Journal-January 19, 2021): Essay Contest-$100.00 Prize

I just finished reading the second of W. E. B. Du Bois’s three autobiographies, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. In this journal entry, I would want to do two things: first, propose an essay contest; and second, quote from Du Bois’s “Philosophy of Life.”

1.      Essay Contest: I came across this challenging passage in Dusk of Dawn:

That same year (1915) occurred another, and in the end, much more insidious and hurtful attack: the new technique of the moving picture had come to America and the world. But this method of popular entertainment suddenly became great when David Griffith made the film “The Birth of a Nation.” He set the pace for a new art and method: the thundering horses, the masked riders, the suspense of plot and the defense of innocent womanhood; all this was thrilling even if melodramatic and overdrawn. This would have been a great step in the development of a motion-picture art, if it had not happened that the director deliberately used as the vehicle of his picture one of the least defensible attacks upon the Negro race, made by Thomas Dixon in his books beginning with the “Leopard’s Spots,” and in his play “The Clansman.” There was fed to the youth of the nation and to the unthinking masses as well as to the world a story which twisted the emancipation and enfranchisement of the slave in a great effort toward universal democracy, into an orgy of theft and degradation and wide rape of white women.

In combating this film, our Association [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-NAACP] was placed in a miserable dilemma. We had to ask liberals to oppose freedom of art and expression, and it was senseless for them to reply: “Use this art in your own defense.” The cost of picture making and the scarcity of appropriate artistic talent made any such immediate answer beyond question. Without doubt the increase of lynching in 1915 and later was directly encouraged by this film. We did what we could to stop its showing and thereby probably succeeded in advertising it even beyond its admittedly notable merits. The combined result of these various events caused a sudden increase of lynching. The number of mob murders so increased that nearly one hundred Negroes were lynched during 1915 and a score of whites, a larger number than had occurred for more than a decade.… [For example,] five Negroes in Lee County, Georgia, were lynched en masse and there came the horrible public burning of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, before a mob of thousands of men, women and children. “While a fire was being prepared of boxes, the naked boy was stabbed and the chain put over the tree. He tried to get away, but could not. He reached up to grab the chain and they cut off his fingers. The big man struck the boy on the back of the neck with a knife just as they were pulling him up on the tree. Mr.–thought that was practically the death blow. He was lowered into the fire several times by means of the chain around his neck. Someone said they would estimate the boy had about twenty-five stab wounds, each one of them death-dealing.”

Essay Question: Du Bois makes two claims in this passage: (1) The standard liberal response of, use freedom of expression to your own advantage in order to combat hateful ideas, was irrelevant, as Blacks possessed neither the financial resources nor the trained artistic talent to combat Birth of a Nation via an “opposing” film; (2) the screening of this film was directly responsible for the resurgence of grisly lynchings of Black people.  How would you answer Du Bois’s arguments, or do you agree with him, that the State should have suppressed the film?  Your essay should be 100-300 words in length. All submissions will be posted on my website.  The winner (to be chosen by a committee of three) will receive $100.00.

2.      Here are some excerpts from Du Bois’s “Philosophy of Life” that I, for one, at the end of my life, find resonant:

I have been favored among the majority of men in never being compelled to earn my bread and butter by doing work that was uninteresting or which I did not enjoy or of the sort in which I did not find my greatest life interest. This rendered me so content in my vocation that I seldom thought about salary or haggled over it. My first job paid me eight hundred dollars a year and to take it I refused one which offered ten hundred and fifty. I served over a year at the University of Pennsylvania for the munificent sum of six hundred dollars and never railed at fate. I taught and worked at Atlanta University for twelve hundred a year during thirteen effective and happy years. I never once asked for an increase. I went to New York for the salary offered and only asked for an increase there when an efficient new white secretary was hired at a wage above mine. I then asked equal salary. I did not want the shadow of racial discrimination to creep into our salary schedule. I realize now that this rather specious monetary independence may in the end cost me dearly, and land me in time upon some convenient street corner with a tin cup. For I have saved nearly nothing and lost my life insurance in the depression. Nevertheless. I insist that regardless of income, work worth while which one wants to do as compared with highly paid drudgery is exactly the difference between heaven and hell.

I am especially glad of the divine gift of laughter; it has made the world human and lovable, despite all its pain and wrong.