The Black Commentator has a two part essay entitled: Booker T. vs DuBois
In which Booker T. Washington is thoroughly skewered as a prototype for current black conservatism. In summary, Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech is used to characterize Booker T. Washington as a sellout. Meanwhile DuBois is projected as a latter day saint of Civil Rights and Pan-Africanism. I would encourage the reader to read both parts of the essay since I will deviate from my normal quotidian rebut and simply write another means of looking at Booker T. Washington as well as critique current day critiques of him.
I used to be one who dismissed Booker T. Washington as a sellout. This was accomplished in High School where I was confronted with the famous "we don't want politics" speech. Indeed no self-respecting (if completely clueless) black person in the late 80's would agree with that speech. I had an opportunity to read "Up From Slavery" and passed simply because it was written by Mr. Washington. Well maybe I did read it then, but believe me other than "Cast your bucket" I was really NOT trying to hear Washington. When applying for college I was told to consider Tuskegee since I was pre-vet at the time. I said that Black Colleges, including Tuskegee were not "reflective" of society and the real world. In translation that meant, I understood that I had to work with white people and if I didn't get schooled with them, I would be clueless as to working with them. Yes, I drank the Kool Aid. Cherry flavor.
As providence would have it, I ended up at Tuskegee anyway. And my view of Booker T. Washington changed dramatically. You see I had spent a couple of years at Michigan State and Cornel prior to Tuskegee and the difference astounded me and not in a good way. Not to say that my experience at Tuskegee was bad, quite the opposite, it was probably THE defining moment of my life. I got there the year after one of Tuskegee's original buildings burnt to the ground. I am in possession of two bricks from that building. It was for me a watershed moment to be standing in front of a building that was built by the students of (and probably the residents of) Tuskegee. I came to understand that Tuskegee was more than just a school. It was an experiment in black industrial and economic power. Tuskegee was black institution building practiced. Not talked about. Not intellectualized but actually practiced. Was it perfect? No. But it was a start.
With this in mind I had to revisit why Booker T. Washington would say the things he said to white audiences. Imagine, 1881 in Deep South Tuskegee Al.. There are no black billionaires. What black there are in congress will soon be removed. White people control all economic activity in your area and you need to fund a school for blacks. What do you do? You could indeed go and talk about equal rights, equal opportunity and the like but it is highly unlikely you're going to get funding from those people. So you do what you have to to secure your funding. Does that make his speech any more palatable? No. But it puts it in perspective.
Secondly, I find it questionable that Booker T. Washington did not foresee that when blacks in the South or elsewhere obtained economic and institutional self sufficiency that they would not be able to or desire to go enter (or re-enter) politics.
In contrast I look at WEB DuBois and see that for all his academic work, he did not build and institution. Even worse, from my perspective, he lent his great intellect to a white institution, Harvard. To be more critical, DuBois was lobbing his critique of Washington from the relative comfort of the North, where Marcus Garvey noted: they talk a good game, but when the train crosses the Mason-Dixon line and the conductor asks that they (northern black leadership) move to the segregated car, they all do so.
See, personally, I have a HUGE problem with people at large white institutions who indiscriminately attack those living in the "lower digestive tract" of the beast for the compromises they may make to move forward. It's like Malcolm X talking about sell out Civil Rights leadership when he was with the NOI. We see that Malcolm X was bright and honest enough to change his position on the tactics of the leadership, without compromising himself.
Also we should note that even though DuBois was a great intellect, he cooperated with the demonization of a Pan-African organization, the UNIA. How does a Pan-Africanist, cooperate with the destruction of a Pan-Africanist organization? Because he had a disagreement with its leadership? I think that to be an error worse than Booker T. Washington's speeches.
Ultimately, even through today, Tuskegee failed to live up to it's potential. RR Moton stooped to the level of informing on "radical" students at the school.
It is unfortunate that here in 2006, some people do not have the maturity to get beyond the DuBois- Booker T. argument. Even today the Black intellectual movement and the black institution movement are still largely divorced. For instance, Many if not most of the well known black academics are in white institutions. The centers of black academies are in Harvard, Cornel, Temple and not Tuskegee, Morehouse, Howard. Why is the Diop conference at Temple and not at any of the HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)?
I have been told that it is near impossible to do research at HBCUs. Fine, then why not split time and dedicate an alternate semester or year with an HBCU? Why don't these black millionaires fund chairs or something to that effect to pay for these scholars to teach at HBCU's?
This is what the Booker T. vs. DuBois essay should have been about. Not some discussion by a Harvard professor praising another Harvard professor at the expense of an institution builder. I really don't see how current black conservatives can even be compared to Booker T anyway since they really aren't about building black institutions anyway. Also what would the author say when confronted with the fact that some Black Conservartives are in fact inspired by Malcom X and WEB DuBois? No doubt it would be said that the persons are taking the wrong message from those writers and thinkers. So why not propose that those Conservatives that latch onto Booker T. may well be taking the wrong message from him to?