I taught the conflict between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington three times this semester. Once in my African American history class and once each in my two Paideia classes, when we were reading The Souls of Black Folk. When I encouraged students to understand the difference between protest and accommodation, I was struck by a couple of things. First, I remembered my own efforts in graduate school to move beyond this discussion because it struck me as a false dichotomy. Secondly, students really liked it and understood it precisely because it is so simple. And almost to a person in Paideia, they all argued on behalf of Du Bois, except for the few who suggested that if Du Bois and Washington had just gotten along, the black freedom struggle would have accomplished so much more.
I recently asked H-AfroAm where the literature is on Protest and Accommodation. For the most part, the few responders agreed that it was a false dichotomy. Even that fact that only a couple of people responded suggests that this is not an issue that raises interest. In my own investigation of the historiography, I was struck by Cornel West’s 1982 declaration,
“The Du Bois-Washington debate set the framework for inclusionary African practices in the United States in this century. The numerous black ideological battles between integrationism and nationalism, accommodationism and separatism are but versions and variations of the Du Bois-Washington debate. For example, Marcus Garvey, the great Jamaican leader of the first mass movement among Africans in the United States, simply gave Washington’s self-help orientation a nationalist slant and back-to-Africa twist; his personal admiration of Washington is indisputable.” (89) …
The dominance of the ideology has ended because
“The postmodern period has rendered the framework of the Du Bois-Washington debate obsolete, but presently there is little theory and praxis to fill the void.”(93)
I think that this obsolescence of the framework is partly what is influencing modern historiography. My assertion, in contrast, is that if this duality energized debate among African Americans and I find evidence of that energy in the primary sources, I can use the debate to frame my research, as long as I recognize that lived practice was necessarily different from stated ideology and that even ideology did not break down so easily into each camp as undergrads would wish.