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Historian, journalist, educator, and civil rights advocate W. E. B. Du Bois was perhaps most accomplished as a sociologist of race relations and of the black community in the United States. This volume collects his most important sociological writings from 1898 to 1910. The eighteen selections include five on Du Bois's conception of sociology and sociological research, especially as a tool in the struggle for racial justice; excerpts from studies of black communities in the South and the North, including The Philadelphia Negro; writings on black culture and social life, with a selection from The Negro American Family; and later works on race relations in the United States and elsewhere after World War II. This section includes a powerful fiftieth-anniversary reassessment of his classic 1901 article in the Atlantic in which he predicted that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."
The editors provide an annotated bibliography, a lengthy overview of Du Bois's life and work, and detailed introductions to the selections.
"The most significant contribution of this book is its inclusive look at Du Bois as both academic and activist. . . . Individuals interested in the study of social issues and political sociology would benefit from reading and discussing this book."—Paul Kriese, Sociology: Reviews of New Books
"Green and Driver, informing this volume with a 48-page essay that summarizes Du Bois' career and places him in the context of the profession, have intelligently organized his writings. . . . A welcome contribution that should have wide use."—Elliott Rudwick, Contemporary Sociology
THE ATLANTA CONFERENCES
The present condition of sociological study is peculiar and in many respects critical. Amid a multitude of interesting facts and conditions we are groping after a science—after reliable methods of observation and measurement, and after some enlightening way of systematizing and arranging the mass of accumulated material. Moreover the very immensity of the task gives us pause. What after all are we trying to do but to make a science of human action? And yet such a task seems so preposterous that there is scarce a sociologist the world over that would acknowledge such a plan. Rather, turning from so startling a task, they have assured the world that their object is to study a certain metaphysical entity called society—and when they have been asked earnestly and rather insistently just what society is, they have replied in language at once curious, mystical and at times contradictory. Has not the time come however when we should face our problem? In reality we seek to know how much of natural law there is in human conduct. Sociology is the science that seeks to measure the limits of chance in human action, or if you will excuse the paradox, it is the science of free will. Leaving then the definition of the science in this rather stupendous form we must turn to the fact that in reality we have sought to build upon a plan the breadth of which is not limited even by the ends of the world; and have taken all human action for our province and made the endeavor to collate and systematize the facts of human progress and organization; and the result is two sorts of sociological material—a number of thick books full of generalization more or less true and more or less systematic, but all liable to the same criticism, namely that while they have said many things well, they have neither permanently increased the amount of our own knowledge nor introduced in the maze of fact any illuminating system or satisfying interpretation. On the other hand we have a growing tangled mass of facts arising from social investigations, of all degrees of worth and reliability, bewildering in their quantity and baffling in their hidden meaning.
Now the work of the next fifty years is to bring theory and practice in sociology nearer together, to connect more logically the statement and the demonstration and to make in truth the science of human action a true and systematic statement of the verifiable facts as ascertained by observation and measurement.
Now to bring about this result it is certain that we cannot at once compass all human action in time and eternity—the field is too vast and much valuable time has already been wasted in trying to do the impossible under the brilliant but questionable leadership of Herbert Spencer. We must more and more school ourselves to the minute study of limited fields of human action, where observation and accurate measurement are possible and where real illuminating knowledge can be had. The careful exhaustive study of the isolated group then is the ideal of the sociologist of the 20th century—from that may come a real knowledge of natural law as locally manifest—a glimpse and revelation of rhythm beyond this little center and at last careful, cautious generalization and formulation.
For such work there lies before the sociologist of the United States a peculiar opportunity. We have here going on before our eyes the evolution of a vast group of men from simpler primitive conditions to higher more complex civilization. I think it may safely be asserted that never in the history of the modern world has there been presented to men of a great nation so rare an opportunity to observe and measure and study the evolution of a great branch of the human race as is given to Americans in the study of the American Negro. Here is a crucial test on a scale that is astounding and under circumstances peculiarly fortunate. By reason of color and color prejudice the group is isolated—by reason of incentive to change, the changes are rapid and kaleidoscopic; by reason of the peculiar environment, the action and reaction of social forces are seen and can be measured with more than usual ease. What is human progress and how is it emphasized? How do nations rise and fall? What is the meaning and value of certain human actions? Is there rhythm and law in the mass of the deeds of men—and if so how can it best be measured and stated—all such questions can be studied and answered in the case of the American Negro, if he shall be studied closely enough in a way to enlighten science and inspire philanthropy. Instead of vainly attacking the whole race mass of the world—instead of vainly seeking to attack the problems of social relations among all men and all peoples at all times, why in the name of common sense, does it not occur to American sociologists that their time and labor would be infinitely more effective for real scientific advance if applied to the study of the one rapidly developing group of people?
Instead of this nothing can exceed our remarkable and reprehensible ignorance of the Negro people. Even for the purposes of practical philanthropy, for the aid of education theories, for the knowledge of rare characteristics our ignorance is astounding. If the Negroes were still lost in the forests of central Africa we could have a government commission to go and measure their heads, but with 10 millions of them here under your noses I have in the past besought the Universities almost in vain to spend a single cent in a rational study of their characteristics and conditions. We can go to the South Sea Islands half way around the world and beat and shoot a weak people longing for freedom into the slavery of American color prejudice at the cost of hundreds of millions, and yet at Atlanta University we beg annually and beg in vain for the paltry sum of $500 simply to aid us in replacing gross and vindictive ignorance of race conditions with enlightening knowledge and systematic observation. There is no question before the scientific world in regard to which there is more guess work and wild theorizing than in regard to causes and characteristics of the diverse human species. And yet here in America we have not only the opportunity to observe and measure nearly all the world's great races in juxtaposition, but more than that to watch a long and intricate process of amalgamation carried on hundreds of years and resulting in millions of men of mixed blood. And yet because the subject of amalgamation with black races is a sore point with us, we have hitherto utterly neglected and thrown away every opportunity to study and know this vast mulatto population and have deliberately and doggedly based our statements and conclusions concerning this class upon pure fiction or unvarnished lies. We do not even know the number of mixed bloods, the extent of the mixture, the characteristics, stature, or ability of the mixed; and yet there is scarcely a man or woman who would not be able or willing at a moment's notice to express a full and definite opinion concerning American Mulattoes, both here and everywhere, in time and eternity.
Such an attitude is allowable to the ignorant—it is expected among horses and among the uncultivated masses of men, but it is not expected of the scientific leaders of a great nation. On the contrary, it is fair to ask of them, first, to approach the question of the scientific study of a great race with open-mindedness and simple-hearted desire for truth, and in the second place that they let slip no such opportunity as this of widening the narrow boundaries of scientific truth.
It is of course perfectly clear as to why scientific men have long fought shy of this field. The presence of the Negro in America has long been the subject of bitter and repeated controversy—of war and hate, of strife and turmoil. It has been said that so dangerous a field, where feelings were deep-seated and turbulent, was not the place for scientific calm of clear headed investigation. The nation will come to see—I trust is already beginning to realize—that this is a mistake; that no subject is so intricate and dangerous, as not to be infinitely more approachable in the clear light of knowledge than in the fog of prejudice and bitter feeling, and that the first business of any nation distracted by a great social problem is thoroughly to study and understand this problem.
The study of men however, is peculiar in being especially liable to the influences of prejudice which makes the inevitable scientific assumption with which all investigators must start difficult to agree upon. For instance, if the Negroes are not ordinary human beings, if their development is simply the retrogression of an inferior people, and the only possible future for the Negro, a future of inferiority, decline and death, then it is manifest that a study of such a group, while still of interest and scientific value is of less pressing and immediate necessity than the study of a group which is distinctly recognized as belonging to the great human family, whose advancement is possible, and whose future depends on its own efforts and the fairness and reasonableness of the dominant and surrounding group.
Now some assumptions of this kind are necessary. They must be held tentatively ever subject to change and revision; and yet the scientific investigation must start with them. Now we at Atlanta University in making some small beginning toward the scientific study of the American Negro have made certain tentative assumptions. We have assumed that the Negro is a constituent member of the great human family, that he is capable of advancement and development, that mulattoes are not necessarily degenerates and that it is perfectly possible for the Negro people to become a great and civilized group. In making these assumptions we have kept before us the facts that every student knows, namely: That there is no adequate historical warrant for pronouncing the Negro race inferior to the other races of the world in a sense of unalterable destiny. To be sure we do not dogmatically assert what place the Negro really occupies in the human scale. We merely assume that clear evidence to the contrary being absolutely wanting, it is fair to place a great race of men who have for centuries come in contact with the world's greatest civilizations as a part and parcel of that world of men. We assume further the Negro's capability of advancement, not so much because of the progress he has already made, as because of the repeated failure of those theories that have placed metes and bounds to his development. We assume the essential manhood and capabilities of mulattoes because in the history of the race no differences between the blacks and half-bloods have been clearly enough established to warrant other assumptions. And above all we assume that given such effort as the Negroes are capable of and such response as the environment may give, the black people of the land will become as civilized as their fellows. We assume this because all the evidence which is reliable, points this way and the evidence on the other side is rather wish and prejudice than fact and observation.
Now, as I have said before, we take none of these positions dogmatically. We never consciously conceal an unpleasant truth that militates against our assumptions, nor do we allow ourselves to be swept by the prevailing dislike of the race into conclusions unwarranted by the facts or beyond the evidence. We are seeking the truth and seeking it despite the urging of friends and clamor of enemies; and in this seeking we demand and think we deserve the sympathy and aid of scientific men.
The object of the Atlanta Conference is to study the American Negro. The method employed is to divide the various aspects of his social condition into ten great subjects. To treat one of these subjects each year as carefully and exhaustively as means will allow until the cycle is completed. To begin then again on the same cycle for a second ten years. So that in the course of a century, if the work is well done we shall have a continuous record on the condition and development of a group of 10 to 20 millions of men—a body of sociological material unsurpassed in human annals. Such an ambitious program is of course difficult to realize. We have, however, reached already the eighth year of the first cycle and have published seven reports and have the eighth in preparation; the sequence of subjects studied has not been altogether logical but will in the end be exhaustive.
In 1896 we studied the subject of health among the Negroes; in 1897, the subject of homes; in 1898, the question of organization; in 1899, the economic development in business lines; in 1900 the higher education of Negroes; in 1901, the common schools and in 1902, another phase of the economic developments—the Negro artisans. In 1903 we investigated the Negro church, and have still to take up the subjects of crime and the suffrage. We shall then begin the cycle again, studying in succession for the second decade, health, homes, occupations, organizations, religion, crime and suffrage.
We have been greatly hampered in this work as I have intimated. First we have been unable as yet to convince any considerable number of the American people of the burning necessity of work of this sort and its deep scientific significance. We do not pretend that Atlanta University is the only fit centre for this work or that we are doing it in the best way. We do contend that the work ought to be done and that we are doing it better than any one else is trying. We receive some encouragement: the libraries are buying our reports; newspapers and periodicals are at times willing to assist in spreading our results and scientific workers give us aid and sympathy. The mass of thinking people, however, fail to realize the true significance of an attempt to study systematically the greatest social problem that has ever faced a great modern nation. We raise with difficulty $250 to $350 annually to carry on the work and we are not sure how long even that meagre sum will be forthcoming. Nevertheless, by the voluntary co-operation of Negro college bred men throughout the land and the goodness of other persons black and white we have succeeded in doing some reliable work.
The work on death rates was our first effort and necessarily limited. The study of homes and social conditions, however, was better done and its results were published by the United States Bureau of Labor, besides the papers in our report. The study of efforts at organization and social betterment entered a unique field and showed with interesting detail the progress of civilizing a group of men in the simple matters of every day life. In the economic field we sought to study the efforts by which the driven slave when emancipated had been made to become himself a master of men in the modern economic world. It was a story of struggle, failure and success and threw no little light on economic development in general. Then came a study of education; how far the higher training of Negroes fitting of unfitting men for real work—was an undue number studying Latin and Greek and was an appalling number of colleges opening their doors to black men. The result of this report corrected many misapprehensions. It showed only 2,500 college graduates among nine million of people, which does not look particularly alarming. It showed that fully 90 per cent. of them were in useful regular occupations and were property holders and respected citizens. It showed that there were too many Negro colleges of poor ranks and too few of high rank and adequate equipment. We showed the history of the public school for both races in the rural districts of the South and we insisted upon the novel, but as we think perfectly clear, proposition that Negro taxes, direct and indirect have since the war, entirely paid for Negro schools and that they have in no sense been a burden on the white tax payer. In 1902 we took up the subject of the Negro Artisan. We investigated the work of industrial schools, received returns from every National Trades Union in America and, three-fourths of the city central labor councils; in conjunction with the greatest Southern Industrial paper, the Chattanooga Tradesman, we made an investigation among employees of skilled Negro labor and finally corresponded with thousands of Negro artisans. The report on the Negro church is in press.
Reprinted from Voice of the Negro 1 (March 1904): 85-89.
Excerpted from W.E.B. Du Bois on Sociology and the Black Community by Dan S. Green, Edwin D. Driver. Copyright © 1978 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Preface and Acknowledgments
Dan S. Green, Edwin D. Driver.
I: The Tasks of Sociology
1: The Atlanta Conferences
2: The Laboratory in Sociology at Atlanta University
3: The Twelfth Census and the Negro Problems
4: The Study of the Negro Problems
5: The Negro Race in the United States of America
II: Community Studies
6: The Philadelphia Negro
7: The Black North in 1901: New York
8: The Negroes of Dougherty County, Georgia
9: The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia
III: Black Culture and Creativity
10: The Negro American Family
11: The Religion of the American Negro
12: The Problem of Amusement
13: The Conservation of Races
IV: Changing Patterns of Racial Relations
14: The Relations of the Negroes to the Whites in the South
15: The Social Evolution of the Black South
16: The Problem of the Twentieth Century Is the Problem of the Color
17: Prospect of a World without Race Conflict
Selected Bibliography of W. E. B. Du Bois