Saturday, August 13, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: " In an essay on the role of black intellectuals in the 21st century you briefly talk about the importance of Du Bois. Can you expand your comments about him? I just finished reading Dusk of Dawn. I find few people have read it. It seems as if Du Bois is reduced down to one book---The Souls of Black Folk. What works by Du Bois do you often return to for inspiration?

Those poor souls (black as well as white folk) who have read a lot of my writing can tell you that I don't often quote from Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, but I have leaned heavily on three remarkable, endlessly fascinating (to me) paragraphs that appear early in his talk, "Criteria of Negro Art." This was an address Du Bois delivered in 1926 at the Chicago Conference for the NAACP. His lecture, which was later published in The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, which Du Bois himself edited, took place during the most entrenched period of segregation when the opportunities for black people were so painfully circumscribed. Twice now, and for very different reasons, I've quoted these paragraphs in essays as different as "A Sangha By Another Name" for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and "The End of the Black American Narrative" for The American Scholar. Here are those three paragraphs:     
         “What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?

“If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful;---what is it that you would want?  What would you immediately seek?  Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County?  Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore?  Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree?  Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners and buy the longest press notices?

"Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your heart that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that---but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.” 

 More than anything else, I admire and marvel at the compression of thought, feeling and vision that Du Bois achieves in such a brief passage. With his first paragraph, beginning "What do want?," he presents the black liberation struggle as a question of desire, and takes it from the realm of the immediate civil rights work of his era---securing for black people their rights as "full-fledged Americans"---to a larger and older realm of reflection on perennial ethical questions that reach back to Plato, Aristotle, Epicuris, and Marcus Aurelius. In other words, Du Bois urges his black audience in Chicago to begin thinking about what an "examined life" might look like. When the "group" or collective struggle is over, how will they choose to live as free, individual men and women? What values, he asks, are the best ones for a free people? Du Bois, genius that he was, was able to imaginatively project in 1928 beyond the bloody struggle of the moment, one of the most entrenched decades for Jim Crow in the last century, and to ponder how he and his NAACP colleagues should live in its aftermath, i.e., our time or the post-Civil Rights period.
 Viewing the second paragraph from the vantage point of 2011, a reader is immediately struck (and amused) by how everything he cites as goals that a black person might pursue if he or she were truly free are opportunities in our time and have been for decades. Moreover, his examples represent the most vulgar kind of materialism and conspicuous consumption. One can't help but think of the $2 million Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport car that Beyonce recently gave her husband Jay-Z for his 41st birthday. Or the gold and diamond watches that rappers Usher and Kanye West purchased from watch maker Tiret, each having its owner's face made from diamonds on the dial, Usher's costing $250,000, and West's having a price tag of $180,000. For Du Bois, these are not "goals and ideals" that can bring satisfaction, even if they seem to be enjoyed by some white (and black) Americans.
 In his third paragraph, where he dismisses such "tawdry and flamboyant" materialism, Du Bois settles down to business. The "true spirit" he would like to see in black America involves the Seeing Eye (vision), the Cunning Hand (skill), and the Feeling Heart (compassion, empathy).  A Buddhist easily sees in this list aspects of the Eightfold Path---Right View and Thought, Right Conduct---and the Dharma's call for us to practice metta or "lovingkindness." And what makes for a noble life in Du Bois's opinion? Plenty of good hard work. Wisely, he tells his audience that "perfect happiness" is probably an illusion; that pain and suffering are inevitably part of our individual lives; that "sacrifice and waiting" (does he mean delayed gratification?) are structural, lived experiences for those who have the "true spirit"; and that knowledge, creativity and self-realization (or self-actualization) are the things that make life worthwhile.
 And all of that---a trustworthy map for a rewarding, examined life---Du Bois accomplishes in only three, tight paragraphs. A mere 349 words. It's a haunting passage I can't forget or get out of my head, one that I reflect upon as often as I do Buddhist sutras and well-wrought pages from Western philosophy. I frequently re-read it for inspiration. And I'm sure I'll quote from it again in future essays and addresses.

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