Segment from The Melting Pot

Can I Be Both?

In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois asked a deceptively simple question: “am I an American, or am I a negro? Can I be both?” Historian Chad Williams explores how the scholar and civil rights activist answered that question throughout his long life.


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BRIAN: We’ve talked about what assimilation has meant for different groups, from Japanese-Americans and Native Americans to immigrants from Europe. But what about the people whose ancestors were brought here by force? What has assimilation meant for African Americans?

At the end of the 19th century, the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois asked, what, after all, am I? Am I an American, or am I a Negro? Can I be both?

It was a question that Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life. We asked historian Chad Williams how Du Bois tried to answer it.

CHAD WILLIAMS: For Du Bois, personally, and, again, I keep going back to the context is very important.

BRIAN: Guy, you talk like a damn historian. That’s such a pain in the ass. Turns out, the context matters.

In 1897, when Du Bois asked, am I an American, or am I a Negro? Americans on both sides of the color line saw race as the driving factor of history. So did Du Bois. But he had a more nuanced understanding of race.

CHAD WILLIAMS: He very explicitly says that you cannot think about race as something biological because it falls apart. You really need to think about race as something that is socially constructed, that is cultural, but that is, fundamentally, historical, as well.

BRIAN: And it’s important to point out that this might have even been a minority view among well-educated, white Americans, at any rate, at the time. This is the high point for what we, today, call scientific racism, where people believe that there were absolute physical, biological differences between races that determined the behavior and the future prospects of people of different races.

CHAD WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. Yes, when Du Bois writes The Conservation of Races in 1897, he very clearly sees himself as a social scientist. And he feels that, through demonstrating the inherent humanity of black people, of refuting the pernicious stereotypes that had undergirded– and lynching and all the other ills that were facing African Americans– that he would be able to undermine the race problem and, eventually, create a space for African Americans to be treated as equal human beings.

And the durability of white supremacy throughout the 20th century eventually erodes Du Bois’s confidence in the United States. And that really starts early on when he’s at Atlanta University. He experiences a lynching.

I believe this was in 1899. A black farmer outside of Atlanta, Sam Hose, was brutally lynched. And he went to register a complaint to the local newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution. And while he’s walking to the newspaper office, he sees Sam Hose’s knuckles in a grocery store window.

BRIAN: Oh, my god.

CHAD WILLIAMS: And he realizes that being the calm, cool, detached social scientist is ultimately insufficient when faced with that type of brutality and barbarism.

BRIAN: In 1934, Du Bois wrote an article titled “Segregation.” And as a result of that, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, kicked him out. What did he say in that article that got him kicked out of the NAACP?

CHAD WILLIAMS: Well, he was having a lot of personal beefs, if you will, with NAACP leaders.

BRIAN: He wouldn’t have been the first person.

CHAD WILLIAMS: Oh, he was very difficult to get along with. Du Bois was notoriously cantankerous. But, again, context is important.

This is during the Great Depression. African Americans are suffering, arguably, more than any other group in the country. And he’s making the argument that African Americans need to pull together and establish economic cooperatives.

But more importantly, he makes the argument that segregation was nothing new, that African Americans, throughout their history and particularly in their modern history, had always embraced various forms of segregation, sometimes by choice, other times by circumstance. But that it was not necessarily a bad thing.

But of course, this ran completely against the dogma of the NAACP and their core message. And that, really, led to Du Bois’s split from the association.

BRIAN: Du Bois doesn’t, necessarily, live to see this. And perhaps we haven’t lived to see it. But he must have had some conception of what the ideal looked like for the ability of African Americans to embrace both their African heritage and their Americanness. What did that look like, in his mind?

CHAD WILLIAMS: I think, in some ways, we could put it very bluntly– to be able to live. He writes in The Souls of Black Folk that, and I’m paraphrasing, one strives to be an American and a Negro without being cursed and spit upon. So I think, kind of at a fundamental level, Du Bois wanted the ability, the safety, for black people to fully embrace their humanity and to be able to share and cultivate their gifts with the rest of the nation and with the rest of the world.

That, in some ways, is what democracy looks like for Du Bois. And this idea of democracy was so poignant and rife with possibility but still unrealized. And Du Bois, I think, really committed his life, until he decided to leave the United States altogether, to pushing the United States to perfect its largely-failed experiment.

BRIAN: You’re working on a book about Du Bois. And surely, you’re going to have to answer Du Bois’s question to himself, am I an American, or am I a Negro? How are you going to answer that?

CHAD WILLIAMS: Well, if you take Du Bois as a person, he left the United States. I mean, he ultimately abandoned the United States and his American citizenship. He died in Ghana. So it was, I think, a harsh reality that he came to.

But I think he always felt that there was some redeeming value in America. Because it was the place where black people had established a culture, had made significant contributions to the history of the nation. But I think he believed in this kind of enduring tension, this idea of a hyphenated African American identity. And I think within that, there is an inherent tension that, perhaps, can never be reconciled.

NATHAN: Chad Williams is a historian at Brandeis University and is writing a book about W.E.B. Du Bois. And now, a word from our sponsors.