Tuesday, February 11, 2014
February 11, 2014: I Love Du Bois to His Daughter
[Last year, I wrote a Valentine’s Day-inspired series on some of my AmericanStudier loves. I had fun, so I’ve decided to do so again this year. I’d love for you to share some of the things you love for a crowd-sourced weekend post full of heart!]
On two fatherly lessons we could all take to heart.
Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time is likely familiar with my AmericanStudier crush on W.E.B. Du Bois, the lovey-dovey details of which I won’t repeat at length here. I’ve even written about the specific focus of today’s post as part of two of those prior posts: one dedicated to the benefits of reading and teaching Du Bois’s letters; and one focused on his engagement with intimate topics of family and parenting. But I think there’s still more to say about Du Bois’s October 1914 letter to his 14 year old daughter Yolande, who had just embarked upon an exciting and frightening educational adventure at England’s Bedales School. More exactly, two of the pieces of advice that Du Bois gives to Yolande in that letter are, I would argue, profoundly applicable to all of us.
One of Du Bois’s principal purposes in the letter is (no doubt based on his own youthful educational experiences abroad) to let Yolande know that she will face prejudice, or at least surprised and frank examination, from those around her based on physical differences associated with her race (such as her “dear brown [skin] and the sweet crinkley hair”). Partly he reassures her by noting that “most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not.” But on that last note, he also goes further: “You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb.” Although he then moves on to emphasize that “the main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin,” I wouldn’t want that certainly more important concept to elide the power of Du Bois’s argument, well before Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” and even further before “Black is beautiful,” for the beauty of particularly African American features. In an era when communal standards of beauty are still often set by unspoken racial and cultural norms, we would all do well to read and remember Du Bois’s words here.
As anyone familiar with Du Bois’ temperament would expect, he balance such positive and complimentary advice with a healthy dose of tough love for Yolande. That’s never more evident than in the last sentence of the third paragraph where, having noted the amazing opportunity she has and how many “boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything” to have it, he concludes, “You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.” Since Yolande was Du Bois’s daughter (and knowing the impressive life she would go on to lead), I very much doubt that she did not possess such merit. But nonetheless, Du Bois was entirely right about how much of a role luck plays in presenting us with opportunities and possibilities, a fact with which American ideals of meritocracy are consistently unwilling to engage. And he’s even more right in the next sentence, which is the shortest in the letter and with which he opens his longest paragraph of advice: “Deserve it, then.” We can’t account for luck, but we certainly have a say in how we respond to it—something else we could definitely learn from W.E.B. Du Bois.
Next AmericanStudier love tomorrow,
PS. What do you love about or in American history, culture, identity, community?