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  • Both Sides of the Veil: Race, Science, and Mysticism in W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Cynthia D. Schrager (bio)

In its March 1905 issue, The Voice of the Negro ran an editorial roundly condemning the “false theory of race elevation” promoted by Booker T. Washington and his followers: the notion that the solution to the so-called “race problem” lay in the pursuit of a program of industrial education for African Americans. The editorial, appearing under the headline “Shall We Materialize the Negro,” denounced Washington’s recent address before the American Academy of Political and Social Science in Philadelphia, liberally quoting from the offending speech:

Say or think what we will, it is the tangible or visible element that is going to tell largely during the next twenty years in the solution of the race problem. Every white man will respect the Negro who owns a two-story brick business block in the center of town and has $5,000 in the bank. When a black man is the largest taxpayer and owns and cultivates the most successful farm in his county his white neighbors will not object very long to his voting and to having his vote honestly counted. The black man who is the largest contractor in his town and lives in a two-story brick house is not likely to be lynched. 1

Outraged by the “downright soulless materialism” of Washington’s statement, the editors align themselves instead with W. E. B. Du Bois in condemning the “erroneous policy that seeks to reduce a man to an automaton by prostituting his divine faculties of imagination, love of [End Page 551] truth, vision, faith, intellect, conscience and his irresistible desire for immortality into a trained but mechanical machine for breadwinning.” The “chief duty” of the race is the “cultivation of character” rather than wealth; “our sorest need is that element that eludes troy weight and refuses to be measured in the gross scales of avoirdupois and scorns the statistical columns of the census report and is too large for a banker’s vault.” 2

In response to the question, “Shall We Materialize the Negro,” the editorial succinctly lays out what it calls the “two conflicting currents of thought that agitate the market with reference to the Negro,” positions that are familiar to contemporary readers via Du Bois’s well-known challenge to Washington’s leadership in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). 3 In the current of thought espoused by Washington, the process of materialization—becoming, as it were, a “man of substance”—represents the promise of acquiring an agency defined in Washington’s speech by the respect of one’s white neighbors, the right to have one’s vote count, and the freedom from lynching as a mechanism of social control and terror. In contrast, contesting the antidemocratic equation Washington establishes between material wealth and civil rights, The Voice of the Negro suggests that materialization represents an objectification that entails a loss of agency. In this view, agency resides not in Washington’s “tangible or visible element,” but in the element that “eludes,” “refuses,” “scorns,” and exceeds empirical measurement. In language that is deeply indebted to Du Bois, the editorial favors a process of spiritual, moral, and imaginative self-actualization, one that values such invisible qualities as “imagination, love of truth, vision, faith, intellect, conscience and . . . [the] desire for immortality” over the materialistic energies and goals of Washington’s industrial self-help program.

This contest, as it were, between the so-called “soulless materialism” espoused by Washington and what we might call, following Du Bois, the “spiritual strivings” of the “souls of black folk,” reproduces the terms of the border dispute being waged in late-nineteenth-century western culture between science and religion, between the material and the spiritual—a split that William James characterized in terms of an antipathy between the “scientific-academic” and the “feminine-mystical” minds. 4 As a member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization that emerged in the early 1880s to subject the beliefs and practices of spiritualists to more rigorous empirical tests, James was [End Page 552] actively involved in the negotiation of the unstable boundary between “science” and...

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