Black Boys in Crisis: Washington and Du Bois Are Turning Over In Their Graves

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

 Two figures loom large over the early stages of African-American education: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Washington, who was born into slavery in 1856, became the leader of the above-mentioned Tuskegee Institute. He advocated for accommodation and encouraged blacks to bolster themselves through educational and business opportunities, rather than by defying the Jim Crow laws that were taking effect at the time. Though his public statements were somewhat at odds with his intentions (he secretly funded court challenges to segregation, for example), he was seen by some in the African-American community as too feeble in confronting the racist apparatus. As an educator, Washington promoted what would now be viewed as a vocational school model: he wanted blacks to study “useful” topics such as agricultural and mechanical skills.

W. E. B. Du Bois was one of those who felt Washington was selling his people short by compromising with the Southern political establishment. Du Bois was raised in the North, in a Massachusetts community that enjoyed relative equality, and he was incensed by what was happening in other parts of the country. Du Bois was an extraordinary writer, and his 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, had an electrifying effect on his African-American readership. He later became heavily involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and his editorship of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis, gave him a platform to disseminate his ideas.

Du Bois disagreed fundamentally and publically with Booker T. Washington on education (though he later expressed regret for his vocal criticism). While Washington favored a vocational school model, Du Bois desired nothing less than the full complement of classics, arts, and humanities classes that upper-level white schools enjoyed at the time. In this, he followed the progressive educational thinking of John Dewey and others. Du Bois wrote: “Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation, we may build bread winning, the skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”

Du Bois’s cultivation and championing of a black elite, which he termed the “talented tenth,” had long-lasting implications for black society. On the one hand, it highlighted the intellectual achievements of university professors and the indelible creative output of the Harlem Renaissance; on the other, it failed to fully recognize that the majority of African Americans were still floundering within an inadequate and unequal educational system. As we shall see later on in the series, this partition still lingers within the African-American community and continues to have a dampening effect on the ability to engage black boys in education.

Du Bois, counter to conventional wisdom at the time, insisted that the Reconstruction Era was not a failure (a notion furthered in my Before Obama books). One of the positive areas he highlighted was the opening of public schools, which created a small but growing stratum of educated black men.

Dubois and Washington fought fiercely against oppression and left a legacy of greatness for those who would come after them. If they were alive today, what do you think they would say about the black boy crisis and more importantly the state of black America?

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