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A Blues Moment in Dusk of Dawn: A Note on Autobiography

[By Jerry Ward]

W.
E. B. DuBois’s writing in The Souls of
Black Folk
(1901) is spiritual, and Dusk
of
Dawn (1940) complements the
first installment of his autobiographical project with a secular sorrow song,
with the blues.  Despite the
magnification of difference between Booker T. Washington and DuBois, it is
refreshing to know that DuBois admitted his kinship and parallelism with
Washington in the matter of miscalculating a solution for the problems of black
folk.  In Dusk of Dawn, Chapter 7, “The Colored World Within,” DuBois frees
the cat from the bag. A truth scampers out.

Here in the past we have easily landed
into a morass of criticism, without faith in the ability of American Negroes to
extricate themselves from their present plight. 
Our former panacea emphasized by Booker T. Washington was flight of
class from mass in wealth with the idea of escaping the masses or ruling the
masses through power placed by white capitalists into the hands of those with
larger income.  My own panacea of earlier
days was flight of class from mass through the development of a Talented Tenth;
but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and
character and not in its wealth.  The
problem which I did not then attack was that of leadership and authority within
the group, which by implication left controls to wealth — a contingency of
which I never dreamed.  But now the whole
economic trend of the world has changed. 
That mass and class must unite for the world’s salvation is clear.  We, who have had least class differentiation
in wealth, can follow in the new trend and indeed lead it.
Does
one respond to DuBois’s idealism with a mixtape of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is
Gonna Come” and Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is”? It may be
better to up the ante of ambivalence by reading Andrew Zimmerman’s “Booker T.
Washington, Tuskegee Institute and the German Empire: Race and Cotton in the
Black Atlantic.” GHI Bulletin No. 43
(Fall 2008):9-20, the coat-pulling essay Gregory Rutledge brought to my
attention.  Washington by way of a
practical enterprise and DuBois by virtue of his German education came to
unfortunate conclusions in the danger zone of global capitalism.  They ultimately had to pay the piper of grand
designs.  DuBois lived long enough to
recant; Washington died too soon to make amends.
The
blues moment does not eradicate our ambivalence, but it retards our temptation
to settle for hasty conclusions about leadership.  We check ourselves by reading what
Robert  J. Norrell says about Washington
and Africa in Up from History: The Life
of Booker T. Washington
(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 2009). We reread DuBois’s The
World and Africa
(1946) with greater skepticism. We ask what is leadership
to us.  A panacea is a mirage, and
DuBois’s blues epiphany confirms that the unity of mass and class is an
impossible dream, that salvation cannot materialize.