David L. Smith, Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century professor of English, gave a lecture on the famous black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois’ worldview as expressed in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. The lecture is a component of the Black History Month program at the College.
Throughout his presentation, which was sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU), Smith used DuBois’ book to argue that although people of color have progressed in some ways since DuBois’ time, much of the scholar’s opinions and observations of 1903 still remain valid at the beginning of the 21st century.
Smith focused primarily the social and political themes of DuBois’s book, and said that “DuBois speaks to issues that remain pertinent a century later.” Smith spoke of Dubois’s development of his own discipline of sociology, his analysis of racism, and the social and political battles that he engaged in with the “Tuskegee machine,” fellow African-American leader, Booker T. Washington.
Smith particularly emphasized DuBois’s observation of a “Negro Problem,” which he felt had been built into the American political system. According to DuBois, the Negro Problem is a view that the black population creates social problems in American society just by its being African-American.
Smith also reminded the diverse audience that DuBois was in favor of a liberal arts education, in contrast to Booker T. Washington, because he felt that a liberal arts education not only taught skills but taught values. DuBois felt that in the long run, an education of values would lead to greater cooperation between black and white intellectual elites in their collective efforts to improve cultural and value-based education for the greater society. DuBois’s beliefs helped to give rise to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a powerful tool for advancing racial equality and civil rights.
Smith concluded his discussion of DuBois by quoting the black leader’s statement that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line” and by observing that DuBois ends The Souls of Black Folk with a melancholy hopefulness in the progress of race relations in the United States.
In contrast to DuBois’s views, Smith expressed his view that “it is hard to be hopeful looking around at the present condition of blacks.” Smith said that the socioeconomic gap between African-Americans and whites is still troubling because the economic conditions are little different from what they were in the beginning of the 20th century.
He argued that black workers are largely superfluous in the labor pool, and that there has been somewhat of a collapse in industrial development and its accompanying jobs due to the consistent movement of large corporations’ production facilities overseas. Smith also claimed that segregation is reemerging in American society, especially in the South and in lower socioeconomic classes, while diversity can be observed gradually emerging at the top of the economic ladder. Smith felt that the most disturbing aspect of this alleged situation was that both whites and blacks seemed to be satisfied with the current circumstances.
Furthermore, Smith said, there has not only been a reemergence of segregation but of slavery itself, as people from the Caribbean islands come to work on farms in the American South on labor contracts. Smith expressed dismay there was no national outcry over this revised system of slavery.
He also said that black institutions, such as historically black colleges, are not receiving proper funding from the government. Lastly, he voiced the opinion that there were no longer many nationally renowned black leaders.