As I’ve mentioned before, my accidentally-deleted (and unfortunately not backed-up) first post served both as an introduction to this blog’s origins and goals and as a brief discussion of my first exemplary American, and one of my couple all-time favorite people (historical, literary, national, human, you name it), W.E.B. Du Bois. The truth is that I could write dozens of posts on Du Bois, and I do have at least a couple of others planned; besides being a Renaissance American to rival any of the others I’ve written about here, and someone who wrote with equal impressiveness and eloquence and rigor about race, nation, history, creative/artistic/literary topics, fatherhood, the soul, and American and human ideals and what we need to do to achieve them—ie, add in Bruce and baseball and you’ve got a pretty good summary of Ben 101—he’s just a genuinely unique figure, someone who can’t really be compared to anybody else and without whom no account of American identity (or history, literature, scholarship) would be complete.
But today I’m thinking about a very specific moment from the concluding paragraph of one chapter of one work of Du Bois’s, his sociological and autoethnographic masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903). For most of that book’s sixth chapter, “Of the Training of Black Men,” Du Bois has written about that topic and community from an outsider’s or at least extremely analytical perspective, but in the concluding paragraph he makes plain his personal stakes in these questions; the whole paragraph is amazing (and available at the link below), but I’ll limit myself to quoting the first three sentences: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” Du Bois’s theory of the “talented tenth” of the African American community, which connects closely to his ideas in this chapter, has sometimes been described as an elitist one; but while of course not every person (of any race) wants to sit with Shakespeare or summon Aristotle, shouldn’t every person have the opportunity to do so?
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of American history can and should recognize the social and communal needs for affirmative action programs; in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, it was only just over forty years ago that the entire school system was closed for a year rather than adhere to the federal mandate to integrate racially (fifteen years after Brown had established that mandate!). To argue, as I have heard many folks do, that affirmative action programs are attempts to redress distant historical inequities like slavery and thus are not needed or appropriate in our contemporary society is thus to display either blatant ignorance or willful bigotry. Yet many critiques of affirmative action, such as those Donald Trump and his ilk have begun advancing in their attacks on President Obama’s educational background, are rooted in an even deeper and more profoundly discriminatory attitude. For these commentators, the notion that an Obama or a Du Bois deserves to attend our best educational institutions, that these men are among the most intelligent and talented Americans of any community, that in fact they are able to sit (and write) with Shakespeare when the commentator him or herself could never begin to do so, produces precisely a wince, and then a hateful response.
My point, quite simply, is this: affirmative action has been and remains a deeply necessary educational and social program, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with someone like Barack Obama. Obama, like Du Bois (and many of my other Hall of Famers) before him, embodies an ideal for which all Americans can strive, even if we recognize that we will likely never reach their level of inspirational impressiveness. When the vast majority of Americans can see and say that of men like them without the slightest wince, then and only then can we profess to a national belief that all men are created equal. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) “Of the Training of Black Men” (the whole of Souls is available here too): http://www.bartleby.com/114/6.html
2) A powerful response to the Trump attacks, from a Harvard classmate of mine and one of our best young political and social activists: http://www.jackandjillpolitics.com/2011/04/video-with-president-obamas-birth-certificate-klansman-trump-reminds-blacks-they-will-never-be-american/
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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