Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Withywindle on Booker T. Washington and a counter-canon of great Black Americans

Withywindle's recent post responding to Eric Holder's canon of great Black Americans is a must-read:

And then Booker T. Washington. What to say? I object more to ignoring him, and his work for Black Americans; I’m not actually inclined to say Yay, Booker; Boo, DuBois. He shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither do I say that his is the one true path. Surely Washington and DuBois were the great complements, both necessary for the liberation of Black Americans?

But more than that: how can one look at Washington’s accommodations and not perceive the strength of character it took to make them? How can you look at the soft voice and think “Uncle Tom”, rather than recognize the iron will that made that voice soft? I am reminded of Gottfried Lessing’s Nathan the Wise - Nathan the Jew, an endlessly patient plaster saint of a man, whose endurance of Christian prejudice eventually redeems the Christian characters. Oh, joy, being effeminately virtuous for other people’s benefit – I’m told various Black Americans have tired of that role too. But there is a bit in the play worth focusing on:

"You found me at Darun – the child and you.
You did not know that Christians just before
Had murdered all the Jews that were in Gath –
Men, women, children; knew not that my wife
And sons, seven hopeful sons, were there among them,
And in my brother’s house, where they had fled
For safety, had to perish in the flames. ....
Three days and nights I’d lain
In dust and ashes before God, and wept
When you arrived. Wept? I had wrestled hard
At times with God; had stormed and raved; had cursed
Myself and all the world; had sworn a hate
Against the Christians, unappeasable. ....
Gradually my reason
Returned to me. She spoke with gentle voice:
'And yet God is: e’en this was God’s decree!
Up, then! and practise what you’ve long believed
To practise cannot be more difficult
Than to believe, if you but will. Rise up!'
I stood erect and cried to God: 'I will!'"

Nathan is not just a plaster saint, but a man who has known unappeasable hate, wrestled hard with God. Who can look at Washington’s life and think he was different? That his soft words were any less hard won than Nathan’s? My God, the man lived in a furnace all his life and burnt himself out for his people; and he is to be without honor in his own country? Not if I can help it.

Read the whole thing.