|Yolande Du Bois|
I am particularly interested in the intellectual development of individuals, including their childhoods and education. I have the subjective feeling that African American history, like historiography in general (except for the subfield of the History of the Family), is not very concerned with childhood. I offer just one bit of anecdotal proof–one of my dissertation committee members criticized me for including childhoods in my dissertation (particularly that of the students at the M Street/Dunbar High School in Washington DC).
In addition to lack of interest, I think one of the reason why there is less of an emphasis on childhood is simply a lack of evidence. Biographers do what they can with the evidence they have, but other historians start with adults.
Let me offer one counter-example from a different field– I have a friend in the UK English Department, Nazera Wright, who is studying notions of African American girlhood in black print culture and her work seems eminently fresh and exciting to me. She, more than me, knows the work that has already been done on African American children.
These last couple of weeks I’ve been working on reconstructing Yolande Du Bois’s childhood, which also necessarily includes a lot about W.E.B. and Nina Du Bois as parents. Unlike the individuals one would usually be concerned with–i.e. figuring out the childhoods of extraordinary individuals–Yolande was on the whole pretty average, except for having one exceptional parent and for having opportunities almost no other child of her race had in her era. For instance, she spent two years at an English boarding school (and would have stayed longer except for the Great War which sent her and her classmates under their desks during zeppelin raids).
Yolande was a happy-go-lucky child eager to make friends and fit in. Her grades were marginal, which deeply discouraged both of her parents. Du Bois wrote a remarkable letter about her to the principal of the Bedales School in England, explaining who she was and the hopes he had for her education and her future. In particular, he wrote that he did not want her trained “just for breeding” but rather to have a profession that she was passionate about. Unfortunately for father and daughter, Yolande’s deep passions tended towards boys, clothes, and social engagements. As Yolande grew, Du Bois’s advice grew more and more strident and less sweet. He became very nervous when it seemed like a college boyfriend would divert her attention away from her studies (NO MRS. Degree for his daughter!). Speaking from a lifetime’s worth of a passion-less marriage (tempered by many extra-marital affairs), Du Bois wrote his daughter,
Making engagements and marriage are the light and accompaniments of life, and not its end and aim. Prepare first to live; get an education; know yourself; know the world as it is and was and may be. You have ability to write and draw—but these talents need long and painstaking cultivation. This work need not in the end, interfere with a happy marriage—rather it will enhance its chances of success. Nothing is more disheartening and idiotic than to see two human beings, without cultivated tastes, without trained abilities and without power to earn a living, locking themselves together and trying to live on love. Love is a splendid, beautiful thing. Life without it is worse than death. But love does not come by calling or by imagining yourself infatuated for life, when the fact is only a temporary sex attraction.
I have been thinking about what I’m going to do when I graduate. I wish I was about 5 people because there are so many things I want to do. For example; I want to work to make some money; (did I hear you say it’s about time); I want to get an MA degree; I want to study journalism and commercial illustrating, and I want to get married because I despise old maids (most of them) and when I’m old I’ll want some children.