The Original Sellout Reconsidered

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The most worthy debates never die. W.E.B. DuBois helped found the NAACP, wrote about the color line and painted us as torn between the American and the "Negro" parts of our identities. Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, stood before whites telling them that we were going to "cast down our bucket" and be satisfied with manual labor.

W.E.B. DuBois was the "real" black man who battled Booker T. Washington, the sellout, right? Yet, for someone with supposedly so little to offer, Booker T. is getting a lot of play these days.

Dubois devoted much of his life battling racism. But, is the total eclipse of racism the only way of helping black people? Is it even the most important way? Washington's great-granddaughter Sarah O'Neal Rush doesn't think so. She speaks around the country as the head of Extraordinary Legacy. Another great-granddaughter, Gloria Yvonne Jackson, does the same; they published a book of Washington's teachings last year, Timeless Treasures.


Ms. Rush teaches us to "turn obstacles into opportunities," and her great-grandfather meant just that. He was not saying that we were supposed to be satisfied with buckets forever. He meant that our best hope was to establish ourselves on the first floor and build from there, using our own experience and capital. He could have called it, say, Black Power.

The new Booker T. vogue is not, for the record, a fetish of bourgie folk who don't understand suffering. Ms. Rush was raising a son alone in tough East Oakland at age 17. Recently in a DuBois vs. Washington debate in a class at a KIPP charter school in New York, the Washington fans, from the 'hood like all the school's students, argued with as much passion as the DuBois fans.

Lee Walker's New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, a Chicago think tank, fosters Booker T.'s vision as "Quality Education, Entrepreneurship, Moral Character, and Self-Help." Who among us could say that those four things are not exactly what we are after? Quibble about the balance between self-help and governmental assistance, but Booker T.'s views remain at the table.

They are at the Booker T. Washington Society in Vermont (, which on the 150th anniversary of Washington's birth last year awarded scholarships to a student at each of 21 high schools named after Washington. The students, designated Booker T. Washington Ambassadors, were brought to D.C. to meet with business and education leaders. Not exactly a "sellout" program.


The Booker Rising blog, which gathers editorials by moderate and conservative black writers, also builds on Washington's legacy. Its steward, Shay, founded the site with the conviction that "these ideas will take black Americans to the mountaintop."

That's just it. Washington, like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream. "The only thing worth living for is the lifting up of our fellow men," he told us. He knew his racism well. He just felt that "we should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunity."


That is common sense, and the idea that DuBois was the good cop to Washington's bad cop would fall to pieces if we met both of them face to face today. I'm a great admirer of DuBois, and the historical Washington would turn us off today with his "darkey" jokes, his anti-intellectualism, and power mongering.

But DuBois, too, was a man of his time. Wearing our modern glasses, for instance, we expect his classic ethnography, The Philadelphia Negro, to be a Jacob Riis-style expose about life among the poorest. In fact DuBois, a typical Victorian, was more interested in documenting the blacks who were getting by than those at the very bottom. He even designated some poor blacks as "lazy." Never mind that DuBois urged blacks to fight in World War I at a time when lynching was a national pastime and most of the intelligentsia were as revolted by the war as their modern descendants are by the one in Iraq.


In riposte to DuBois' thoughts about the color line, Washington said: "In the sight of God there is no color line, and we want to cultivate a spirit that will make us forget that there is such a line anyway."

That sounds so much like Rev. King, that most of us would attribute it to him if we encountered it unlabelled. It is also easy to imagine Barack Obama uttering it..


As an ex-slave, Washington was about making the best of the worst. For people on the ground trying to turn lives and communities around, musing about the color line is not a top priority.

That's why it was no surprise to me that, in the classroom DuBois v. Booker T. debate that day at the KIPP Charter School, the Washington side won hands down.


John McWhorter, a culture and politics Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a columnist for the New York Sun and author of "Losing the Race."

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. 

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