In 1914, W.E.B Du Bois’s daughter Yolande was about to travel to England as a teenager. He decided to enroll her in one of England’s most prestigious schools, where she would become a member of a pantheon of famous and influential alums which include singer Lily Allen, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, poet and painter Frieda Hughes, director George Sanders & British diplomat Frank Roberts among many others.
A prominent academic himself, and the first African-American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard University, Du Bois would have a huge impact revolutionizing race relations in America and globally, through his writing and activism. He also founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which played a critical role in the enacting of civil rights for African-Americans and beginning the desegregation of America. He knew the value of a good education, but was well aware of the challenges his daughter would have to overcome if she was to succeed as he did.
A key challenge he certainly would have had in mind for his daughter would be what Du Bois would describe as “double-consciousness”, a concept he innovated first in an article he wrote for The Atlantic magazine in August 1897 and later developed in his groundbreaking study The Souls of Black Folk. In The Atlantic article he explained that African-Americans live in a world, dominated as it as by white people, where they are only able to see themselves “through the revelation of the other world.” “It is a peculiar sensation,” he continues, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” To overcome this was essential for Du Bois who believed that until African-Americans were able to mend the wound which created the “double-consciousness” in the first place, their ability to develop as a community & individuals would be hampered. The passage below from The Atlantic article so powerfully & succinctly summarizes what he meant that its worthy of being quoted at length:
“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes — foolishly, perhaps, but fervently — that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.”
A parent too, Du Bois was naturally nervous that his daughter be prepared in all regards for the significant privilege which she had as a student in what he called “one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires.” “Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are” he wrote in a beautiful letter to Yolande after she settled at Bedales School in Petersfield, England. Below is the letter dated October 29, 1914:
Dear Little Daughter:
I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.
Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.
Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.
Privilege often creates a sense of entitlement, but more sensitive and thoughtful people often do wonder why it was them, and not a child in a faraway war-torn country for example, that got to enjoy the safety, security and the means to pursue their dreams and freely create the lives they desired. As philosopher Alain de Botton said in a recent interview with Leaders in Action Society, “so many things that just don’t exist as problems in the rich world are the work of days and weeks [elsewhere]. Getting a stamp, getting message, getting a permit… these things are major hurdles.” In wealthier countries he continues the lack of concern about many issues frees us to do so much more, which he concludes is the “tragedy of poverty.”
This was driven home for me during a visit to a refugee camp in Calais many moons ago, in which a Sudanese man, after learning that I wasn’t a refugee, reminded me in no uncertain terms of how fortunate I was that I didn’t have to grow in a place like Calais. “You’re lucky” he said as he put his hand on my shoulder. Du Bois picks up on this existential issue when reminding his daughter that her opportunity to study at Bedales School was through no merit of hers, but “ but only by lucky chance.” “Deserve it, then” he continues. “Study, do your work.” But his advice isn’t limited to existential questions of good fortune, addressing what he elsewhere described as the biggest problem of the 20th century, “the color line.”
His advice on how to manage the racial prejudice she would have inevitably encountered reveals more when unpacked. He critiques this racism as a product of the provincialism of people in general, and their inability to adapt easily to novelty. But he also counsels her to take herself seriously nonetheless, telling her that she mustn’t laugh at herself. He tells her that she is equally beautiful though different, and reminds us how ephemeral, irrelevant and contingent our physical bodies are, as the “main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin”. And this aspect of ourselves he says must be fortified, courageous and must have a positive action oriented disposition, not shrinking from new experiences and customs, but taking “the cold bath bravely”. As with any cold bath, the biting chill of the plunge causes your muscles to seize and spasm, making you breathless, but persistence bears more fruit than retreat despite the pain. You quickly acclimatize regaining control of your wits, and limbs, and culture is no different. The plunge can cause disorientation, confusion, and social paralysis. But to embrace the difference, and endure can be a life-changing experience, as you acclimatize and broaden your horizons as a result.