In W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, I read two essays: “Of the Passing of the First-born,” and “Of Alexander Crummell.”
In the first essay, Du Bois writes emotionally about the death of his infant son. On page 133, there are two lines that stand out to me:
“Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and song and sweet-smelling flowers…We seemed to rumble down an unknown street behind a little white bundle of posies, with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much,—they only glanced and said, ‘Niggers!'”
Maybe some of the white observers had that reaction. But I wonder if that was true of all of them. Maybe, as they saw the funeral procession, some of them were reminded of their common humanity with those of a different race. For these white observers, African-Americans were “the other.” And yet, perhaps for a brief time, they were reminded that people of all races wrestle with grief and tragedy and death, and they thus felt a kinship with this “other.” At least I hope that was the case.
“Well sped, my boy, before the world had dubbed your ambition insolence, had held your ideals unattainable, and taught you to cringe and bow.”
What I’ve gotten out of several of Du Bois’ essays so far is that African-Americans could not win. If they tried to succeed, they were labeled “insolent.” If they did not work so hard, they were called “shiftless.” Also, it must have been awful for people to be told that their ideals were unattainable. That reminds me of young Malcom X being told by a school-teacher that he could not be a lawyer because it was unrealistic for him, a person of color. Fortunately, schools got established so that African-Americans could pursue their dreams. But, as Du Bois states, there were not enough schools, and African-American schools did not get much funding from the state. I can see why Du Bois was so dedicated to the establishment of a talented tenth of African-Americans, which could lead and mentor African-American communities.
That brings me to the next essay. Alexander Crummell was an African-American minister who promoted the education of African-Americans, even though there were critics who sneered that he was merely casting pearls before swine by doing so. On page 136, Du Bois says that, as a child, Crummell could have easily fallen into the bitterness of many African-American children, and yet a kind man mentored and educated him. And that encouraged Crummell to support the education of others.