The African Americans’ story is one that seems to be a repeated commitment to a scenario for success and failure. With each failure, the blow is that much more traumatizing until finally one reaches a point where there is to some degree an internalization, skepticism, fatalism, and expectation that it isn’t going to work.
Harlem was the main chance for the east end of New York, for eastsiders, as that real estate boom that took place in the 1890s – and it was a preposterous one where people bought and sold, and everything appreciated with each sale – and eventually, of course, the house of cards would crumble.
The commitment to literacy was constant on the part of African Americans. And the percentages of literacy by the end of the century, by 1900, basic literacy has galloped ahead. People believed that education, of course, was the turnstile for advancement.
I felt in my bones that Alfred Kazin was right to suggest that ‘the deepest side of being American is the sense of being like nothing before us in history’ – a historical conceit that privileged biography as the narrative of the exceptionalist experience.
I came into my teens unaware that most Americans, blacks as well as whites, were ignorant of the main facts of Negro history. And so it was the facts of other histories that I found most intriguing. I fell into a U.S. history major by chance late in my second year at Fisk University.
There was a very famous leader in Atlanta who thought that education was appropriate, but on the whole, the view was, ‘If you’re going to keep people down, you have to keep them ignorant. And so, nothing personal, but we just don’t want to recognize the attributes that man of learning would bring. Quite threatening, those would be.’
Philosophically, Dubois may have had no problem with a great African American institution. On the other hand, he always believed ultimately in the co-mingling of groups and the interplay of talents and in the collaboration of groups.