I’ve been starting and re-starting an essay that takes up the dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois concerning the shape and meaning of racial uplift. The topic isn’t new, of course, but I’m hoping I have something new or interesting to say. And the topic came from a short, but really interesting conversation in my F’12 seminar Du Bois and After. An African-American student – and this comment kind of came out of nowhere – said this really interesting thing in response to reading Washington’s Up from Slavery: “When I drive by farms, I find myself praying there are no black people working in the field.” I asked why, even as I had my suspicions. “I don’t know, it seems so haunted by the past, working in the field. It’s just too much.” Profound stuff. Maybe there’s something like that at work in Du Bois’ critique of Washington.
The differences between Washington and Du Bois are fairly straightforward and a standard narrative of juxtaposition structures most literature on the relation. Southerner and New Englander, born into slavery and born into the color line, the world of work and the world of ideas, etc. – there is a certain intractable difference between the two theorists, and Du Bois’ deep, sustained critique of Washington bears that intractability out in every regard.
At the same time, both thinkers emerge in the element of what I want to call – and this is so very informed by my student’s comment – “abject labor.” The legacy of slavery renders black labor abject, both as the condition of enslavement (something Up from Slavery makes clear) and as embodied memory. By framing the conversation in terms of the abjection of labor, and consequently how memory informs theorizing liberation, I think we can open up important new (if largely speculative) dimensions of the Washington-Du Bois relation. The essay reads (or would like to read) the relation between Washington and Du Bois around the question of what it means for black bodies to be laboring bodies after Reconstruction. In particular, I ask if we might be able to read Souls and Du Bois’ two essays on the idea of a “talented tenth” as a reflection of his anxiety about the meaning of black labor. Perhaps Du Bois’ criticisms of Washington reflect an unresolved tension in life after Reconstruction: having been labor and machine for two and a half centuries, what would it mean to labor again, not as a machine, but as subject, agent, and, whether in a national or black nationalist register, citizen. As well, for all the problems one might have with the argument in Up from Slavery, especially with the famous worlds on compromise in the Atlanta speech, perhaps Washington is worth re-reading in order to retrieve an originally Marxist, now racialized and existential moment, one that identifies human meaning in labor and sees in the black laboring body a crucial site of liberation. For Washington, recovery of the meaning of labor is an existential transformation of American memory. In that sense, we can begin reading Washington against Du Bois, not on pragmatic grounds (importance of black wealth and inheritance, operating fully outside the control or influence of whites) alone, but also and maybe firstly on existential-memorial grounds: the laboring body has to repudiate or transform it’s incarnation of history such that work has value as something after the machine. And, after that transformation, it can be held under a gaze that sees the human agent, not the memory of exploitation, abjection, and trauma.
While this reading of Washington and Du Bois does not adequately address the standard issues of nationalism, compromise, and assimilation (it’s an essay, not a book), it does reveal a larger existential problem raised by the two thinkers – one, I would argue, very well might revise some of the canonical history of ideas in the African-American intellectual tradition.