U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Intellectual Development of African American Children

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.

It seems so tragic to me (for both father and daughter) that someone so intent on promoting education and a profession for his daughter would have a child more content with traditional gender norms. She worked very hard to live up to her father’s expectations, but was fighting against her own inclinations. You can see the struggle in the following quote from her letter to her father in reply to the one above.
 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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There are some really interesting things going on in this post — thanks for making me think.

    On childhood in intellectual history…

    I suppose the chief difficulty would be methodological, a matter of textual evidence. Most children, one supposes, do not leave ample textual records of their own thinking. Recollections of childhood — memories — would probably serve better as evidence for a different kind of inquiry: not for an intellectual history of children, but of the idea of childhood.

    One thing I noticed about Michael Kazin’s bio of William Jennings Bryan was the minimal attention Kazin gave to Bryan’s childhood. However (in contradiction to what I just wrote above) I doubt that’s simply due to a relative lack of textual evidence. It probably reflects Kazin’s judgment that Bryan’s childhood is not the key to his thinking. If there’s a “key,” Kazin locates it in Bryan’s college-age/early adult fusion of “Jefferson and Jesus.” It’s one of those questions of significance and selection — the fact that every adult subject had a childhood shouldn’t oblige us to give their childhood years as much consideration as we give other years. But it doesn’t preclude such consideration either.

    On education and gender norms…

    Are you suggesting that it is “tragic” that DuBois’s daughter did not live up to his dreams for her, or that the options from which she had to choose at the time presented erudition and femininity as mutually exclusive?

    • I just finished Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and it got me thinking how many memoirs and novels are based around the coming of age idea. If it’s so important to individuals, why shouldn’t it be important to historians? But of course, the sources are problematic.

      No, that’s not what I meant by “tragic.” I meant that it was tragic for Du Bois to be a feminist and have a daughter who wasn’t built for intellectual pursuits and it was tragic for Yolande to be caught between her own impulses and her father’s desires for her.

  2. “…explaining who she was…” there’s something difficult in imagining what it would do to a young person to have a father who speaks with as much authority as Du Bois did explain, at a young age, “who she was”, that is, was to be.

    two thoughts: i’ve been reading a *The Education of Henry Adams,* so far only up through Harvard. I suspect that there is a rich autobiographical-intellectual-historical literature on childhoods. probably highly conventionalized. I wonder if anyone has written about this?

    and–a few years ago I heard Saidiya Hartman read from a project dealing partly with Du Bois. It was a sort of semi-fictionalization, if I remember correctly, dealing with his time working on *The Philadelphia Negro,* doing street-level sociological surveys. It dramatized Du Bois’ radical incapacity to understand African American women who found some kind of satisfaction in what he regarded as morally degenerate activity. Men, dancing, shoes… At one point, as I recall, Hartman spoke through a couple of teenage girls looking into a shop window, dealing in an oblique way with some of the issues that you’re raising in the disagreement between WEB and Yolande about who she was supposed to be. Hartman is brilliant enough that she makes this sort of thing work, even though I’m usually suspicious of it. No idea if it’s been published or not, but maybe worth looking into.

    • I think you’re right that there must be such a literature. I need to look harder.

      And wow, what a perfect example of what I was trying to talk about! Thank you so much for pointing out Hartman’s work to me!

  3. Childhood has become an increasing subject of interest among literary scholars, but we focus on childhood as a representation–that can of course have multiple meanings in different contexts–and not in the experience of childhood itself. The latter is a necessary task, but full of potential pitfalls, not too different from writing on subaltern peoples.

    The problem I often see in the work I have read is the treatment of childhood as an ahistorical notion, without considering contemporaneous ideas and debates on children.

    One last comment: Maybe from your perspective Yolande seemed a “pretty average” child, but the social conditions in which she grew up certainly were not, as the daughter of an upper-class intellectual like DuBois. 🙂

    • Yes, certainly she had extraordinary advantages above and beyond other children of any race. I guess that’s why her “averageness” is striking. By the time she was in middle school, her father had given up on her being brilliant, though he still looked for her to at least succeed in a profession. She kept trying to live up to his expectations for her (which were both high and low), but kept feeling drawn towards fashion and boys.

    • I follow you, but so-called exceptional children also feel drawn towards fashion and boys (and/or girls), even if they repress such desires, do not voice them, or speak against them.

      It seems to me that the facts that you have pointed to appear to be more telling about WEB than about Yolande, about his ideas on African American youth culture, especially on African American girls and young adults, as well as parenting. It could even be argued that his impatience with Yolande embodies his frustration with African Americans in this period (before his Marxist turn, that is). One might also wonder if Yolande consciously resisted in some way the path that her father tried to impose on her.

    • I definitely agree with you. It’s been hard to find Yolande’s voice in the midst of the very strong presence of her father.

      And I feel embarrassed for equating “average” with liking fashion and boys. Perhaps I should have quoted her grades instead, which tended to be marginal.

      But she also suffered frequently from illnesses that distracted her from school. I hope I can write this in a way that I feel is honest to Yolande and neither overly criticizes or excuses her. I really am trying to just figure her out. But there is the problem of sources.

  4. Well, I am a little surprised both by your use of the word “tragic” (as opposed to some other, less extreme term) and the situation to which you have applied it. It sounds like what you have in view as a regrettable fact is something like the disconnect or distance between what DuBois believed his daughter could be or ought to become and who she ended up becoming. Perhaps you also have in view the disconnect between the (presumed) breadth of the possibilities that were open to Yolande and the (presumably) narrow conventionality of her choice to marry, then divorce, teach school, etc.

    I don’t see tragedy here — or at least not where you see it. I can imagine that DuBois might have been more or less disappointed, or Yolande more or less happy, with one course of action over another. But in the letter you quoted, DuBois urged his daughter to choose between a life of intimate relationships and a life of intellectual pursuits. If there’s tragedy here anywhere, I would locate it in the stark polarity of such choices, and in the fact that Yolande seemed to agree with her father that those were her two basic choices.

    But taking a step back, I am not sure that I would view anything in this scenario as “tragic.” I don’t mean to harp on that word — I’m sure you might just as easily have used any number of terms that convey the sense of something sad or disappointing or discouraging or what have you. But it’s interesting to me that you chose that term, especially given the fact that you are also thinking about why historians might (or might not) want to employ the framework of a bildungsroman in exploring and explaining the life of their past subjects, a form that has proved desirable for novelists and memoirists. But the bildungsroman is not a formal scaffolding in which or around which historical content can be arranged; narrative form ports its own content into historical writing. (Yes, I have been reading Hayden White.)

    The form of the bildungsroman reflects a particular narratological sensibility (off the top of my head, I’d say Whiggish and teleological). The dramaturgical shape of a bildungsroman will constitute or call forth its suitable subject, and not vice versa. All narrative seems to do this, but each narrative form or mode does it differently. And what bildungsroman brings is only one part of the process — there is also what the form might obscure or exclude. This is why I am so struck by the word “tragic,” which puts DuBois and his daughter in a particular dramaturgical scenario that may preclude other equally fruitful ways of understanding them in their context, and of understanding their context through them.

    • Hmmmm, you’ve given me much to think about. I guess I approached Yolande’s early life (I still don’t know much about her later life) as tragic b/c of her failed marriage to Countee Cullen, a gay man. And then when I realized that her hopes and Du Bois’s hopes were so poorly matched, it seemed that much more tragic. I mean, a feminist ending with a daughter who didn’t want to pursue a profession; and a daughter happy with her culture’s gender norms given a father who kept pushing her to be someone she wasn’t. But, yes, maybe tragic is the wrong word for this little household drama. Or maybe it is misdirected–i.e. the tragedy maybe that Du Bois could not appreciate women who enjoyed “feminine” pursuits. Like I said, much to think about.

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