First published in the Forverts on May 8, 1923
To mark this publication’s 120th anniversary, The Forward hunted through its archives for journalistic treasures. Here we present excerpts of an interview with W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist, writer and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) first published in 1923. It was a time of racial unrest, when lynchings of African Americans were commonplace and the Ku Klux Klan ran wild. While the writer, L. Honors (aka Chaim Ehrenreich), clearly admired the “proud son of a tortured race,” some of the language used by the writer would, of course, not pass muster today.
That so few of us, such a miserably meager number, should be even slightly acquainted with the inner life and terrible sufferings of the 12,000,000 colored people in the United States is a thundering accusation against American civilization. Think of it: over a tenth of our entire population are Negroes; we meet them in the theatre, in the street, in the subway, in the restaurant; and yet what honest attempt have we made to understand them?
has suffered and bled and been persecuted as much as the Jew, it is the Negro race. Yet, how many of us know the Negro?
Take the Negro problem in its relation to the immigrant.
“When the immigrant from Eastern Europe meets the Negro in New York,” Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois told us, “he is curious. He has never before seen a colored man; he therefore gazes at him as something new and novel. In his next step, through the process of Americanization, the immigrant will be told to avoid the Negroes, not to have any dealings with them, etc., etc. and later the final step, he will unconsciously begin to absorb the current prejudices against Negroes.”
Dr. Du Bois, the famous leader of the American Negroes and founder of the Pan-African Congress, spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. He is too well acquainted with the poisoning effects of this sort of “Americanization” to be affected by his recital.
The Martyrdom Of The Negro
“But before the immigrant goes any further, he should be stopped and warned. The millions of Negroes in America represent the exploited and persecuted group, just as these wanderers from Russia and Poland and Romania represent that of their countries. And the persecuted group gets little chance to be understood by the foreigner. The press, society, all the domineering forces of the state are against it” — and for the first time in our conversation the Doctor’s brown eyes flamed up.
It was Dr. Du Bois, proud son of a tortured race, the courageous fighter for his people’s rights and liberties that was speaking. He is an eloquent orator, one of the foremost in America.
“If the Negroes are backward in many respects, we must not forget that they have still to fight for civil and legal equality.
“What is the attitude of the Negro toward the Jew?”
Jewish Philanthropy And The Colored Race
“A persecuted people sees other people with the eyes of the persecutor,” the author of “The Souls of Black Folk” replied. “The ruling class oppresses and exploits the Jews, the Negroes, the Chinese and other races. Meeting each other at one point only, the point of oppression, these exploited groups see each other through the glasses of the newspapers, moving pictures, books and all the organs of the ruling class. The Jew will therefore think of the Negro what the moving pictures tell him to, and vice versa. Within the last ten years, due to the effective interests which Jews like the late Jacob Schiff and Julius Rosenwald took in the life of Negroes, the attitude of the Negroes toward the Jews has changed toward sympathy, though, here again, you see, it is apt to be a sympathy for the philanthropic Jews.”
Dr. Du Bois is the spiritual leader of the American Negroes. He was born in Great Barrington, Mass., February 23, 1868. He graduated high school at the age of 16, and attended Fisk University, at Tennessee, where he obtained his A.B. He received his M.A. and Ph. D. at Harvard. He was a brilliant student in both universities; in fact, he was so exceptional in his studies that he got a fellowship from Harvard, and studied in Germany at the University of Berlin for two years.
“Away back in the little years of my boyhood… I dreamed of being an editor myself some day,” he writes in his extraordinary book, “Darkwater.”
“I am an editor. In the great, slashing days of college life I dreams of a colored organization to fight the battles of the Negro race. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is such a body, and it grows daily. I planned a time when I could speak freely to my people and of them, interpreting between two worlds. I am speaking now through this book.”
Remember that Dr. Du Bois was Professor of Economics and History in Atlanta University from 1896 to 1910, is editor of the The Crisis, author of many books, champion of the colored race — and you have a dim idea of his picturesque and inspiring personality.
He is now writing a “History Of The Negro Race In The Great War,” which will be published in the Fall of 1924, if he “succeeds in getting a publisher.”
“Why, you don’t mean to say that you expect to have any difficulty in obtaining a publisher,” we were unpleasantly surprised.
Negroes Misunderstood By Foreign-Born
“Literature treating the Negro problem in America is not very popular, especially a history, and a history which will not be very complimentary to Americans. Of course, it will be published, but only because the publisher will expect a big sale of the books among the colored population.”
He spoke of the poverty, the hopeless poverty among Negroes in the South. He spoke of bloody persecutions, of the lynchings, which will remain forever a blot on the pages of our history — of the physical and spiritual tortures of his race. If one wants to get a glimpse of our present American civilization it is well to turn to Dr. Du Bois’ masterpiece, “Darkwater.”
“So with some circumstances having finally gotten myself born, with a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, thank God! no ‘Anglo-Saxon’ I come to the days of my childhood.
“Then, slowly, I realized that some folks, a few even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune; once or twice I became painfully aware that some human beings even thought it a crime…”
The words have a familiar ring to those that have read Ludwig Lewisohn’s “Up Stream.” [Lewisohn was a prominent Jewish writer of the time and a critic of assimilation].
We talked about literature. Dr. Du Bois believes American literature has made tremendous strides in the past decade.
“But then again,” he said with a smile, “the most dramatic thing in American History is the Negro. He is always the turning point, the crisis. He is kept out of novels, for publishers are afraid to print anything about him. The Negro is in every American city; he is, after all, the real American, but you don’t find him portrayed in the American novel, and attempts are made to keep him away from American art and literature.”
Failure of Ethiopian Players
We asked Dr. Du Bois what he thought about the Ethiopian Theatre [a Harlem-based African-American theater company] which gave performances of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” and Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.”
“If this new thing had come out of France with a European imprint, I cannot but think that New York would have gone wild in praise at its daring originality. As it was, on the night I saw it three tall, white gentlemen sitting in the very front row, almost insulted the actors with their goings and comings, their gestures and comments.
“Despite singular prejudice on the part of some people, the Negro actor can give the world an interpretation of the same great plays which white actors have portrayed. The Negro may do in his own theatre a great work in passing on the message of the drama to the masses of his own folk. Finally, Negroes as actors and as dramatic writers have a wonderfully rich field to exploit in their own terrible history of experience. The sombre pen of some black Ibsen, the religious fervor of some colored Tolstoy, or the sarcasm of a black Moliere have here a marvelous chance to develop. For these reasons, these colored players were splendid pioneers and the artistic finish of their work does them great credit.”
Dr. Du Bois then spoke about Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Negro, who was found guilty and sentenced to prison for squandering big sums of money, the last savings of poor Negroes who trusted him Garvey was the initiator of the “Back-to-Africa” movement among the colored people.
“I believe the man is crazy,” Dr. Du Bois said. “Or, at least, suffering from delusions of greatness. He meant well, but he knew nothing about all the things he was undertaking. For instance, he was going to buy vessels for the transportation of Negroes while he knew nothing of maritime affairs. He should have been arrested to a sanatorium not a prison.”
It’s well to remember that Dr. Du Bois’ ancestors came to New England more than 200 years ago. His forefathers fought in the Revolutionary War. Who, then, is a _real _ American? We wonder if the Ku Klux Klan could answer?
L. Honors (1900-1970) served as a staff writer and theater editor at the Jewish Daily Forward.