Progress

The final bullet of the final slide we looked at today in class, under the heading “Du Bois ‘Of the Meaning of Progress,'” read “Questioning the value of progress.” Nitpicking, I want to point out that the lowercase letter p of that last bullet isn’t consistent with Du Bois’s capital-p Progress in this chapter, and I want to write about what that difference might mean. Du Bois uses the word on only two occasions in this chapter. First, when he returns to Alexandria ten years after his stint teaching there: “My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly.” Second, as he rides to Nashville in the Jim Crow car: “How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat?”

The Souls of Black Folk is the product of a literary world that had already moved past the practice of capitalizing every noun; Du Bois does capitalize some common nouns, but this capitalization has the effect of making the noun a specific reference — in “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others,” when the author writes that “[…] the nation was a little ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes, and was concentrating its energies on Dollars,” we know that Dollars means the industrial economic development of the South and not the bills in a wallet. I take the capitalization of Progress to mean that when Du Bois says that Progress is necessarily ugly, he is not referring to a general forward motion in society. Given that “Of the Meaning of Progress” is situated between “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” (where Du Bois lays into the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington) and “Of the Wings of Atalanta” (where Du Bois describes the liberating potential of higher education), I might eventually have figured out what Progress it is that Du Bois refers to in this chapter, but our edition’s introduction saved me from that work. Vann R. Newkirk II, who writes the introduction, describes the three chapters I’ve mentioned as “a semi-coherent suite of work in a multifaceted format: criticism of Washingtonian ideals of the black South supplemented with gripping personal experience and reporting.” Newkirk goes on to state specifically that “Of the Meaning of Progress” is “probably meant as a dig towards Washington and the kinds of lives Du Bois believes are the end results of his philosophy. Without civil-rights protections, liberal education, and an inward focus on liberation, these Washingtonian yeomen are doomed despite their Herculean work, so goes Du Bois’s implicit argument.”

Though I hadn’t considered the meaningfulness of Du Bois’s mention of translating “pro Archia poeta” for the parents of his students in Alexandria, Dr. Levy’s focus on the text has opened a line of inquiry that’s helpful in understanding what role Cicero’s defense of Archias is playing in Du Bois’s work. Cicero’s opening statement credits the poet with his own intellectual development and states that “all the arts which concern the civilising and humanising of men, have some link which binds them together, and are, as it were, connected by some relationship to another” — it’s hard not to hear echoes of Du Bois’s defense of liberal arts here. Mathias Hanses, in “Cicero Crosses the Color Line: The Pro Archia Poeta and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, writes that Du Bois bases his authorial persona in Souls on Cicero’s from this case, presenting himself “as a besieged advocate of higher education for disenfranchised blacks in a manner that consistently recalls Cicero’s self-portrayal as a defender of poetry and the liberal arts.”

Back to my point: the assertion that Du Bois is questioning the value of progress, lowercase p, gets into an abstract territory that we can’t really approach in “Of the Meaning of Progress.” What the chapter questions the value of is a certain vision of progress– the progress of the Atlanta Compromise and the New South. We spoke in class about the philosopher’s task of identifying those societal elements and structural barriers that function to keep us detached from society’s values. In “On the Meaning of Progress,” those barriers are clear. They are a.) Jim Crow and the Veil, and b.) the sharecropping system and a permanent state of debt. Even though Du Bois as a young teacher has bright students, the necessity of working in the fields to pay off sharecropping debt keeps those students away from school. Josie’s mother describes her family’s struggles:

“[…] how Josie had bought the sewing–machine; how Josie worked at service in winter, but that four dollars a month was “mighty little” wages; how Josie longed to go away to school, but that it “looked like” they never could get far enough ahead to let her; how the crops failed and the well was yet unfinished; and, finally, how “mean” some of the white folks were.”

Du Bois explicitly names the barriers standing in the way of his students: “barriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerous moments, against everything that opposed even a whim.” Even those in Alexandria whose lives ought to have improved are still stuck within the trap of debt: Doc Burke, who when Du Bois is teaching is attempting to buy “the seventy-five acres of hill and dale where he live[s]”, owns a hundred acres ten years later, but the Burkes are “still in debt.” Without knowing the specific context of what we’re looking at in this chapter of Souls, and perhaps because we’re reading chapters out of order, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Du Bois is arguing against a course (Booker T. Washington’s) that would maintain the material conditions that hold up the Veil. When the author asks us how we can measure Progress “there where the dark-faced Josie lies,” and “how many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat,” we understand that these are questions being asked of Washingtonian thinkers, and that the answer is that the kind of Progress Du Bois sees in Alexandria isn’t worth measuring if it has to be weighed against human lives and human sorrow.

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