Daily Archives: 30 August 2004

Naipaul on W.E.B. and Booker T.

In two chapters of A Turn in the South entitled “The Truce with Irrationality” (I and II) Naipaul interviews mostly black Southerners in Tallahassee, Florida, and Tuskegee, Alabama. The title comes from Naipaul’s gloss on a literary quote.

“The most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.” The words by James Baldwin (among the most elegant handlers of the language) had stayed with me since I had read them, nearly thirty years before…. But now, in the South, in the middle of my own journey, I began to wonder whether the truce that every black man looked for hadn’t in fact been with the irrationality of the world around him. And the achievement of certain people began to appear grander.

Besides interviewing living people, Naipaul rereads famous works by two famous men, and examines their literary and educational legacies.

Tuskegee was still a going concern. It had a devoted community; and it still had heart. Its financial predicament was the predicament of black schools generally; and it was better off than some. Its physical condition was very far from that of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where in parts the campus looked ruined. There was a melancholy bronze statue there too, at Fisk, meant to set the seal on glory, but now seeming to watch over the ruins. The statue was of W.E.B. Du Bois, the rival and critic of Washington….

The quarrel or debate between the two men, Du Bois and Washington, both mulattoes, is famous. Du Bois might seem closer to contemporary feeling. But his best-known book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays and articles, is a little mysterious….

If Booker T. Washington can make a darky joke, Du Bois can speak of “the joyous abandon and playfulness which we are wont to associate with the plantation Negro”; can say, “Even today the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than Northern laborers”; and he can ask, “What did slavery mean to the African savage?”

But we can read through both the Du Bois way of writing and the Booker T. Washington manliness to the facts of Negro life of the time, and see the difficulty both men would have had in defining themselves, and establishing their own dignity, against such an abject background. As if in resolution of that difficulty, Du Bois’s book seems lyrical for the sake of the lyricism. It can appear to use blacks and ruined plantations as poetic properties. It deals in tears and rage; it offers no program.

In this beginning of Du Bois there was also his end. He lived very long, and towards the end of his life–facing irrationality with irrationality–he left the United States and went to live in West Africa, in Ghana, a former British colony that had in independence very quickly become an African despotism, and was soon to revert to bush and poverty, exporting labor to its neighbors.

At the very beginning of the century, in Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington, in his late-Victorian man-of-the-world style, had cautioned against just that kind of sentimentality about Africa. “In the House of Commons, which we visited several times, we met Sir Henry M. Stanley. I talked with him about Africa and its relation to the American Negro, and after my interview with him became more convinced than ever that there was no hope of the American Negro’s improving his condition by emigrating to Africa.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 120, 151-153.

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Up from Slavery: "A painful coded work"

On this journey I read [Booker T. Washington’s] Up from Slavery twice. On the second reading, after I had been nearly four months in the South, I found that the book had changed for me. It became more than the fabulous story of a disadvantaged man’s rise. I began to see it as a painful coded work, making separate signals even in a single paragraph to Northerners, Southerners, and blacks.

I also began to see the book as the work of a man constantly concerned to raise funds for his school. That should have been obvious to me always, but it hadn’t been; that had been swept away by the power of the fable. Below that primary appeal, however, there were others: the man of the world appealing knowledgeably to the very rich on behalf of the wretched, representing himself as honorable and worthy and manly and educated; yet at the same time taking care to do the contrary thing, and making it clear that as a black man he knew his place.

Hence his confident, socially knowing talk, like any solid late-nineteenth-century citizen, of the “best people” and the “vices” of “the lower class of people.” But he is mortified when, on a train journey from Augusta to Atlanta in Georgia, in a Pullman car “full of Southern white men,” two ladies from Boston, “ignorant, it seems, of the customs of the South,” insist on inviting him to supper. The meal seems very long. As soon as he can, he breaks away from the ladies to go to the smoking room, where the men now are, “to see how the land lay.” It is all right; the men know who he is and are anxious to introduce themselves to him.

In England he develops a high regard for the aristocracy and the time and money they devote to philanthropic works. He is impressed by the deference of servants, who are content to be servants all their working life and, unlike American servants, use the words “master” and “mistress” without any constraint. In that ambiguous observation there are consoling messages both for blacks and Southern whites. He becomes friendly, he says, with the Duchess of Sutherland. She is a famous beauty. But as a black man he will be out of place to say so directly. He writes, “I may add that I believe the Duchess of Sutherland is said to be the most beautiful woman in England.”

So many snares; so many people to please; so many contradictions to resolve; so many possibilities of destruction. The achievement was great. But at what cost. He died at the age of fifty-nine.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 153-154.

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