Thursday, 14 January 2010

Quotations #2 - Du Bois on Jefferson Davis

In June 1890, Du Du Bois graduated with honors in philosophy, and was asked to make a speech at his `commencement`, which I assume is the US equivalent of graduation. Du Bois, a man of mixed race, chose the tricky subject of Jefferson Davis, a champion of slavery and the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.


The next two paragraphs are from Mark Stafford`s W E B du Bois : Scholar and Activist (Chelsea House, New York, 1989. In the Black Americans of Achievement series) ;


`Du Bois` speech...was as impassioned as it was caustic. Davis, he said, satisfied the nation`s hunger for an individualist who was also an oppressor. Du Bois called the southern leader a "peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free". Like all "strong men" he sought "the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole...it has thus happened that advance in civilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted national selfishness."


The speech received an overwhelming response. "Du Bois handled his difficult and hazardous subject with absoloute good taste, great moderation and almost contemptuous fairness," The Nation reported. "He is an excellent scholar in every way, and altogether the best black man that has come to Cambridge" added a Harvard professor.`


Stafford states that as a result of this speech the American Historical Association invited Du Bois to address one of its` meetings, and also  quotes further praise for the speech from the New York Independent.

The full text of Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization can be found in a Du Bois anthology edited by Herbert Aptheker, Against Racism ; Unpublished Essays 1887 - 1961, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

It`s worth pointing out that, while passages of the speech are certainly caustic, the Dr was on the whole even-handed and even, to a degree, diplomatic, stressing that "I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilization which his life represented ; its foundation is the idea of the strong man - individualism coupled with the rule of might - and it is this idea that has made the logic of even modern history, the cool logic of the club".

He also pointed out that Davis was "a naturally brave and generous man" and that "such a type is not wholly evil or fruitless : the world has needed and will need its Jefferson Davises ; but such a type is incomplete and can never serve its best purpose until checked by its complementary ideas".

Clearly it is a youthful work, and elsewhere in the same speech we find some rather dated ideas, and some rather dated language. Some later commentators, particularly the more radical ones, find it rather submissive and `accomodationist` . They may have a point, though personally I think it is partly his choice of words that gives that impression.

However that may be, the essential message seems pretty clear, and in my view still relevant and thought-provoking. Du Bois summarised his aims in making the speech  in this way ; "the submission of the Strong to the advance of all - not in mere aimless sacrifice, but recognizing the fact that `to no one type of mind is it given to discern the totality of truth`, that civilization cannot afford to lose the contribution of the very least of nations for its full development."

FOOTNOTE

It is interesting to note that some of these sentiments, voiced by Du Bois so long ago, appear to anticipate areas of feminist thinking from the `60s and `70s. We know that many feminists from this era have asserted that they took much of their thinking from the American Civil Rights movement*. It would be interesting to know if Dr Du Bois, well-known as an early advocate of women`s rights, had a particular influence there. 

* This point is made by Jenny Bourne in her  Towards an Anti-Racist Feminism ( IRR, London, 1984). Jo O`Brien makes similar comments in the conclusion to her Women`s Liberation in Labour History : A Case Study From Nottingham (BRPF, Nottingham, 1972), though her comments go more to her motivation in writing her pamphlet, which is about English working class women in the 19th century, than to it`s content.

Bourne`s pamphlet is still available, at a very reasonable price, from the Institute of Race Relations, London. I don`t run this blog as an adjunct to our business, but as it happpens, I do have a copy of O`Brien`s pamphlet for sale ; 

http://www.antiqbook.com/books/bookinfo.phtml?o=hoonal&bnr=35

but just to re-iterate, her comments on feminism and civil rights are only a small part of a pamphlet largely concerned wth other matters.

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