W.E.B. Du Bois vs Barrack Obama

Last year for Black History month I wrote a post that was a bit more entertainment related, but promised I would do something serious later.

Now is later (whut?).  Anyway…

W.E.B. Du Bois was born shortly after the Civil War to free Blacks and for the times, lived a fairly integrated middle class life in Massachusetts.  Needless to say, going to an integrated school and playing with white friends growing up wasn’t common for young Black kids at the time.  He coined the term “talented tenth” and was a very early voice in pushing for full integration and equal rights.  Naturally enough, things didn’t work out for him and became a socialist and moved to Ghana.

But before that he, as someone who was about as “privileged” as an African American could be at that time, fully accepted the culture he was raised and educated in; a Western one.

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of 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. 

-W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois clearly saw himself as a Western man.  He had a BA in History from Harvard, did post graduate work at the University of Berlin where he traveled Europe extensively, an returned to the US to get a PhD from Harvard.  He saw no incompatibility between being a Black man and embracing the Western canon.

Compare that to another prominent and privileged African American who many decades later, came to a different conclusion.

For three weeks I had traveled alone, down one side of the continent and up the other, by bus and by train mostly, a guidebook in hand. I took tea by the Thames and watched children chase each other through the chestnut groves of Luxembourg Garden. I crossed the Plaza Mejor at high noon, with its De Chirico shadows and sparrows swirling across cobalt skies; and watched night fall over the Palatine, waiting for the first stars to appear, listening to the wind and its whispers of mortality.

And by the end of the first week or so, I realized that I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I’d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine.

-Barrack Obama, Dreams From My Father 1995

Class, compare and contrast the differing views of Western culture by two prominent African Americans.  Du Bois, who spent his adult life during probably the most racist period in American history, regarded himself as part of Western civilization.  While Obama, who spent his adult life in an America in which Du Bois’ wildest dreams had been realized, saw himself as an outsider to Western Civilization.

What to make of this?

First of all, in 2021, is there even a single African American public intellectual who would say, “I sit with Shakespeare?”  Is there one who would say, “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius?”

I would say that’s unlikely.

I’ve always felt that the Western canon was open to all races if they chose to accept it.  That doesn’t seem to the trend however.  As noted in The New York Times Magazine, Princeton classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, wants to cancel the classics because “Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself.” 

This idea of burning down the idea of Western culture doesn’t even make sense in its own terms.  It’s not like African-American scholars are rushing off to Africa to sup at the table of African language, history, art, or culture.  No, they want their own victimization studies that do nothing but demonize what is actually their very own culture.

None of this is sustainable, and it gets loonier as time goes on.