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The Souls of Black Folk

by W. E. B. Du Bois

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In "The Souls of Black Folks", what is Du Bois's criticism of Booker T. Washington?

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W.E.B. Du Bois's criticism of Booker T. Washington was that he sacrificed the humanity of black Americans in his plan to establish economic advancement.

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W.E.B. Du Bois had a number of individual points of criticism against Booker T. Washington, which he amply expressed in the essay "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" comprising the third chapter of The Souls of Black Folk. But his specific point of criticism, upon which all others hinged, is that Washington's plan sacrificed the humanity of black Americans. The centrality of this criticism is borne out by the epigraph, a quotation from poet Lord Byron, heading the essay:

From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned! . . .
Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
BYRON. (Childe Harold, Canto II)

Even though Du Bois (also spelled DuBois) ultimately came to criticize Washington, early on they shared some perspectives and cooperated on certain issues. For example, they shared mutual belief in the overriding importance of establishing economic advancement. After the turn of the twentieth century, however, Du Bois's perspective changed. He came to criticize Washington on three principle concerns: political injustice, civil rights, and liberal arts versus industrial education (Washington advocated industrial education).

Du Bois criticized Washington's "policy of submission." He denounced it as running contrary to the "history of nearly all other races and peoples," who, when in "crises," had demanded "manly self-respect." In contrast to historic example, as Du Bois emphasizes, Washington "distinctly asks that black people give up" political power, civil rights and higher education:

Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth . . .

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DuBois's expressed admiration of Washington's accomplishments is barbed; for, he describes Washington's ability "[t]o gain the sympathy and coöperation of the various elements comprising the white South" as part of a "singleness of vision" and "oneness with his age." Indeed, Washington was very focused on his ambition to build Tuskegee University with funds from white philanthropists and was intent on putting Southern whites at ease by advocating for segregation, so that he could accomplish his own aims without disruption.

However, that "singleness of vision" is also DuBois's problem with Washington. This vision, which concerned itself mostly with "financial and social stress," curbed the humanitarian vision for black progress. DuBois uses the examples of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey to remind the reader of the tradition of resistance in black history, even when black people were subjugated under slavery. DuBois explicitly criticizes Washington on this point, as follows: "Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission." However, to DuBois, Washington promotes this "at such a peculiar time." It was the Progressive Era and, thus, a time of both economic development as well as one in which black people had a somewhat sympathetic president in Theodore Roosevelt, who invited Washington to the White House.

DuBois specifically outlines what Washington asks black people to relinquish in favor of "industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South":

First, political power,

Second, insistence on civil rights,

Third, higher education of Negro youth.

For DuBois, these needs could not be compromised. He disliked what he perceived as Washington's philistinism, or favor for material gain above all else. Also, DuBois strongly valued liberal-arts education and disliked Washington's single-minded insistence on black people learning trades in manufacturing and agriculture.

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Booker admires Washington for his many accomplishments, yet critcizes him for bein an accommodationist. According to Dubois, Washington counseled “submission,” and this “overlooked certain elements of true manhood.” Accomodationism interfered with the essential rights of Negroes: 1) the right to vote, 2) civic equality, and 3) the education of Negro youth according to ability. He thought Washington’s position, though popular, especially among liberal whites, would undermine black franchise and education.

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