U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Protest and Accommodation: A false dichotomy

I taught the conflict between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington three times this semester. Once in my African American history class and once each in my two Paideia classes, when we were reading The Souls of Black Folk. When I encouraged students to understand the difference between protest and accommodation, I was struck by a couple of things. First, I remembered my own efforts in graduate school to move beyond this discussion because it struck me as a false dichotomy. Secondly, students really liked it and understood it precisely because it is so simple. And almost to a person in Paideia, they all argued on behalf of Du Bois, except for the few who suggested that if Du Bois and Washington had just gotten along, the black freedom struggle would have accomplished so much more.

I recently asked H-AfroAm where the literature is on Protest and Accommodation. For the most part, the few responders agreed that it was a false dichotomy. Even that fact that only a couple of people responded suggests that this is not an issue that raises interest. In my own investigation of the historiography, I was struck by Cornel West’s 1982 declaration,

“The Du Bois-Washington debate set the framework for inclusionary African practices in the United States in this century. The numerous black ideological battles between integrationism and nationalism, accommodationism and separatism are but versions and variations of the Du Bois-Washington debate. For example, Marcus Garvey, the great Jamaican leader of the first mass movement among Africans in the United States, simply gave Washington’s self-help orientation a nationalist slant and back-to-Africa twist; his personal admiration of Washington is indisputable.” (89) …

The dominance of the ideology has ended because

“The postmodern period has rendered the framework of the Du Bois-Washington debate obsolete, but presently there is little theory and praxis to fill the void.”(93)

I think that this obsolescence of the framework is partly what is influencing modern historiography. My assertion, in contrast, is that if this duality energized debate among African Americans and I find evidence of that energy in the primary sources, I can use the debate to frame my research, as long as I recognize that lived practice was necessarily different from stated ideology and that even ideology did not break down so easily into each camp as undergrads would wish.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. In the contemporary world it does seem as though Du Bois simply won the argument. I’ve several times been present at talks where historians tentatively–and it has got to be tentatively–suggested that maybe we should be less dismissive of Washington, should less reflexively take Du Bois’ side.

    here is a brief reflection on a different moment of african-american history, and a different but related dichotomy (violence and non-violence), from someone pretty far outside the field:
    http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2012/11/deacons-for-defense.html

    as he says especially at the end, in terms of larger historical/political dynamics, it is at least plausible that effective explanations will have to include both. that is, the non-violent civil rights campaign was successful in part because there was also always a group that was more willing to meet violence with violence. the situation isn’t the same between du bois and washington, but maybe a similar argument could be at least entertained to change the terms of debate? (maybe, probably, it already has been? i’m not familiar enough with the historiography to say).

    more locally: you are suggesting that the protest/accommodation dichotomy is present in the sources, explicitly articulated there, and so is a plausible frame for your own work, at least as a starting point? or that it isn’t clearly articulated by the people you’re working on, but still a useful heuristic?

    • Thanks for the link. I will check it out.

      Yes, I see the dichotomy expressed in the women I study (they were friends and yet expressed these two very different views. Unfortunately I don’t have them talking to each other, but I do have them in the same spaces). I should have linked to the post where I first started to write about this: http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2012/11/new-direction-for-my-book.html

      I’m trying to decide if I can say that I have found the female equivalent of the Du Bois-Washington debate, given that people don’t like the dichotomy anymore. Except, I think that I’ve seen more people saying, we shouldn’t give Washington such a bad rap than I’ve seen people saying let’s throw out the discussion entirely. In my work, I try to show how both women’s approaches were necessary and effective in different times and places (and sometimes in the same time and place, such as at Fisk University).

  2. My students find the debate similarly compelling, and they often continue to use it as a framework of analysis through the remainder of the semester. But a lot of them have actually noted that it’s a false dichotomy and would be better framed as an evolution, either in terms of chronological sequence [“you crawl before you can walk”] or as a sort of Maslov’s hierarchy.

  3. It’s a perfectly fine dichotomy and one that remains useful today. (This is not to say that DuBois and Washington map perfectly onto this dichotomy of ideal types.) The dichotomy becomes more useful to showcase the contrast between the two as we move from a young to a mature DuBois. Which is to say, ‘Black Reconstruction’ is not ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’ While some students might find ‘Souls’ a bit dated, B.R. remains as provocative and timely as ever.

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