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Experimental Essay: Free, but not Equal

han yu's picture

Free, but not Equal

       “[L]iberty is not the principal and constant object of their desire. What they love with a love that is eternal is equality” (Tocqueville, p.60). What I interpret Tocqueville’s comment on people is that, Liberty and Equality, seemly two equally important concepts, are not parallel to each other. Equality is always more important than Freedom, and people cannot acquire Freedom without holding Equality. The Equality here I am talking about does not mean that everyone in the society are in the same social status which is too surreal for human to grasp, but the Equality in opportunities and in enlightenment for all people to yield the best with their wills and capabilities, which will eventually lead people to Freedom, as Du bois mentioned in his first chapter “the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire […] all these we need, not singly but together” (Du Bois, p.14). In the reality that without Equality in social statuses, there directly come the disparities in people’s power.

       The disparities in people’s power lead to many social injustices, and the people in power can be divided into the righteous ones and the vicious ones.

       The social injustices fall in education, the distribution or execution of power, and persecution toward the black people in the time of Du Bois. As Tocqueville observed in New England around 1650s, “the education of children is one of the primary interests of the state, […] Municipal magistrates were made responsible for seeing that parents sent their children to school”(p.47). However, when Alexender Crummell, a black kid, was accepted to a school in New Hampshire after the time of Emancipation Proclamation, a group of furious farmers destroyed the school by dragging it into the middle of swamp. And after John Jones started his school sheltered by the dilapidated old shanty for the local black children, the furious Judge intruded the school, closed it, and dismissed the students. When talking about the political effects of administrative decentralization in the United States, Tocqueville discovered that “In America, the means available to the authorities for discovering crimes and prosecuting criminals are few […]The reason for this is that everyone believes he has an interest in providing evidence of crime and in apprehending criminals” (p.108). What if the “interest” taken into account is only from White people? In the world from the black people’s perspective, as Du bois depicted, “The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; […] the accused law breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape” (p.128). The courts were used for re-enslaving purposes, and the witnesses and juries were all white people; these racially biased ways society used to accuse criminals served as a reciprocal cause and effect for the increase in crimes among black people. More and more of them were sent into jails and prisons, further losing their rights to vote, and the laws were continuously enacted by people who did not care their interests. What a vicious cycle. In the South, one of the only practical ways for people to reconstruct their situation, was to grant black people the rights of ballot. However, “Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; […] Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud” (Du Bois, p.33).

       Among those in power, there are people who were righteous, and the others vicious. To put it in Du Bois’s words, the people of power who were sympathetic (e.g. the best of Whites), and the others in power not sympathetic. It seemed like they were different by nature, but actually they were the same, since no matter what attitudes or what conducts they had toward black people, friendly or brutal, believing in freedom or not, deep in their heart, they were in solidarity against Equality. Among the vicious, not sympathetic ones, they would destroy black students’ schools, or made “an ignorant, honest Negro buy and pay for a farm in installments three separate times, and then […] left the black men landless, to labor on his own land at thirty cents a day” (Du Bois, p.124), or “hustled the disturber (which was Alexender Crummell) away, marked him as foolish, unreasonable, and injudicious, a vain rebel against God’s law” (p.159). On the other hand, among those righteous, sympathetic ones, such as what Du bois considered the best of Whites, they could see the miseries. Some of them, such as the Bishops who gently refused Alexender Crummell, “we know how you feel about it; but you see it is impossible, […] we trust […] all such distinctions will fade away; but now the world is as it is” (Du Bois, p.159). They were aware of the contradictory situation between their beliefs in democracy or Christianity, and the existing color-line. To further clarify this,

“Deeply religious and intensely democratic as are the mass of the whites, they feel acutely the false position in which the Negro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generous people cannot cite the caste-levelling precepts of Christianity, or believe in equality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more with each generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flat contradiction to their beliefs and profession” (p.135).

So these people were not wicked men. However, admitting one’s power is a very uncomfortable thing to do. Especially for people who are somewhat educated. You could have lived your life happily, enjoying all the resources you have, unconscious of the other world. However, you suddenly realized that all of your resources become privileges; During your happiness, simultaneously there exist some sharp, unsettling factors, some different people who are not living their lives as you do. It is part of the human nature to hold on to their satisfying lives, the status quo, so you try to have the situation under your control, but at the same time you have to do it in a conscientious way, in a way that does not contradict your belief in democracy, or religion. However, when you are motivated by these concerns, you are not making a difference actually on the basis of considering those different people’s well-being, you only care about in what way you can feel more comfortable, at the same time keeping the disparities in power, keeping your social status, in other words, you genuinely do not believe in Equality at all, no matter you strive for their freedom or not, no matter you learn about those people’s lives or not (and actually sometimes, some people’s behavior of learning about the others who are not in power is simply motivated by the conspiracy of coming up with a more effective way to control them ).

       Therefore appear those controversial approaches which on the surface are intended to benefit people disenfranchised, but actually serving the purposes as placebos for the people in power. They can appear in different ways: maybe in “[t]he daily paper [which] chronicles the doings of the black world from afar with no great regard for accuracy” (p.133). Celebrating the freedom of press, people seeing things only through their own lens, neglecting the fact that Freedom should be based on Equality. Maybe “The white folk of Altamaha voted John a good boy, —fine plough-hand, good in the rice-fields, handy everywhere, and always good-natured and respectful. But they shook their heads when his mother wanted to send him off to school. ‘It’ll spoil him, —ruin him,’ they said” (p.166). Which way would actually ruin a boy, sending him to school or circumscribing him in the rice-field, I would and need not to argue. The attitude was the same if we turn from the white folk of Altamaha to the Judge,

“[I][…]sympathize with all [colored people’s] reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men […] I ’ll do what I can to help them […] are you[…] going to accept the situation and teach the darkies to be faithful servants and laborers as your fathers were […] or are you going to try to put fool ideas of rising and equality into these folks’ heads” (p.176).

This time it becomes so obvious to see the relationship of Freedom and Equality, and what the whole picture was about the people in power. Deeply contended with their “good intentions”, some of them being the followers of the Atlanta Compromise (which was opposed by Du Bois) they were “wholeheartedly” giving black people “freedom” in some degree to do their “best” in agriculture, or the better choices as laborers in industry. How dare someone suggest the opportunities for black people to get a little more education and enlightenment and skills in order to equally compete with them and menace their social status? Those people in Du Bois’s time were just OPENLY against Equality. As time passed by, what about us? Now let’s talk about our position in this 360, and the people in the Mural Arts Project. 


han yu's picture

       Depicted such a severely unequal situation for freedmen, Du Bois may seemed discouraged, but actually he was not desperate. Rather, he provided some valuable insights on how to improve black people’s status. He believed that in such a racially biased society while no white people in power may have interest in them, black people should intervene the situation by themselves. He genuinely believed in “the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American republic”. Holding such belief of the equality and conformity among races, Du Bois put a lot hope on having some black leaders among freedmen who were “men of skill, men of light and leading, college-bred men, black captains of industry, and missionaries of culture” to lead black people to become active in striving for equalities, rather than passively enduring all miseries.

       However, the reality was harsh. Without enough training and education, even though some were qualified to become leaders, most black people at that time were suffering from self-questioning, self-disparagement, deeply discouraged by the inequalities and almost did not believe in their strength and values any more. They were eager to work, even if they were severely disadvantaged and being exploited, but they did not realize the importance of education and the imperative call for solidarity. When Alexander Crummell tried to help his folks, he was always rejected by people’s doubt. He had overcome the hate and despair, but it was people’s doubt he could not bear. “[Other black people] doubt the worth of his life-work, to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his; […] ‘They do not care; They cannot know;’” And when John Jones made a speech back in his town for all the black residents, people were even enraged, considering him someone disrespectful to the religion, and scolded him. Therefore, to add on Du Bois’s suggestions, I believe that other than having black leaders, people should be in solidarity against the inequalities, which was similar to Du Bois’ comment that “They (black leaders) must be backed by the best public opinion of these communities”. However, the prerequisite of this kind of backing up, the basis of the solidarity, requires sufficient amount of education. As I argued in my original draft of this experimental essay that the sympathy between the best of blacks and the best of whites may not work, black people should really figure out a way to strive for equal opportunities of education themselves, to become enlightened and notice the importance of self-worth and solidarity.

       John Jones “sketched in vague outline the new Industrial School […], he spoke in detail of the charitable and philanthropic work that might be organized, of money that might be saved for banks and business. Finally he urged unity, and deprecated especially religious and denominational bickering. ‘To-day’, he said, with a smile, ‘the world cares little whether a man be Baptist or Methodist, or indeed a churchman at all, so long as he is good and true’”. Without enough education provided to people, the leaders' life-works would only suffer and result in fruitelessness and tragedy as what happened to Alexender crummel and John Jones. Without education but only religion, people may become even more easily to be subdued since their legitimate anger and distress would be pacified, their focus would be distracted by denominational bickering, and their potential aspirations of social changes may be burried down or washed away. Only through education could they be able to think critically, embrace their dignity, and realize the same hope among their folks and therefore become united. 

       "education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know. "

       "B'lieve I did Heah somethin' about his(John Jones') givin' talks on the French Revolution, equality, and such like. He's what I call a dangerous Nigger."

jschlosser's picture


You write that "I believe that other than having black leaders, people should be in solidarity against the inequalities.” How can we learn from DuBois about the meaning of solidarity? Sula's essay offers one path: listening to the music, the spiritual strivings of black folk offered in their music. But DuBois also emphasizes shared work, contributing to economic growth and development together. We’ll see a vision of this shared work in the Freedom Struggle and we might also ask ourselves what kind of shared work we can undertake to foster solidarity.
You also write that "Only through education could they be able to think critically, embrace their dignity, and realize the same hope among their folks and therefore become united.” I’m reminded of the Freedom Schools, which we’ll be reading about: they took as their task the educating of people whose educations had suffered; they sought to imbue blacks in the south with dignity and hope. But this raises a question that came up last night during our post-Antigone discussion: Can you create educational institutions that empower without reproducing power relationships? Judging by the testimony of the participants, it seems the Freedom Schools did this, but it might be worth inquiring further. What can be learned from this example?