One of the things that moved me to write my novel Altamont Augie is the enduring relevance of the 1960s. And not least on the 60s relevancy list is a matter addressed in a fascinating editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times by Erin Aubrey Kaplan entitled “Obama: Pursuing a white agenda?”
Kaplan’s article spotlights a recent kerfuffle between two black academics, Cornel West and Melissa Harris-Perry. The gist of their disagreement is the tension inherent between two competing principles of black advocacy: black assimilation and black nationalism. Kaplan explains them as follows: “Assimilation holds that blacks must claim their place in the mainstream to be successful; nationalism maintains that black success starts…with building and sustaining group unity.”
I find this spat evidence of a crucial and necessary dialogue amongst today’s black intelligentsia, but I was disappointed that Ms. Kaplan did not trace the argument to its roots: the Progressive Era, when the towering black intellectuals W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington went at each other tooth-and-nail over this same issue, pitting two nearly irreconcilable philosophies, black nationalism and black assimilation, against each other.
This very conflict that Kaplan wrestles with in her editorial is dealt with in my novel in the form of a classroom lecture the main character attends. Here’s a sample of it from Chapter 17.
Of the many things David had vowed to do if he survived Khe Sanh, taking another class from Thomas Devlin was high on the list. He kept his promise by enrolling in a course titled “America after the Civil War: The Reconstruction and Progressive Eras,” taught in the same third-floor Blegen Hall classroom as the Manifest Destiny course he took in 1966. He found Devlin little changed, his kinky silver hair no thinner, his stocky frame no less substantial. Though other professors had begun dressing more casual, in obeisance to the times, Devlin still came to class in a jacket and tie and freshly shined wing tips. After taking the entire month of January to cover Reconstruction, he began his series of lectures on the Progressive Era by writing “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” on the blackboard.
He set his piece of chalk on the aluminum rail and pointed at the board. “Who knows what this is?” He fussed with the sleeve of his tweed jacket while scanning the room for a response.
David had no clue. He twisted around in his seat and saw that no one else did either—save for a rumpled looking black guy in the last row. His arm hung lazily in the air, as if attached to invisible strings. He had a kind face and an unkempt Afro that listed to one side.
“It’s a chapter in The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. Du Bois,” he said when Devlin called on him. He pronounced it “do-boys,” rather than the French rendering David was accustomed to.
The corners of Devlin’s mouth turned up ever so slightly. “That’s absolutely right. It speaks to one of the great controversies of the time: how to best address the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow South after the collapse of Reconstruction.” He slid behind the lectern and explained that W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were the leading black intellectuals of the Progressive Era, men of breathtaking accomplishments, with Washington best known for helping establish Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Du Bois for his role in founding the NAACP. “In 1895,” he continued, “Washington gave a speech on race relations to a mostly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. It became known as the Atlanta Compromise, and advocated blue-collar bootstrapping as the surest way for blacks to secure a toehold amongst the nation’s white majority.” Rather than give a scholarly exegesis of the speech, Devlin instead read excerpts from it, so that students could form their own opinions of it before hearing his.
“Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from
slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the
masses of us are to live by the productions of our
. . . No race can prosper till it learns that there is
as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at
the top . . .
The wisest among my race understand that the
of questions of social equality is the extremest
folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the
privileges that will come to us must be the result of
and constant struggle rather than of artificial
forcing . . . The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory
just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity
to spend a dollar in an opera house . . .
pledge that in your effort to work out the great
and intricate problem which God has laid at the doors
the South, you shall have at all times the patient,
sympathetic help of my race . . . This coupled with our
prosperity, will bring into our beloved South
a new heaven and a new earth.”
He swept the room with his blue-eyed gaze to gauge how effective a fillip his reading had been. Quite effective, David was guessing, what with images of taut-faced National Guardsmen patrolling smoldering cities still fresh in everyone’s mind. “It was an argument for gradualism that saw black upward mobility as a long, painstaking climb,” Devlin said, “similar to what an immigrant population might expect.”
He dealt next with Du Bois’s repudiation of the Atlanta Compromise, a gravamen that became fully formed, he told them, in 1903, when Du Bois used an entire chapter in The Souls of Black Folks to make his case. He proceeded to read several passages.
“This ‘Atlanta Compromise’ is by all odds the
most notable thing in Mr.Washington’s career . . . and
today its author is certainly the most distinguished
South-erner since Jefferson Davis, and the one with
the largest personal following . . .
But aside from this, there is among educated and
thoughtful colored men in all parts of the land a feeling
of deep regret, sorrow, and apprehension at the
currency and ascendancy which some of Mr.
Washington’s theories have gained . . .
Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people
give up, at least for the present, three things—First,
political power, Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth . . .
But so far as Mr.Washington apologizes for injustice
. . . does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting,
belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions,
and opposes the higher training and ambition of
our brighter minds—so far as he, the South, or the
Nation, does this—we must unceasingly and firmly
oppose them . . . clinging unwaveringly to those great
words which the sons of the Fathers would gain forget:
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men
are created equal . . .’”
Devlin stepped away from the podium, his hands empty of all notes. “Du Bois favored a more confrontational approach to civil rights, believing that blacks should challenge whites, culturally and politically. He took to calling Washington ‘The Great Accommodator,’ and blamed the separate but equal ruling of Plessy versus Ferguson on Washington’s acquiescent stance toward segregation. Du Bois in later years, however, would concede that his approach of ‘educate and agitate’ failed to end segregation, and that full integration was a goal for the distant future—which is precisely what Washington argued in his Atlanta Compromise speech.”
As was his custom, he saved time for a discussion question at the end. “With all of this in mind, then, whose philosophy should today’s African Americans rely on to overcome the lingering damage of segregation—that of Du Bois or that of Washington?”
Ms. Kaplan questions in the final paragraph of her op-ed piece whether the principles of assimilation and black unity can coexist at all? Ultimately, black Americans will have to decide which approach, that of Du Bois or that of Washington, can best move them the rest of the way down the field toward the goal we all have—black, white, brown, yellow and all hues in between: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.