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  • Thomas Jefferson’s Bordeaux in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Pan-African View of the French Revolution
  • Karen E. Fields (bio)

W. E. B. Du Bois was an educator, first and last. He came to national prominence as the twentieth century began, through a famous controversy about education with Booker T. Washington. The question was "What sort of education did black people in post-slavery America require?" "Industrial education," answered Washington, and his white benefactors, North and South, applauded this assurance that the children and grandchildren of slaves needed, above all, to learn the value of work. By contrast, Du Bois's answer, "classical education," entailed a demand for equality: if elite white America regarded "classical education" as a necessary discipline for the minds of its future leaders, black America required nothing less for its own. Du Bois repeatedly revisited the subject of education for black people. In 1960, he answered once again, in a speech titled "Whither Now and Why?" (Du Bois 1973).

In 1962, after emigrating to Ghana, he published Africa and the French Revolution. By then, I submit, Du Bois had rethought his assumptions, [End Page 129] posing in effect a radically different question: what sort of education do white people in post-slavery America require? The very first sentence takes aim at intellectual segregationism in America's learned life:

If you should penetrate the campus of an American Ivy League college and challenging a Senior, ask what, in his opinion, was the influence of Africa on the French Revolution, he would answer in surprise, if not pity, "None."

The next sentence turns from the ignorant product of education at "an American Ivy League college" to the propagator of that ignorance:

If, after due apology, you ventured to approach his teacher of "historiography," provided such sacrilege were possible, you would be told that between African slavery in America and the greatest revolution of Europe, there was of course some connection, since both took place on the same earth; but nothing causal, nothing of real importance, since Africans have no history.

(Du Bois 1962, 5)

Then, with no further ado, he proceeds against the set and sanctified "historiography" (his quotation marks). He outlines his scientific case that "Africans and African slavery in the West Indies were the main causes and influences of the American Revolution and of the French Revolution." Narratively joining what American academe put asunder, he disrupts the racial categories that organized the instruction of young white Americans about the past. Here, it seems to me, is a manifesto for the desegregation of the American mind. Its spirit inhabits the story I propose to tell.

In spring 2005, I agreed to write an article for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, a Virginia historical magazine, about Thomas Jefferson's visit to Bordeaux in May 1787—in short, a simple story about Jefferson the lover of French wines, on tour in a city renowned for the very best of those. I would whip up some history lite. Readers would be invited to sit back, relax, and watch from their twenty-first century perch as Jefferson arranged his own personal "Bordeaux connection" through which to supply his (and his friends') habits of high-toned consumption.1 Writing [End Page 130] such a piece would digress from my serious project—research for a documentary about eighteenth-century Bordeaux as a colonial port. Or so I thought.

The plot soon thickened. As it turned out, Jefferson's list of Bordeaux wine merchants included names I recognized from my research on the port. For eighteenth-century Bordeaux, to say "port" was to say "colonial trade"—hence ties of real importance with Africa and Africans. Furthermore, since Bordeaux's eighteenth-century rich said so in word, deed, and décor, and given Jefferson's well-known powers of observation, my original Jefferson-the-tourist simplification turned out to be no such thing. One day, a question popped into my mind: what would Du Bois say about my discoveries? Were I a believer in spirit communications, I would say the answer came just as suddenly, though I will hold in suspense what he "said." Join me now in a...


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