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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Conversation with W. E. B. DuBois

Drinking Hemlock with DuBois


A few hours ago, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and I had a fatal conversation.


The only reason he condescended to talk with me was our being members of the same fraternity.  We sipped hemlock and talked about higher education.  I had an interest in revisiting an old critique, namely “The Future and Function of the Private Negro College.” Crisis 53 (1946): 234-46, 253-54. Portions of the article are apt descriptions of 2014.


“You were merely three years old,” Dr. DuBois said, “when I published that article.”  Removing his glasses, he scanned my face. “I am much disappointed that your contemporaries are so dense in your understanding of double consciousness, for you confuse a rhetorical gesture with a statement of reality. I am disappointed that you are incapable of distinguishing a spatial description from a temporal one.  The same poverty of reason colors your unscientific apologizing for the twenty-first-century HBCU, as you call it.  You need instruction.”  Like a buck startled by the headlights of an automobile, I felt paralyzed. Dr. DuBois carefully turned pages in The Education of Black People, 2nd edition, 2001.


“It is reasonable that you should think my sentence


Today the private institutions are facing the fact that unless they receive increased contributions, not now in sight, and these funds reach large figures, they must either close or become fully state schools (182).


refers to 2014.”  He commenced to quoting his bullet points:


·         “,,,endowments are not eternal and can only be depended upon for relatively short periods”(184)

·         “…are these institutions worth saving?” (185)

·         “…is their fate either to become state schools or disappear?” (185)

·         “There would certainly seem to be a distinct place in the educational world for some private institutions whose support is such that they would be free to teach what they thought ought  to be taught, particularly in the critical and developing field of social investigations” (186).

·         “In their haste to become Americans, their desire not be peculiar or segregated in mind or body, they try to escape their cultural heritage and the body of experience why they themselves have built up” (187).


Before I could ask whether he was alluding to Langston Hughes, he said with great emphasis, “I am convinced that there is a place and a continuing function for the small Negro college” (187).


I swallowed two sips of hemlock. “But, Dr. DuBois…”  Ignoring my effort to speak, he read in a loud voice “They would not be subservient to the dominant wealth of the country; they would not be under the control of politics in a state now directed for the most part by prejudiced persons guide by a definite ideal of racial discrimination” (188).


“But, Dr. DuBois, the small HBCUs and small institutions in general are enslaved by global economy and special interests, and so too are large, handsomely endowed, research institutions.”


“You do not listen critically,” his words of genteel anger descending like a veil over my eyes. “I am convinced there is a continuing function for the five small HBCUs that shall survive the twenty-first century.” Stoned by the hemlock, I saw he was saying something of great importance but could not hear what he was saying.  Such is the effect of talented treason.



Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

February 25, 2014

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