Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Poem With Several Histories: Dudley Randall’s “Booker T. And W.E.B.”

This poem is pedagogically useful in Freshman Composition (and foundational skills) courses for several reasons. 1) It serves as an introduction into Post-World War II American Poetry, especially African-American Poetry. 2) It is useful for Critical Thinking, as it is structured around the rhetorical mode of Comparison and Contrast, by showing two sides of an argument without blatantly taking sides. 3) The dialogue/debate presented in Dudley Randall’s 1965 poem has historical importance, and may serve to educate people into some central issues in the “war of words” between two powerful spokesmen that occurred a century ago. Yet the debate was not just about two men, but about contrasting philosophies they represented: As essayist James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1933, “One not familiar with this phase in Negro life in the 12 or 14-year period following 1903…cannot imagine the bitterness or antagonism between the two wings.”[1]

It may not be necessary to know any more about the debate aside from what is mentioned in the poem itself in order to appreciate what Randall is doing, but such knowledge can deepen the reader’s understanding of the poem. The poem also invites the reader to ask: After reading this poem, do you identify and agree with one of the characters, both, or neither? Is the debate still relevant today, or would it need to be updated? Does Randall summarize and represent these two positions fairly? Does Randall purposely leave the poem ambiguous?

One of the first things one may notice when reading this poem, especially if one reads it aloud, is that this poem uses rhyme and rhythm. Its rhythmic rhyming couplets may remind you of children’s books like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs And Ham. When this poem was first published in 1965, many contemporary poets were abandoning traditional rhyme and rhythm schemes for “free verse” (or “blank verse”). To many of these poets, poems that relied on end-stopped rhymes were considered anachronistic, especially if they emphasize a sing-song quality as Randall’s poem does (as Ezra Pound put it, almost half a century before, a poem’s ‘music’ should not sound like a metronome).

50 years later, such rhymes are still considered taboo amongst much sophisticated academic poetry. To many, this 20th century free-verse distinguished American writing from the traditional European formal rhyming poetry, and was considered a sign of American modern “freedom.” Yet, Randall’s use of these rhythmic rhymes make the poem more immediately accessible, and also much more easy to memorize, to a more general audience, like many of the popular songs of the time (as well as of today).
While some poets do not call song lyrics “poetry,” in many ways song lyrics are much more like what was called poetry in America, and elsewhere, before Ezra Pound, and others made their poetic innovations which made poetry become less popular. Yet Randall’s use of rhyme differs from the traditional European rhyming verse of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century by tapping into a more populist, less specialized, African-American (trans-literary) tradition in which abandoning rhyme was never a sign, or badge, of “modernism” as much as it was among the white-European literary tradition (which can also make the poem more accessible to a younger readership than a college student, even if it runs the risk of reducing these very serious, and powerful adult thinkers and activists, into cartoon characters).

For all of its sing-song accessibility and seeming simplicity, this poem becomes more and more complex upon repeated readings. The poem’s masterful use of form, coupled with its poetic ambiguity and suggestiveness, come alive on the page as well as on the stage. Furthermore, its rhyme schemes and the length of each stanza help contribute to the meaning of the poem, driving home its main point of contrast between the two historical speakers: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

1st stanza   ABBCCDD
2nd Stanza ABBDDCCEE
3rd Stanza AFFGGHH
4th Stanza  AIIJJKKLL (LL could be CC)
Coda/Envoi: AA

Randall’s use of the rhyming names (or initials of their non-last names) is a musical hook, which frames the poem. They become rhyming stage directions in this dramatic-dialogue, signaling the stanza breaks. The stanza structure is also worth noting. This poem alternates between 2 stanzas of 7 lines (spoken by Booker T.) and 2 stanzas of 9 lines (spoken by W.E.B). W.E.B. Du Bois always gets 2 more lines, and there is clearly a thematic reason why Randall does this (even as his decision to do this can be interpreted more than one way).

Booker T. always speaks first, and W.E.B addresses his assertions point-by-point (even using the exact same end-rhymes in the first two stanzas). Why does Randall do that? Historically, Booker T. Washington came first, and was older than W.E.B Du Bois. But this device also seems to give W.E.B. the last word. The fact that W.E.B. gets the last word in this dialectic argument may suggest that the author Dudley Randall himself finds W.E.B’s position more attractive, more empowering, and stronger than Booker T’s. But the poem resists such an easy conclusion. Randall does an admirable job of stepping out of the way and presenting the argument without intrusive commentary that can prevent the reader from being empowered enough to make up his or her own mind. We must look more closely at the language and rhetoric the two historic characters in this poem use in order to understand exactly what the debate is about.

Contrasting the statements made in the first two stanzas, we may see that Booker T. believes that manual labor (whether hoeing, or cooking) is more valuable than intellectual labor (studying chemistry or Greek). W.E.B represents the antithesis to Booker T’s thesis, arguing that “the right to cultivate the brain” is at the very least as important as rejoicing in manual labor (“skill of hand”). On closer look, the contrast in these two stanzas (and the positions these two men take) is not simply what they argue, but how they argue. Randall underscores the difference in their manner of speaking, first, by contrasting Booker T’s use of the passive voice (“It seems to me”) with W.E.B’s use of the active voice (“I don’t agree”). Regardless of whether the historical Booker T. actually spoke in the passive voice much more than W.E.B. did, the fact that Randall portrays the contrast this way, again, suggests that Randall considers W.E.B. to be a more attractive role model. This would make sense, given the fact that Randall himself was a writer and devout reader and thus more likely to identify with W.E.B. Du Bois, especially during this time in which African Americans were more encouraged to work in manual labor than be college educated (though that was starting to change).

Yet, however passive Booker T seems, he is also presented as a scold, chastising W.E.B. for “showing a mighty lot of cheek,” and “sticking [his] nose” inside a book. He certainly is addressing W.E.B. in an aggressive condescending tone, as the historical Booker T. did. By contrast, W.E.B’s language is more elevated and more respectful of Booker T. W.E.B is not saying that everyone has to agree with him that cultivation of the brain is better than cultivation of the land; he’s acknowledging that both skills (manual and intellectual) can be useful, and important.

The second half of the poem changes the subject to the question of “Civil Rights.” Here Booker T. tells his fellow blacks, “Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,/
But work, and save, and buy a house.” W.E.B counters, “Unless you help to make the laws/ They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.” These few lines get at the heart of division between these two factions within the African American community that these men represented. Washington wrote in the early 1900s in response to calls for civil-rights legislation, “The best course to pursue in regard to a civil rights bill in the South is to let it alone: let it alone and it will settle itself. Good school teachers and plenty of money to pay them will be more potent in settling the race question than any civil rights bill and investigative committees.”[2]

While many African Americans sided with Booker T’s position, and it did allow a large sector of the African American community to make economic gains within the segregated society of the early 20th century, by the time of the mid century Civil Rights movement, a young generation of blacks had painfully experienced over-and-over again exactly what W.E.B predicts in these poems, and came to reject what he calls Booker T’s “little plan” of economic self-sufficiency. Dudley Randall may seem to be siding with Du Bois in this poem. He certainly gives him more lines, more articulate and graceful speech, and one sees in miniature the same kind of verbal skewering in this poem that W.E.B. had made of Booker T’s position in his The Souls of Black Folks, yet the coda of the poem ends with a tone of ambivalence that suggests a different reading

Dudley Randall does purposely avoid commentary that says he agrees with one over the other. Even though W.E.B. is getting the last word, from one perspective this could show that he is just a more effective verbal warrior; a better talker and writer. The repetition of their catch phrases (“It seems to me” and “I don’t agree”) suggests an argument at a stalemate, with neither man (or movement) able to convince the other of his point, and in this sense, the poem becomes more a lament for their argument never reaching a working relationship, and a very subtle plea for unity between these two positions and legacies.

When Dudley Randall published this poem in 1965, the Civil Rights movement was at its height. Many had fought for, and died, in the fight against segregation, to enforce laws already on the books and put pressure on Congress and the President to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Yet, during this time, the mass media made much of the divide between Martin Luther King in the south and Malcolm X in the northern cities.

Because of this, some students have been tempted to see Dudley Randall’s distinction here as a comment on the Martin/Malcolm debate within the black community. One student wrote that, in this poem, that Booker T. is more like Martin Luther King, while W.E.B. is like Malcolm X. Yet, the analogy doesn’t ultimately work, since Martin Luther King at the time was fighting, amongst other things, for the right to vote (which Booker T. disagrees with). If anything, Malcolm X was much more skeptical that gaining voting rights would change anything for the better. He was fighting less for Civil Rights than Human Rights, for economic self-determination, and in this sense shares more with Booker . Furthermore, as both Malcolm and Martin’s thinking matured, their positions came closer together, before they were assassinated.

In fact, by 1964, a year before Malcolm died, he spoke of how black people must come together in unity and overcome the tendency “we have to always be at each others’ throats” (The Ballot or The Bullet), whether this is between the SCLC and the NOI in his day, or the Booker T/W.E.B. debate 50 years earlier. Malcolm was assassinated in early February 1965 before such accommodation between the two factions could be made.

Shortly after Malcolm’s death, however, Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell Jr. introduced a seventeen-point program on March 28, 1965, “My Black Position Paper for America’s 20 Million Negroes.” This fused the ideas of Washington and Du Bois (or Malcolm and Martin) by demanding that the civil-rights movement “shift its emphasis to the-two-pronged thrust of the Black Revolution: economic self-sufficiency and political power” (emphasis added). He felt the legislation of Johnson, particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act, meant nothing in the North without the economic contingent of ‘black power’ to support it. Martin Luther King soon came to express that both were needed to create unity beyond the stalemate presented in the poem.

Such unity is probably needed even more today. In 1965, when Dudley Randall wrote this poem, the choice of intellectual labor over manual labor—whether industrial or agricultural—was seen as a form of progress as it was in when W.E.B. wrote. Higher education/white collar jobs were less available to blacks but were becoming more available, even as there was still the option of choosing a job in manual labor. It’s doubtful he could have foreseen then the dismantling of these blue-collar manual labor jobs (the good union jobs) that has occurred in the subsequent 50 years. Once again, history changes the meaning of the debate in the first two stanzas.

Today, the debate in the first two stanzas of this poem is simply not as relevant in the absence of these manual jobs, which has also served to lesson the value of the college degree. Booker T. Washington may have been arrogant, as this poem and many others have argued, but his argument for economic self-determination, is not to be dismissed as the ravings of an “Uncle Tom” (or less of “a man”) as it was to many during the Civil Rights movement. The poem is valuable as a historic document, but also because it allows the reader to revisit this historical debate in light of the segregation and economic disenfranchisement that continues today.

Booker T. and W.E.B. (Dudley Randall)

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land.
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.
“If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook.
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.”

“It seems to me, said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail?
Unless you help to make the laws
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.

“I don’t agree,”
Said W.E.B.

[1] . George. 5

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