership. To further emphasize this point, he describes him as “the leader of not one race but of two” (Du Bois, 40). He argues that it was not the Negroes that had grown tired of the racial injustice, but the wealthy in the North wishing to invest in the South. In similarity, by further degrading the Negro, the South was satisfied with Washington’s leadership. Moreover, with Negroes assimilating in the North, came new beliefs in adjustment and transgression. Alongside liberalizing tendencies, Du Bois thus argues, Washington’s leadership emerged almost inherently. Described in his own words, “finally the imprisoned group may adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group or take a determined effort at self-realization and self-development despite environing opinion” (Du Bois, 37). Tired of revolts and revenge, having an innate submissive nature, and being pressured by the national sentiment, the Negroes thus embraced Washington as their leader. Even though, Du Bois asserts, he might have not represented their true desires, choosing Washington as their leader was done almost instructively.

Referred to as the “Atlanta Compromise”, Washington’s proposal of submission was formalized under the notion of “concentrating [the] energies on dollars” (Du Bois, 34). This compromise asked for Negroes to give up political power, insistence on civil rights and higher education. In turn, they would have the opportunity to learn various trades in industrial institutions to achieve economic advancement. Washington believed, moreover, that by embracing this program Negroes could thrive financially by directly participating in the formal economy. Criticism soon followed, as many opponents believed this plan was too narrow and that it ridiculed the efforts of the abolitionists. Essentially, because it still placed the Negro at the bottom of an unjust society without a dispute. Nonetheless, this opposition would not stop Washington from setting his plan in motion by founding the first industrial institute in 1881 (FOOTNOTE).

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