I have before me the book
Bois on Reform (2005), by an English professor,
Brian Johnson, professor at Gordon College and a Harvard fellow.
It is significant this book is not the work of a historian. It
is an anthology, divided in several parts (eras), of Du Bois'
periodical writings, from a 15-year old scholar of Great
Barrington until his career as Editor of Crisis was
shortened. It is a
very complex Du Bois many of us do not know.
In this final period of 25 years (1910-1935),
the peculiar center, tenor, of Du Bois’ journalistic writings
is the moral, ethical uplift of a degraded people. This
missionary work, however, was informed by the greatest
intellects and science—to clean up those made less than human by
the peculiar institution, to make them ready, and prepared for
the rest of American society. We may quarrel over the ends, but
not the commitment.
Du Bois, Dr. Johnson reminds us, had little
confidence in Negro churches. I do not want to talk about how
christening is done in America. As a source of leadership,
let’s be clear about it, since King’s violent death, the
Negro Church has produced sycophants, mountebanks, demagogues
with a great train of female devotees. They jump all about, and
shout, with high-fives, and fancy hats, their pastor on a
massive overhead screen.
I am not sure I speak well of Negro morals
and ethics. I'm sure that Du Bois had more certainty about his
morals and ethics than I. In the realm of scholarship and racial
commitment Du Bois is beyond reproach. What is significant to me is
what Du Bois did with the Crisis (1910-1935), how he made
his utilitarian journalism have such sway.
As an editor myself, Dr. Johnson's view is
exciting—he raises questions about how Du Bois became
scholar activist, how, with regard to the Negro, he
popularized in a variety of magazines and journals the social
sciences as a substitute for the religious dogma of the more
negro/white enthusiastic-led congregations, how Du Bois as journalist,
compelling and authoritatively, became a national leader, a
public intellectual. Do you recall that most of the essays of Souls
of Black Folk appeared first in Atlantic Monthly, or
such magazines and journals. His audience was both white and
black, at once.
As early as 1937 George Schuyler reminded his
Courier audience that we had seen the end of an era. My
friend Christian took him to task somewhat. But I think he
missed the point. In 1937, Crisis was no longer Crisis;
Opportunity no longer in its former stride,
and the editorial work of A. Philip Randolph lost its rigor, its
How was Du Bois, Johnson, and Randolph able
to gather such swaying intellectual and ethical influence,
appeal to such varied audiences, far-reaching down to
every public school teacher and classroom, for so long? With a
greater illiterate audience than now exist? And why with
more resources, greater means, no such Crisis,
today, no Opportunity, though the Urban League and the
NAACP have more money, higher corporate wages
No Crisis on paper is possible today.
It’s all foundations and corporations, buying respectability
while the walls of state fall about our shoulders. Ad men and
commercial hacks these are our editors of our most popular
magazines, in which 85 percent are corporate ads, crass and
shiny. And females in scanty clothing, could Du Bois have
adjusted to this glossy modernization? These magazines and
journals, not even the best literary ones have a moral and
ethical center that can be easily discovered, though color and
culture are emphasized, there is no we.
And we love the Harlem Renaissance!
Did Du Bois go over board in that which he
thought should be done, heard, read, listened to, in retrospect,
barely. I got an email just yesterday, offering me $20 for
"every move" if I would only put a banner, a small one
about EbonyDating on ChickenBones.
Sometimes it's just a matter of taste. I do
not know that my criticism is directed at the Negro elite,
though old families with a different kind of ethic and taste did
once exist. I think we can disagree about Banjo or other
works that Du Bois snubbed his nose. We understand what he was
up against. Unenthusiastic I am sure he would be morally
repulsed by the enthusiasms we find in the mega-Negro churches
of today. Yet Du Bois was not a godless man, however much a
Communist he became. For a secularist he was always bringing God
and the scriptures into his discussions.
That was a different era when religion and
mystery were much more vital in the world, much more faithful in
the dynamic of man and God, that's an age and a sentient world
away from today's tele-evangelist supra-wealthy black preachers,
with them, we judge by the square-foot of their opulence.
Du Bois was 67 when he got the NAACP boot.
They thought he had no understanding of contemporary realities.
He was old and governed by yesterday's events, and ethics. We
need fresh blood, youth, and new ideas. These are our black
corporate elite, the black businessman, entrepreneurs,
enterprisers of the month, ceos by the thousands. We have gotten
what we asked for, we wanted a new kind of thinking, a looser,
more optimistic, a more-smiley-faced public demeanor.
But in that world, this contemporary
thinking, moral and ethical rigor run only down, not upward.
Demands on the strong, less than on the weak; more accommodation
for the comfortable than the homeless. These cats like Uncle Cos
don't want Du Bois' missionary ethics, his simplicity, Du Bois
didn’t have that corporate feel, nor ML King, nor Malcolm.
Well, today’s editors, today’s leaders, would not dare leave
that out of their resumes. With such crassness above, what can
we expect from below.
There's been a lot of self-indulgence, and
loose morals, in today’s world Du Bois would find shameless,
like the new bestseller in black bookstores, Diary of a Video
Ho. The NYTimes did an article on her, an attractive young
black woman who looks as if she came from a good family, such
shameless avariciousness. All our ethics are weighed down by out
notions of "success," by hook or crook. Our
measure of success is by what corporate board we have a seat.
Not by what cross for others we carry bloody up the hill.
Mr. Johnson, and other young scholars have
good reasons to call the ethics of our generation to the bar. We
lost our way. And our children bear the weight.
know the deal for Black Voices, Essence, and BET.
There’s no moral or ethical commitment here that remind me of
Du Bois, not even that Du Bois who argued for a black economy
and self-reliance. I have no qualms with elitism as long as it
retains its vitality and cause. It is rather middle-class
crassness and coldness, today, against which we must direct our
force, rather than the moral or social awkwardness of
yesterday’s black peasant, to which Du Bois applied himself.
Oh, the morality and ethics of today (in church, government, on
corporate board) are much more insidious in how they erode
confidence and social stability, these ceos will go along with
anything that does not have an impact on their mortgage
No, these two young women did not buy a Du Bois
book. He was a man, and he was always and will always be old,
and old-fashioned. He ain’t hip. He don’t know what’s
going on, even with our children, and sex videos. But how many
Negro teachers today who teach our children have read Du Bois,
and if so, can write a paragraph on Du Bois, his life, and
commitment. Brian Johnson’s
Bois on Reform (2005) might be a good place to start on our own
moral and ethical uplift, and a new social commitment.
* * * *
& Spin-offs (email correspondence)
you for the review…While I find your remarks on my work
thought-provoking, I find your analysis of the Black America’s
contemporary situation in light of Du Bois’s work much more
insightful. I do hope that your review receives widespread
attention since I think that it addresses many of the issues
that my work only nods at, and in doing so, plays some role in
sparking a revolution of African American contemporary thought.
One that would help us to think very deliberately about the very
fragile state of our national community. Peace and blessings.
Let’s not forget to do a phone call in the not too distant
and blessings.—Brian (sept 24)
* * * *
I think I have previously seen communications from you addressed
to Miriam. Her letter on Du Bois and other matters
is a sad but true commentary. Some years ago, I was
invited to deliver a paper on Du Bois at a small but prestigious
seminar in Boston, and during the "question and
answer" period, a black woman rather indignantly asked me
why this paper did not address the black woman. My
response was that I was the guest of an institution that had
invited me and paid me to deliver a paper on Du Bois, and that
the topic of the session had been advertised in advance.
Hence I was surprised by her disappointment.
On another occasion at a conference on Booker T. Washington, a
white woman in the audience expressed indignation that I had not
delivered a paper on how black men sexually brutalize their
wives. I offered a similar response. The
nature of the conference and the topic of my paper had been well
advertised for weeks in advance. Naturally, she
found this explanation unsatisfactory.
After many years of such experiences, I
decided that I might as well have been at conferences with
audiences would be made up entirely of racist white males.
When I observe the unfortunate perspectives of Clarence Thomas,
I ask myself if perhaps some of his bitterness is not the result
of contact with the sort of attitude that your friend Miriam
I was struck by one line in Miriam's essay, that in which she
rightly objected to negative stereotypes of the black peasantry.
Du Bois also romanticized peasant ways. He did not focus
on their "backwardness," but viewed them as "the sole repository
of simple faith and virtue in a dusty desert of dollars."
This seems to presage the opinions of Miriam herself.—Wilson
* * * *
Miriam, I agree with you. Having been
a social worker most of my life, it occurs to me that a lot of
what is being published as urban fiction is simply regurgitation
and glorification of pathologies...
Recently, one young writer was telling me
about how her friend came to write a couple of novels based on
her life's events. Listening to this young woman, it
seemed clear to me... that there is an unwillingness to wait...
to process... to think deeply, to discover the meaning of
heartbreak, infidelity, abuse, family or personal tragedy, etc.
Instead of working with a therapist, a trusted counselor or a
wise grandmother, (I don't think too many preachers/priests
still fit into this category), it seems easier to think that
one's story in it's rawest form is somehow the stuff of great
art. There seems to be no attachment to meaning.
It's all about what we call in social work,
"ventilation." The horror is that it's on paper
In clinical social work,
"ventilation," is just the beginning. After one vents
(what some elders used to call, "spillin' out the
guts"), the real work of understanding the situation,
etiologies, solutions, lessons, etc. (that is, thinking,
analyzing) should begin. One result of this
processing/analytical thinking is to discover new knowledge.
(This might be analogous in story telling to developing decent
plot and characters.)
The second horror is that the story telling
in urban fiction (ventilation of pathology) is attached to big
bucks. Sad, sad, sad, in my opinion.
I would liken all of this to
prostitution...except, my sense is that, some of these young
writers: 1. simply don't know any better & have no sense of their
literary heritage 2. have never thought about trying to discover
are impatient and want to be "famous and rich" quickly (let's
achieve the american dream asap) 4. have not lived long enough
to know what they don't know.
The sincere, likeable young woman with whom I
spoke had just published a very thick urban novel, had all kinds
of plans for glamorous book tours and had never heard of Toni
Fortunately, this young woman's attitude was
one of openness and gratitude that I told her about Toni
Morrison and a couple of other writers.
I, too, want to know, what the scene will be
like in ten years. This week-end in Richmond, one group of
church women (headed by the deaconess) are having (for the first
time) a book expose which includes Nikki Turner, a very popular
local author of hip-hop fiction. (The Hustler's Wife, Project
Chick, The Glamorous Life) I could be wrong, but I
dare say that the church sisters who planned this event have
probably not read her books, but invited her based on the
popularity that has been generated by her financial success.
Anyway, there is some type of balance I
suppose in a church affair like this. Apparently publishers have
also discovered another type of urban audience that fits the
hip-hop generation, but these young people are Christian or
border line christian. So,there is a new market for
inspirational fiction for the hip-hop audience. One young
Christian writer, Stacy Hawkins Adams, told me that her book, Speak
To My Heart, and it's cover is targeted for this audience.
She's already writing a sequel. Fans are waiting. Stacy is a
skilled journalist who writes an inspirational column for the
Richmond Times Dispatch.
I have my own brand of what some folks call
"radical Christianity" and even though I'm comfortable
with both of these young women as people, time-wise, I'm not
inclined to read hip-hop type inspirational or christian fiction
and the other type of urban fiction, I really can't stomach.
Yes Miriam, I really want to see how all of
this will play out.—Jeannette
* * * *
It is a very thoughtful article that doesn't
really stress the age discrepancy between your generation &
the present one. Although he tries to be objective, I
think he leans more favorably toward the Civil Rights generation
with its concern about community, writing in a sociopolitical
context, and literature that will last. I went to a book
signing last night for a friend, but I'll never read her trite
tome with its teeny plot, lack of in-depth characters or
beautiful language play or, really, anything of substance.
It's one of those fuzzy, feely, touchy, light spiritual things.
I just looked around at the books there at Karibu and could have
thrown up--wall to wall urban fiction with no redeeming
Rudy, those people can't write, I don't care
what you and Paul say, trying to be "nice."
Should we just be happy that our folk are reading? Should,
by the same token, we just be happy that we finally got a Black
on the Supreme Court. Well, you see where that got us!
Okay, call me middle class and elite, I don't give a f---.
What would WEB have said about that crap? And John Killens?
And James Baldwin? We have some incredibly talented young
writers who don't immerse themselves in that self-indulgent,
commercial bullshit. Where will the urban fictionists be
in 10 or 20 years (God, I hope the wave doesn't last that long)?
Where are Iceberg Slim and Eldridge Cleaver now? Who still
* * *
When searching for a good African-American
novel at the local bookstore chain, you may find limited options
on the shelves. Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Shannon Holmes, and
Carl Weber are among the authors driving the current black
literary explosion, and though their respective books sell in
droves, they differ greatly in subject matter and style when
compared to that of lauded contemporary black authors Toni
Morrison and John Edgar Wideman. This “urban fiction” is
filled with expletives and unrepentant descriptions of violence
and drugs, reminiscent of the work of Iceberg Slim and Donald
Goines. And you’re unfortunately hard-pressed to find other
genres besides urban fiction represented in
“African-American” book sections. To many booksellers, urban
fiction is African-American literature. --R. Daryl Foxworth, “Urban
Legends: Paul Coates & Rudy Lewis Offer Alternatives to
the Current Crop of Contemporary Black Literature, City Paper,
(14 September 2005)
Bois on Reform: Periodical-based
Leadership for African Americans. Edited and Introduced
by Brian Johnson. New York Altamira Press (A Division of Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2005.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois'
"reform" writings--with the intention of reforming
immoral and unethical behavior--appeared in periodicals and were
directed toward or written on behalf of the African American
community. Du Bois, a Harvard-trained sociologist, offered a
stark alternative to the anti-intellectual dogma contained in
reform messages by black church leadership.
Believing that African Americans needed a
firm historical and sociological grasp of a distinct phenomenon
that church leaders could not offer, Du Bois published in
numerous Black, progressive, liberal, college, and religious
periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The
Independent Weekly, Outlook, Voice of the Negro,
The New York Post, and The Crisis. Now for the
first time, Du Bois' reform writings--spanning over fifty
years--have been gathered into one volume. Each section is
edited and introduced by Brian Johnson and they demonstrate Du
Bois' contribution to advancing the social and moral dimensions
of the African American community.
About The Author
Brian Johnson is professor of English at Gordon College and
research fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard
* * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * *
Hopes and Prospects
By Noam Chomsky
In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky
surveys the dangers and prospects of our
early twenty-first century. Exploring
challenges such as the growing gap
between North and South, American
exceptionalism (including under
President Barack Obama), the fiascos of
Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli
assault on Gaza, and the recent
financial bailouts, he also sees hope
for the future and a way to move
forward—in the democratic wave in Latin
America and in the global solidarity
movements that suggest "real progress
toward freedom and justice." Hopes and
Prospects is essential reading for
anyone who is concerned about the
primary challenges still facing the
human race. "This is a classic Chomsky
work: a bonfire of myths and lies,
sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky
is an enduring inspiration all over the
world—to millions, I suspect—for the
simple reason that he is a truth-teller
on an epic scale. I salute him." —John
In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of
American empire and class domination, at
home and abroad, Chomsky continues a
longstanding and crucial work of
elucidation and activism . . .the
writing remains unswervingly rational
and principled throughout, and lends
bracing impetus to the real alternatives
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
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posted 24 September 2005