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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Filed under Africa, slavery, U.S.

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