At the turn and outset of the twentieth century, black people in American faced some of the worst outright racism and discrimination the world has yet seen, turning to the church and race leaders for hope and support. Out of this climate of bigotry and intolerance, came Booker T. Washington, WEB Dubois and Marcus Garvey, essentially leading the charge in black America’s attempts at conceptualizing the best way to build the soon to be “black community”. Upon reading documents, such as his “Atlanta Exposition” (1895), it is very easy to dislike Washington for the improbable and unreasonable concessions he makes to white Southern segregations, many viewing his stance as regression rather than progress. For reasons of this sort, when we conceptualize the three aforementioned leaders, we often name Washington as the most conservative, Garvey as the most radical, leaving Dubois somewhere in between the two. However, after reading documents describing how paramount Washington was in bringing Garvey to America and on his social work behind public view, we are forced to rethink our stance on Washington’s role in history. One wonders if Washington’s voice was necessary in order to raise up voices like Garvey and Dubois, with his tactics aimed strategically this end.
A good starting point for this discussion is in exploring Washington, as he is commonly known: the “Great Accommodator” and drastic compromiser. Born in Franklin County, VA in 1856, Washington was born a slave, giving him an inside view into the true workings of the South, and shaping his philosophy on the best way to lift the race. Much of the grounds for his critiques come from the declaration of his philosophy and work, best summed in his “Atlanta Exposition” Speech in 1895. In this well-known speech, he argues that blacks should not try to look past the treasures right here for them in America. He exhorted blacks to, “Cast down [their] buckets where [they] are,”1 in efforts to empower black people to see just how rich their waters under the current system, before looking to set up new systems or toward striking out into the realm of education. These beliefs emerged from a millennialist theology, considering blacks the most Christ-like people on Earth. For this reason, he thought it would be through a patient and humble diligence, not forceful petitioning, that blacks would emerge from the poverty, as leaders in America. He goes on to boldly declare: “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.”2 In this quotation, we see an abundant surplus of undue idealism from Washington that, among many of his other statements, drew him much criticism.
In this vain, he goes on to say in his autobiography, Up From Slavery: “My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to.”3 This statement goes on to echo the blind idealism of the previous comment. However, Washington’s conservatism really comes through in his belief “that the freedom to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights.”4 In this passage, his mere idealism and conservatism border on blatant ignorance of the state of race relations in the United States. However, reinforced by white Southern backing, as well as a theology based upon waiting and appealing to white sympathy through proving one’s “worthiness”, he continued his bold declarations, seeking to mobilize blacks after this same manner.
Probably most unbelievable of all of his concessions to white America, is his commentary on the rightness of segregation as a positive good for black and white people. While the previous statements have seemed edgy, he went on to clear all doubt in terms of showing the breadth of his stubborn hold onto the old ideas of segregation, continuing in his Atlanta Exposition Address: “In all things purely social we can be as separate as five fingers of the hand, yet as one hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”5 Accommodationist statements such as this characterized Booker T. Washington’s career and typifies the depiction of his voice and role in black America, also winning this speech the nickname, “The Atlanta Compromise”.6
Many blacks felt betrayed at the thought that one of their own could ever conceive of vocalizing such unthinkable concessions, after the battle blacks had been through in America, for the previous three hundred years. Many rose up in vehement protest of his social vision for blacks in America. Ralph Ellison offered this critique in his novel, Invisible Man, saying: Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”7 From this perspective in 1947, we were asked then to re-evaluate the significance of leaders, such as Washington, who advocate privileges only for those who had, by his standards, “ability, character, and material possessions” enough to “entitle him” to rights, rather than seeking enforcement of rights already made law, through Amendments. Critiques such as this characterize our modern perception of Washington’s contribution to our current society. However, out of his concessions, arose the protest and voice one of black America’s most well respected intellectuals, in WEB Dubois.
WEB Dubois, born in Great Barrington, MA in 1868, rose to meet Washington’s stance with a firm critic, saying: “Easily the most striking thing in the history of the American Negro is the ascendancy of Mr. Booker T. Washington” in a time when “war memories and ideals were rapidly passing” and “a day of astonishing commercial development was dawning.”8 Being a man very much interested in the life of the mind, the one among Washington’s ideas that most outrightly offended Dubois were his beliefs in asking black people to remain on the same ground, her felt, represented everything they were working to overcome.
He harshly critiqued Washington’s social and economic agenda, calling it a program of “industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.”9 Here, Dubois cites that Washington’s belief in an industrial focus to black efforts would only prolong the loosing of the mental shackles binding black Americans. Given the history out of which this commentary emerged, it is only right that Dubois and others were quick to voice concern over Washington’s remarks. Dubois cited that Washington’s views on a need for black people to take complete responsibility for both their position in society as well as the means for emerging from this place, as “dangerous half-truth,”10 irresponsibly overlooking the crippling effects of both slavery and race-prejudice on the black psyche and station in America. Dubois was a firm believer that, the only way for blacks to un-write the ingrained subservience of blacks to whites, was to encourage the portion of brighter individuals to pursue higher education, expecting their new knowledge to help uplift blacks in America.
Upon this “Talented Tenth,” as he called them in his novel Souls of Black Folk (1901), he hinged all his faith and hope in the trace. He begins: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem 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”.
A modern critique of Dubois’ “Talented Tenth” philosophy, Nikki Giovanni, asks in her book, Racism 101, what happens to the “Normal Ninetieth” while the “Talented Tenth” is getting its act together. She contends that, implied in notions of a need for a talented portion to lift the common black out of oppression, is the idea that they are not capable of empowering themselves, effectively stratifying a would be black community. These ideas denote a very elitist view of society in which there are the lifters, as well as those in need of lifting. More so, it intellectualizes a problem instead of actualizing a workable solution for everyday people. These debates plunge ideas surrounding black empowerment into the abyss of rhetoric and leaving the same people suffering, while well off blacks continue to argue over what is to be done about the race problem at suburb, dinner parties. This critique ends in being a more modern version of that offered by the most radical of the early twentieth century black leaders, Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica in 1887.11 Garvey articulates well his main critique of leaders such as Dubois in saying: “Here [in the United States] I found a different problem. I immediately visited some of the so-called Negro leaders, only to discover, after a close study of them, that they had no program,”12 in reference to this same sole emphasis on the politics of the struggle for black equality, without placing adequate emphasis on the socio-economic issues that other critics and followers of Garvey held, as well. He goes on to call such leaders, “mere opportunists who were living off of their so-called leadership while poor people were groping in the dark.”13 Here, Garvey gives a stern indictment of the nature of Dubois’ leadership. Like Washington, he puts into question the usefulness of a philosophy that advocates for the betterment of blacks, but does nothing to help individuals help themselves, in their everyday lives.
Garvey’s vision and theology start with a complete disinterest in associating with whites on really any level, believing, “it is a vicious and dangerous doctrine of social equality to urge, as certain colored leaders do, that black and white should get together, for that would destroy the racial purity of both.”14 Garvey believed that the ultimate prosperity and happiness of black and white people absolutely depended upon their separation. In this vain, he continues, saying: “We believe that black people should have a country of their own, where they should be given the fullest opportunity to develop politically, socially and industrially,”15 all in hopes of bringing about “the restoration of Ethiopia’s ancient glory.”16 Here, we see the radical foundation for his social program in helping to better people’s lives, rather than only arguing for the enforcement of rights, that America’s social climate forbade blacks from using. Interestingly though, while his emphasis on the social aspect of the struggle takes him away from the moderately radical Dubois, these ideas are directly in line with the life and work of Washington. Marcus Garvey credited everything he made of himself in America, to, in his own words, “the dead hero”, who was responsible for Garvey’s migration to the United States, initially.
During his life, Garvey credited the success of his life and organization to the vision of Washington, in desiring that his movement be one about the dignity of the common black man, whether an individual was reading books or sweeping floors. Lawrence Levine wrote: “He was able to take Washington’s philosophy and transform it from a doctrine geared to help one up the ladder of American mobility into a mechanism designed to increase the worldwide consciousness, unity, power, and autonomy of the race.”17 The group centered orientation of his movement, known as Garveyism (his followers called, “Garveyites”), as well as, his emphatic speaking ability procured a membership of 2,000,000 blacks for the UNIA, after only three years in the United States. Levine goes on to say, “He took a philosophy suffused with overtones of individualism and bent it to serve the purposes of the group.”18 Garvey’s ability to take on Washington’s philosophy gave him a fairly effective means for economically empowering blacks, and providing a workable starting point from which they could begin to function with greater dignity.
Commenting on the destitute state of the race as well as, what he felt, were outside efforts to destroy the edifice he and those who share his dream, had worked to build, Garvey says: “Having had the wrong education as a start in his racial career, the Negro has become his greatest enemy. Most of the troubles I have had in advancing the cause of the race have come from Negroes.”19 He goes on to echo the same sentiment articulated by Washington, in his Atlanta Exposition, saying: “Booker Washington aptly described the race in one of his lectures by stating that we are like crabs in a barrel, that none would allow the other to climb over, but on any such attempt all would combine to pull back into the barrel the one crab who would make the effort to climb out. Yet, those of us with vision cannot desert the race, leaving it to suffer and die.” The way Garvey ends here is probably the most perplexing of all, for many reasons. The primary reason being, when we conceptualize Garvey and Washington, we picture them on opposite ends of the radical spectrum, with Dubois off in the middle. However, in seeing that Garvey refers to Washington and himself as having vision, and going as far as to cite examples from his speeches, we are forced to re-work the way we place Washington, historically.
If an “accommodationist” man like Washington could back a radical advocate for the overhaul of black communities like Garvey, two men with agendas seemingly fathoms apart, what new ways must we think about Washington, in the fight for black equality? One goes on to wonder what Washington’s motives were in bringing Garvey to the United States. More importantly, one asks what motives were responsible for him making the type of conservative statements that he did. We are forced to speculate as to whether Washington’s advocacy of the concessions that white America had asked for blacks to make, was necessary, in order to truly show how ridiculous these expectations were. More so, his viewpoint made whites question what would make a black man concede so much after decades of fighting to build community.
Finally, did America need a black man to actively advocate for the concessions that much of white America asked of blacks, in the early part of the twentieth century? I believe the answers to this question lay in Washington’s legacy and in the history, immediately after his death. Out of Washington’s ridiculous claims, came space for blacks to safely critique the current system, because it being passionately advocated for by another black man. No longer was it black America crying out to an indifferent white audience, but because Washington had allowed for this new critical space, voices like Dubois’s were able to step in and pick up the lag that Washington left in seeking to develop black youth, academically. More so, Washington left behind a workable plan for economic empowerment that Garvey developed, restructuring it to suit his plans for widespread black unity and dignity. In this light, we might view Washington’s life as a necessary sacrifice that black America had to make, essentially enabling the existence of a Dubois or a Garvey.
African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999.
12 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 458.
13 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 458.
14 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 461.
15 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 461-2.
16 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 461.
17 Levine, Lawrence, “Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization” Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table, Second Edition. Julian Bond and Andrew Lewis, Eds. New York: American Heritage, 1995. Reprinted 1997. Page 91.
18 Levine, Lawrence, “Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization” Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table, Second Edition. Julian Bond and Andrew Lewis, Eds. New York: American Heritage, 1995. Reprinted 1997. Page 91.
19 Garvey, Marcus, “Garvey Tells His Own Story” African American Religious History. Second Edition. Sernett, Milton, ed. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 1999. Page 462.