Describing himself as “a devoted follower of James at the time he was developing his pragmatic philosophy,” Du Bois studied under William James during his time at Harvard from 1888-1890. Du Bois recalls repeatedly dining with James at his home and sharing with him his own aspirations for pursuing an academic career in philosophy. James dissuaded him from doing so, however, warning Du Bois that there is “not much chance for anyone earning a living as a philosopher.”
Du Bois’s connection with James did not end after he graduated from Harvard, indeed James continued to keep in touch with Du Bois and watched the progression of his career. In 1907 James wrote to Du Bois: “I have just looked through the last installment of your studies on the American Negro. I wish the portraits might have been better printed. But it is splendid scientific work.” Just two years later in 1909, Du Bois asked James to serve on the board of an Encyclopedia Africana, and James agreed. The following year William James died. Decades later when Du Bois wrote his Autobiography, he remembered James as one of his most influential professors at Harvard, and consequently as an important influence on his early career.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1968). The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers.
Goodman, Russell, “William James”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
The Strange Education of W. E. B. Du Bois.
by Sean Wilentz
Harvard in the Last Decades of the 19th Century
Harvard University in 1888 was a great institution of learning. It was 236 years old and on its governing board were AlexanderAgassiz, Phillip Brooks, Henry Cabot Lodge and Charles FrancisAdams; and a John Quincy Adams, but not the ex-President. CharlesWilliam Eliot, a gentleman by training and a scholar by broadstudy and travel, was president. Among its teachers emeriti were Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. Among theactive teachers were Francis Child, Charles Eliot Norton, CharlesDunbar, Justin Winsor and John Trowbridge; William Goodwin, FrankTaussig, Nathaniel Shaler, George Palmer, William James, FrancisPeabody, Josiah Royce, Barrett Wendell, Edward Channing, and AlbertBushnell Hart. A young instructor who arrived in 1890 was GeorgeSantayana. Seldom, if ever, has any American university had sucha galaxy of great men and fine teachers as Harvard in the decadebetween 1885 and 1895.
To make my own attitude toward the Harvard of that day clear,it must be remembered that I went to Harvard as a Negro, not simplyby birth, but recognizing myself as a member of a segregated castewhose situation I accepted but was determined to work from withinthat caste to find my way out.
About the Harvard of which most white students conceived I knewlittle. Of fraternities I had not even heard of Phi Beta Kappa,and of such important social organizations as the Hasty PuddingClub, I knew nothing. I was in Harvard for education and notfor high marks, except as marks would insure my staying. I didnot pick out "snap" courses. I was there to enlargemy grasp of the meaning of the universe. We had for instanceno chemical laboratory at Fisk. Our mathematical courses werelimited; above all I wanted to study philosophy! I wanted toget hold of the basis of knowledge, and explore foundations andbeginnings. I chose, therefore, Palmer's course in ethics, but he being on Sabbatical for the year, William James replaced him,and I became a devoted follower of James at the time he was developing his pragmatic philosophy.
Fortunately I did not fall into the mistake of regarding Harvardas the beginning rather than the continuing of my college training. I did not find better teachers at Harvard but teachers betterknown, who had had wider facilities for gaining knowledge andhad a broader atmosphere for approaching truth.
I hoped to pursue philosophy as my life career, with teachingfor support. With this program I studied at Harvard from theFall of 1888 to 1890, as undergraduate. I took a varied coursein chemistry, geology, social science and philosophy. My salvation here was the type of teacher I met rather than the content of the courses. William James guided me out of the sterilities of scholastic philosophy to realist pragmatism; from Peabody's socialreform with a religious tinge, I turned to Albert Bushnell Hart to study history with documentary research; and from Taussig withhis reactionary British economics of the Ricardo school, I approached what was later to become sociology. Meantime Karl Marx was mentioned but only incidentally and as one whose doubtful theories had longsince been refuted. Socialism as dream of philanthropy or as will-o-wisp of hotheads was dismissed as unimportant.
When I arrived at Harvard, the question of board and lodging wasof first importance. Naturally, I could not afford room in thecollege yard in the old and venerable buildings which housed mostof the well-to-do students under the magnificent elms. Neitherdid I think of looking for lodgings among white families, wherenumbers of the ordinary students lived. I tried to find a coloredhome, and finally at 20 Flagg Street, I came upon the neat homeof a colored woman from Nova Scotia, a descendant of those blackJamaican Maroons whom Britain deported after solemnly promisingthem peace if they would surrender. For a very reasonable sum,I rented the second story front room and for four years this wasmy home. I wrote of this abode at the time: "My room is,for a college man's abode, very ordinary indeed. It is quitepleasantly situated--second floor, front, with a bay window andone other window. The door is on the southwest corner. As youenter you will perceive the bed in the opposite corner, smalland decorated with floral designs calculated to puzzle a botanist. It is a good comfortable bed, however, and my landlady keepsit neat. On the left hand is a bureau with a mirror of doubtfulaccuracy. In front of the bay window is a stand with three shelvesof books, and on the left of the bureau is an improvised bookcasemade of unpainted boards and uprights, containing most of my libraryof which I am growing quite proud. Over the heat register, nearthe door, is a mantle with a plaster of Paris pug-dog and a calendar,and the usual array of odds and ends. A sofa, commode, trunk,table and chairs complete the floor furniture. On the wall area few quite ordinary pictures. In this commonplace den I am quitecontent."
Later I became a boarder at Memorial Hall, which was the greatdining hall of the University, and after that a member of theFoxcraft Club, where many students of moderate means boarded.
Following the attitudes which I had adopted in the South, I soughtno friendships among my white fellow students, nor even acquaintanceships. Of course I wanted friends, but I could not seek them. My classwas large, with some 300 students. I doubt if I knew a dozenof them. I did not seek them, and naturally they did not seekme. I made no attempt to contribute to the college periodicals,since the editors were not interested in my major interests. Only one organization did I try to enter, and I ought to haveknown better than to make this attempt. But I did have a goodsinging voice and loved music, so I entered the competition forthe Glee Club I ought to have known that Harvard could not affordto have a Negro on its Glee Club traveling about the country. Quite naturally I was rejected.
I was happy at Harvard, but for unusual reasons. One of thesecircumstances was my acceptance of racial segregation. Had Igone from Great Barrington high school directly to Harvard, Iwould have sought companionship with my white fellows and beendisappointed and embittered by a discovery of social limitationsto which I had not been used. But I came by way of Fisk and theSouth and there I had accepted color caste and embraced eagerlythe companionship of those of my own color. This was, of course,no final solution. Eventually with them and in mass assault,led by culture, we Negroes were going to break down the boundariesof race; but at present we were banded together in a great crusadeand happily so. Indeed, I suspect that the prospect of ultimatefull human intercourse without reservations and annoying distinctions,made me all too willing to consort now with my own and to disdainand forget as far as was possible that outer, whiter world.
In general, I asked nothing of Harvard but the tutelage of teachersand the freedom of the laboratory and library. I was quite voluntarilyand willingly outside its social life. I sought only such contactswith white teachers as lay directly in the line of my work. Ijoined certain clubs like the Philosophical Club; I was a memberof the Foxcraft dining club because it was cheap. James and oneor two other teachers had me at their homes at meal and reception. I found friends, and most interesting and inspiring friends,among the colored folk of Boston and surrounding places. Naturallysocial intercourse with whites could not be entirely forgotten,so that now and then I joined its currents and rose or fell withthem. I escorted colored girls to various gatherings, and aspretty ones as I could find to the vesper exercises, and laterto the class day and commencement social functions. Naturallywe attracted attention and the Crimson noted my girl friends;on the other part came sometimes the shadow of insult, as whenat one reception a white woman seemed determined to mistake mefor a waiter.
In general, I was encased in a completely colored world, self-sufficientand provincial, and ignoring just as far as possible the whiteworld which conditioned it. This was self-protective coloration,with perhaps an inferiority complex, but with belief in the abilityand future of black folk.
My friends and companions were taken mainly from the colored studentsof Harvard and neighboring institutions, and the colored folkof Boston and surrounding towns. With them I led a happy andinspiring life. There were among them many educated and well-to-dofolk; many young people studying or planning to study; many charmingyoung women. We met and ate, danced and argued and planned anew world.
Toward whites I was not arrogant; I was simply not obsequious,and to a white Harvard student of my day, a Negro student whodid not seek recognition was trying to be more than a Negro. The same Harvard man had much the same attitude toward Jews andIrishmen.
I was, however, exceptional among Negroes in my ideas on voluntaryrace segregation; they for the most part saw salvation only inintegration at the earliest moment and on almost any terms inwhite culture; I was firm in my criticism of white folk and inmy dream of a Negro self-sufficient culture even in America.
This cutting off of myself from my white fellows, or being cutoff, did not mean unhappiness or resentment. I was in my earlymanhood, unusually full of high spirits and humor. I thoroughlyenjoyed life. I was conscious of understanding and power, andconceited enough still to imagine, as in high school, that theywho did not know me were the losers, not I. On the other hand,I do not think that my white classmates found me personally objectionable. I was clean, not well-dressed but decently clothed. Manners Iregarded as more less superfluous, and deliberately cultivateda certain brusquerie. Personal adornment I regarded as pleasantbut not important. I was in Harvard, but not of it, and realizedall the irony of my singing "Fair Harvard." I sangit because I liked the music, and not from any pride in the Pilgrims.
With my colored friends I carried on lively social intercourse,but necessarily one which involved little expenditure of money. I called at their homes and ate at their tables. We danced atprivate parties. We went on excursions down the Bay. Once, witha group of colored students gathered from surrounding institutions,we gave Aristophanes' The Birds in a Boston colored church. The rendition was good, but not outstanding; not quite appreciatedby the colored audience, but well worth doing. Even though itworked me near to death, I was proud of it.
Thus this group of professional men, students, white collar workersand upper servants, whose common bond was color of skin in themselvesor in their fathers, together with a common history and currentexperience of discrimination, formed a unit which like many tensof thousands of like units across the nation had or were gettingto have a common culture pattern which made them an interlockingmass; so that increasingly a colored person in Boston was moreneighbor to a colored person in Chicago than to the white personacross the street.
Mrs. Ruffin of Charles Street, Boston, and her daughter Birdiewere often hostesses to this colored group. She was a widow ofthe first colored judge appointed in Massachusetts, an aristocraticlady, with olive skin and high piled masses of white hair. Oncea Boston white lady said to Mrs. Ruffin ingratiatingly: "Ihave always been interested in your race." Mrs. Ruffin flared: "Which race?" She began a national organization ofcolored women and published the Courant, a type of smallcolored weekly paper which was spreading over the nation. Inthis I published many of my Harvard daily themes.
Naturally in this close group there grew up among the young peoplefriendships ending in marriages. I myself, outgrowing the youthfulattractions of Fisk, began serious dreams of love and marriage. There, however, were still my study plans to hold me back andthere were curious other reasons. For instance, it happened thattwo of the girls whom I particularly liked had what was to methen the insuperable handicap of looking like whites; while theyhad enough black ancestry to make them "Negroes" inAmerica. Yet these girls were intelligent and companionable. One went to Vassar College which then refused entrance to Negroes. Years later when I went there to lecture I remember disagreeingviolently with a teacher who thought the girl ought not to have"deceived" the college by graduating before it knewher Negro descent! Another favorite of mine was Deenie Pindell. She was a fine forthright woman, blonde, blue-eyed and fragile. In the end I had no chance to choose her, for she married MonroeTrotter.
Trotter was the son of a well-to-do colored father and enteredHarvard in my first year in the Graduate School. He was thick-set,yellow, with close-cut dark hair. He was stubborn and straight-lacedand an influential member of his class. He organized the firstTotal Abstinence club in the Yard. I came to know him and joinedthe company when he and other colored students took a trip toAmherst to see George Forbes and William H. Lewis graduate inthe class with Calvin Coolidge.
Lewis afterward entered the Harvard Law School and became thecelebrated center of the Harvard football team. He married thebeautiful Bessie Baker who had been with us on that Amherst trip. Forbes, a brilliant, cynical dark man, later joined with Trotterin publishing the Guardian, the first Negro paper to attackBooker T. Washington with open opposition. Washington's friendsretorted by sending Trotter to jail when he dared to heckle Washingtonin a public Boston meeting on his political views. I was notpresent nor privy to this occurrence, but the unfairness of thejail sentence helped lead me eventually to form the Niagara Movement,which later became a founding part of the NAACP.
Thus I lived near to life, love and tragedy; and when I met MaudCuney, I became doubly interested. She was a tall imperious brunette,with gold-bronze skin, brilliant eyes and coils of black hair;daughter of the Collector of Customs at Galveston, Texas. Shecame to study music and was a skilled performer. When the NewEngland Conservatory of Music tried to "jim-crow" herin the dormitory, we students rushed to her defense and we won. I fell deeply in love with her, and we were engaged.
Thus it is clear how in the general social intercourse on thecampus I consciously missed nothing. Some white students madethemselves known to me and a few, a very few, became life-longfriends. Most of my classmates, I knew neither by sight nor name. Among them many made their mark in life: Norman Hapgood, RobertHerrick, Herbert Croly, George Dorsey, Homer Folks, Augustus Hand,James Brown Scott and others. I knew none of these intimately. For the most part I do not doubt that I was voted a somewhatselfish and self-centered "grind" with a chip on myshoulder and a sharp tongue.
Something of a certain inferiority complex was possibly a causeof this. I was desperately afraid of intruding where I was notwanted; appearing without invitation; of showing a desire forthe company of those who had no desire for me. I should in facthave been pleased if most of my fellow students had wanted toassociate with me; if I had been popular and envied. But theabsence of this made me neither unhappy nor morose. I had my"island within" and it was a fair country.
Only once or twice did I come to the surface of college life. First I found by careful calculation that I needed the cash ofone of the Boylston prizes in oratory to piece out my year's expenses. I got it through winning a second oratorical prize. The occasionwas noteworthy by the fact that another black student, ClementMorgan, got first prize at the same contest.
With the new increase at Harvard of students who grew up outsideof New England, there arose at this time a certain resentmentat the way New England students were dominating and conductingcollege affairs. The class marshal on commencement day was alwaysa Saltonstall, a Cabot, a Lowell, or some such New England family. The crew and most of the other heads of athletic teams were selectedfrom similarly limited social groups. The class poet, class oratorand other commencement officials invariably were selected becauseof family and not for merit. It so happened that when the officialsof the class of 1890 were being selected in early spring, a plotripened. Personally, I knew nothing of it, and was not greatlyinterested. But in Boston and in the Harvard Yard the resultof the elections was of tremendous significance; for this conspiratorialclique selected Clement Morgan as class orator. New England andindeed the whole country reverberated.
Morgan was a black man. He was working in a barber shop in St.Louis at the time when he ought to have been in school. Withthe encouragement and help of a colored teacher whom he latermarried, he came to Boston and entered the Latin School. Thismeant that when he finally entered Harvard, he entered as freshmanin the orthodox way and was well acquainted with his classmates. He was fairly well received, considering his color. He was apleasant unassuming person and one of the, best speakers of clearlyenunciated English on the campus. In his junior year, he hadearned the first Boylston prize for oratory, in the same contestwhere I won second prize. It was, then, logical for him to becomeclass orator and yet this was against all the traditions of America. There were editorials in the leading newspapers, and the Southespecially raged and sneered at the audience of "black washerwomen"who would replace Boston society at the next Harvard commencement.
At the same time, the action was contagious and that year andthe next in several leading Northern colleges colored studentsbecame the class orators. Ex-President Hayes, as I shall relatelater, sneered at this fact. While, as I have said, I had nothingto do with this plot, and was not even present at the electionwhich chose Morgan, I was greatly pleased at this breaking ofthe color line. Morgan and I became fast friends and spent asummer giving readings along the North Shore to help our collegecosts.
Harvard of this day was a great opportunity for a young man anda young American Negro and I realized it. I formed habits ofwork rather different from those of most of the other students. I burned no midnight oil. I did my studying in the daytime andhad my day parceled out almost to the minute. I spent a greatdeal of time in the library and did my assignments with thoroughnessand with prevision of the kind of work I wanted to do later. From the beginning my relations with most of the teachers at Harvardwere pleasant. They were on the whole glad to receive a seriousstudent, to whom extra-curricular activities were not of paramountimportance and one who in a general way knew what he wanted.
Harvard had in the social sciences no such leadership of thoughtand breadth of learning as in philosophy, literature and physicalscience. She was then groping and is still groping toward a scientifictreatment of human action. She was facing at the end of the centurya tremendous economic era. In the United States, finance wassucceeding in monopolizing transportation, and raw materials likesugar, coal and oil. The power of the trust and combine was sogreat that the Sherman Act was passed in 1890. On the other hand,the tariff at the demand of manufacturers continued to rise inheight from the McKinley to the indefensible Wilson tariff makingthat domination easier. The understanding between the industrialNorth and the New South was being perfected and in 1890 the seriesof disfranchising laws began to be enacted by the Southern statesdestined in the next 16 years to make voting by Southern Negroespractically impossible. A financial crisis shook the land in1893 and popular discontent showed itself in the Populist movementand Coxey's Army. The whole question of the burden of taxationbegan to be discussed.
These things we discussed with some clearness and factual understandingat Harvard. The tendency was toward English free trade and againstthe American tariff policy. We reverenced Ricardo and wastedlong hours on the "Wages-fund." I remember Frank Taussig'scourse supporting dying Ricardean economics. Wages came fromwhat employers had left for labor after they had subtracted theirown reward. Suppose that this profit was too small to attractthe employer, what would the poor worker do but starve? The trustsand monopolies were viewed frankly as dangerous enemies of democracies,but at the same time as inevitable methods of industry. We werestrong for the gold standard and fearful of silver. The attitudeof Harvard toward labor was on the whole contemptuous and condemnatory. Strikes like the railway strikes of 1886 and the terrible Homesteadstrike of 1892, as well as Coxey's Army of 1894, were picturedas ignorant lawlessness, lurching against conditions largely inevitable.
Karl Marx was mentioned, only to point out how thoroughly histheses had been disproven; of his theory itself almost nothingwas said. Henry George was given but tolerant notice. The anarchistsof Spain, the nihilists of Russia, the British miners--all thesewere viewed not as part of the political development and the tremendouseconomic organization but as sporadic evils. This was natural. Harvard was the child of its era. The intellectual freedom andflowering of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were yieldingto the deadening economic pressure which would make Harvard richand reactionary. This defender of wealth and capital, alreadyhalf ashamed of Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, was willingfinally to replace an Eliot with a manufacturer and a nervouswarmonger.  The social community that mobbed Garrison, easilyelectrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti.
It was not until I was long out of college that I realized thefundamental influence man's efforts to earn a living had uponall his other efforts. The politics which we studied in collegewere conventional, especially when it came to describing and elucidatingthe current scene in Europe. The Queen's Jubilee in June 1887,while I was still at Fisk, set the pattern of our thinking. Thelittle old woman at Windsor became a magnificent symbol of Empire. Here was England with her flag draped around the world, rulingmore black folk than white and leading the colored peoples ofthe earth to Christian baptism, and as we assumed, to civilizationand eventual self-rule.
In 1885, Stanley, the traveling American reporter, became a heroand symbol of white world leadership in Africa. The wild, fiercefight of the Mahdi and the driving of the English out of the Sudanfor 13 years did not reveal its inner truth to me. I heard onlyof the martyrdom of the drunken Bible-reader and freebooter, ChineseGordon.
The Congo Free State was established and the Berlin Conferenceof 1885 was reported to be an act of civilization against theslave trade and liquor. French, English and Germans pushed onin Africa, but I did not question the interpretation which picturedthis as the advance of civilization and the benevolent tutelageof barbarians. I read of the confirmation of the Triple Alliancein 1891. Later I saw the celebration of the renewed Triple Allianceon the Tempelhofer Feld, with the new young Emperor William II,who, fresh from his dismissal of Bismarck, led the splendid pageantry;and finally the year I left Germany, Nicholas II became Tsar ofall the Russias. In all this I had not yet linked the politicaldevelopment of Europe with the race problem in America.
I was repeatedly a guest in the home of William James; he was my friend and guide to clear thinking; I was a member of the Philosophical Club and talked with Josiah Royce and George Palmer; I remember vividly once standing beside Mrs. Royce at a small reception. We ceased conversation for a moment and both glanced across the room. Professor Royce was opposite talking excitedly. He was an extraordinary sight: a little body; indifferently clothed;a big red-thatched head and blazing blue eyes. Mrs. Royce put my thoughts into words: "Funny-looking man, isn't he?" I nearly fainted; yet I knew how she worshipped him.
I sat in an upper room and read Kant's Critique with Santayana;Shaler invited a Southerner, who objected to sitting beside me,out of his class; he said he wasn't doing very well, anyway. I became one of Hart's favorite pupils and was afterwards guidedby him through my graduate course and started on my work in Germany. Most of my courses of study went well. It was in English thatI came nearest my Waterloo at Harvard. I had unwittingly arrivedat Harvard in the midst of a violent controversy about poor Englishamong students. A number of fastidious Englishmen like BarrettWendell had come to Harvard about this time; moreover New Englanditself was getting sensitive over Western slang and Southern drawlsand general ignorance of grammar. Freshmen at this time couldelect nearly all their courses except English; that was compulsory,with theses, daily themes and tough examinations.
On the other hand, I was at the point in my intellectual developmentwhen the content rather than the form of my writing was to meof prime importance. Words and ideas surged in my mind and spilledout with disregard of exact accuracy in grammar, taste in wordor restraint in style. I knew the Negro problem and this wasmore important to me than literary form. I knew grammar fairlywell, and I had a pretty wide vocabulary; but I was bitter, angryand intemperate in my first thesis. Naturally my English instructorshad no idea of nor interest in the way in which Southern attackson the Negro were scratching me on the raw flesh. Ben Tillmanwas raging in the Senate like a beast and literary clubs, especiallyrich and well-dressed women, engaged his services eagerly andlistened avidly. Senator Morgan of Alabama had just publisheda scathing attack on "niggers" in a leading magazine,when my first Harvard thesis was due. I let go at him with noholds barred. My long and blazing effort came back marked "E"--notpassed!
It was the first time in my scholastic career that I had encounteredsuch a failure. I was aghast, but I was not a fool. I did notdoubt but what my instructors were fair in judging my Englishtechnically even if they did not understand the Negro problem. I went to work at my English and by the end of that term hadraised it to a "C". I realized that while style issubordinate to content, and that no real literature can be composedsimply of meticulous and fastidious phrases, nevertheless thatsolid content with literary style carries a message further thanpoor grammar and muddled syntax. I elected the best course onthe campus for English composition, English 12.
I have before me a theme which I wrote October 3, 1890, for BarrettWendell, then the great pundit of Harvard English. I wrote: "Spurred by my circumstances, I have always been given tosystematically planning my future, not indeed without many mistakesand frequent alterations, but always with what I now conceiveto have been a strangely early and deep appreciation of the factthat to live is a serious thing. I determined while in high schoolto go to college-- partly because other men did, partly becauseI foresaw that such discipline would best fit me for life. . .. I believe, foolishly perhaps, but sincerely, that I have somethingto say to the world, and I have taken English 12 in order to sayit well." Barrett Wendell liked that last sentence. Outof 50 essays, he picked this out to read to the class.
Commencement was approaching, when one day I found myself at midnighton one of the swaggering streetcars that used to roll out fromBoston on its way to Cambridge. It was in the Spring of 1890,and quite accidentally I was sitting by a classmate who wouldgraduate with me in June. As I dimly remember, he was a nicelooking young man, almost dapper; well dressed, charming in manner.Probably he was rich or at least well-to-do, and doubtless belongedto an exclusive fraternity, although that did not interest me. Indeed I have even forgotten his name. But one thing I shallnever forget and that was his rather regretful admission (whichslipped out as we gossiped) that he had no idea as to what hislife work would be, because, as he added, "There's nothingin which I am particularly interested!"
I was more than astonished; I was almost outraged to meet anyhuman being of the mature age of 22 who did not have his lifeall planned before him--at least in general outline; and who wasnot supremely, if not desperately, interested in what he plannedto do.
Since then, my wonder has left my classmate, and been turned inand backward upon myself: how long had I been so sure of my life-workand how had I come so confidently to survey and plan it? I nowrealize that most college seniors are by no means certain of whatthey want to do or can do with life; but stand rather upon a hesitatingthreshold, awaiting will, chance or opportunity. Because I hadnot mingled intimately or understandingly with my white Harvardclassmates, I did not at the time realize this, but thought myunusual attitude was general.
In June 1890, I received my bachelor's degree from Harvard cumlaude in philosophy. I was one of the five graduating studentsselected to speak at commencement. My subject was "JeffersonDavis." I chose it with deliberate intent of facing Harvardand the nation with a discussion of slavery as illustrated inthe person of the president of the Confederate States of America. Naturally, my effort made a sensation. I said, among other things: "I wish to consider not the man, but the type of civilizationwhich his life represented: its foundation is the idea of thestrong man--Individualism coupled with the rule of might--andit is this idea that has made the logic of even modern history,the cool logic of the Club. It made a naturally brave and generousman, Jefferson Davis: now advancing civilization by murderingIndians, now hero of a national disgrace, called by courtesy theMexican War; and finally as the crowning absurdity, the peculiarchampion of a people fighting to be free in order that anotherpeople should not be free. Whenever this idea has for a momentescaped from the individual realm, it has found an even more securefoot-hold in the policy and philosophy of the State. The strongman and his mighty Right Arm has become the Strong Nation withits armies. Under whatever guise, however a Jefferson Davis mayappear as man, as race, or as a nation, his life can only logicallymean this: the advance of a part of the world at the expenseof the whole; the overwhelming sense of the I, and the consequentforgetting of the Thou. It has thus happened that advance incivilization has always been handicapped by shortsighted nationalselfishness. The vital principle of division of labor has beenstifled not only in industry, but also in civilization; so asto render it well nigh impossible for a new race to introducea new idea into the world except by means of the cudgel. To saythat a nation is in the way of civilization is a contradictionin terms and a system of human culture whose principle is therise of one race on the ruins of another is a farce and a lie. Yet this is the type of civilization which Jefferson Davis represented;it represents a field for stalwart manhood and heroic character,and at the same time for moral obtuseness and refined brutality. These striking contradictions of character always arise whena people seemingly become convinced that the object of the worldis not civilization, but Teutonic civilization."
A Harvard professor wrote to Kate Field's Washington, thena leading periodical: "Du Bois, the colored orator of thecommencement stage, made a ten-strike. It is agreed upon by allthe people I have seen that he was the star of the occasion. His paper was on 'Jefferson Davis,' and you would have been surprisedto hear a colored man deal with him so generously. Such phrasesas a 'great man,' a 'keen thinker,' a strong leader,' and othersakin occurred in the address. One of the trustees of the Universitytold me yesterday that the paper was considered masterly in everyway. Du Bois is from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and doubtlesshas some white blood in his veins. He, too, has been in my classesthe past year. If he did not head the class, he came pretty nearthe head, for he is an excellent scholar in every way, and altogetherthe best black man that has come to Cambridge."
Bishop Potter of New York wrote in the Boston Herald: "When at the last commencement of Harvard University, I sawa young colored man appear . . . and heard his brilliant and eloquentaddress, I said to myself: 'Here is what an historic race cando if they have a clear field, a high purpose, and a resolutewill.' "
The New York Nation commented editorially: "Whenthe name of William Edward Du Bois was called and a slender, intellectual-lookingmulatto ascended on the platform and made his bow to the Presidentof the University, the Governor of Massachusetts, the Bishop ofNew York, and a hundred other notables, the applause burst outheartily as if in recognition of the strange significance of hisappearance there. His theme . . . . heightened this significance. Du Bois handled his difficult and hazardous subject with absolutegood taste, great moderation, and almost contemptuous fairness."
Already I had now received more education than most young whitemen, having been almost continuously in school from the age ofsix to the age of 22. But I did not yet feel prepared. I feltthat to cope with the new and extraordinary situations then developingin the United States and the world, I needed to go further andthat as a matter of fact I had just well begun my training inknowledge of social conditions.
I revelled in the keen analysis of William James, Josiah Royce and young George Santayana. But it was James with his pragmatism and Albert Bushnell Hart with his research method, that turned me back from the lovely but sterile land of philosophic speculation,to the social sciences as the field for gathering and interpreting that body of fact which would apply to my program for the Negro. As undergraduate, I had talked frankly with William James about teaching philosophy, my major subject. He discouraged me, not by any means because of my record in his classes. He used to give me A's and even A-plus, but as he said candidly, there is"not much chance for anyone earning a living as a philosopher."
And, on the subject of race and American philosophy, Cornel West is an indispensable voice:
Taking Emerson as his starting point, Cornel West’s basic task in this ambitious enterprise is to chart the emergence, development, decline, and recent resurgence of American pragmatism. John Dewey is the central figure in West’s pantheon of pragmatists, but he treats as well such varied mid-century representatives of the tradition as Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W. E. B. Du Bois, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling. West’s "genealogy" is, ultimately, a very personal work, for it is imbued throughout with the author’s conviction that a thorough reexamination of American pragmatism may help inspire and instruct contemporary efforts to remake and reform American society and culture.My MTSU colleague Clarence Johnson has written of West that he's at heart a secular humanist, notwithstanding his strong affinity with the African-American religious sensibility.
"West . . . may well be the pre-eminent African American intellectual of our generation."—The Nation
"The American Evasion of Philosophy is a highly intelligent and provocative book. Cornel West gives us illuminating readings of the political thought of Emerson and James; provides a penetrating critical assessment of Dewey, his central figure; and offers a brilliant interpretation—appreciative yet far from uncritical—of the contemporary philosopher and neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty. . . . What shines through, throughout the work, is West's firm commitment to a radical vision of a philosophic discourse as inextricably linked to cultural criticism and political engagement."—Paul S. Boyer, professor emeritus of history, University of Wisconsin–Madison. amazon