In his classic 1903 sociological treatise “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois devotes a chapter to a narrative of his time as a black schoolteacher in Tennessee. Titled “Of the Meaning of Progress,” his lyrical prose illustrates the complexities of such an idea as progress, ones we still grapple with more than 100 years later.
The essay begins with Du Bois’ search for a black community in need of a temporary summer schoolteacher. Approaching a village in southern Tennessee, he encounters a young woman named Josie who’s enthusiastic to have their first teacher in several years. He starts a summer school with permission from the white school commissioner. It never amounts to much. Du Bois’ own desk is a few 2-by-4s. Students of all ages pack into a single room and sit on benches without desks. Among them are the Burke kids, whose ambitious father wants to grow their 25-acre farm fourfold. Josie never attends because of intimidation from white children in town and her poor family needing her help around the house.
Ten years later, Du Bois returns to the village. He finds his schoolhouse gone. “In its place stood Progress; and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly.” There stands a new, larger building. The benches still have no backs. School is only in session once a year but is at least consistent. The Burke family worked tirelessly to buy back 100 acres of land from white landowners, but they remain in heavy debt to them. Josie’s bright-eyed brother Jim, who could “have made a venturous merchant or a West Point cadet,” found no employment but farm labor. Years of angst and frustration culminated in accusations from a white employer that he stole wheat. His jail time crippled the family and pushed homebound Josie to the point of exhaustion. She died soon thereafter.
Du Bois concludes his essay as such: “My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall a man measure Progress where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure — is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day? Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.”
Du Bois lived a storied life as the first black doctoral graduate of Harvard, co-founder of the NAACP, and civil rights champion. He could have chosen stories from other starry exploits to define progress, but he chose this humble narrative of a Tennessee village. Why? This story illustrates the incompleteness of progress. Farms grow and schools are built, but lives slip through the cracks. Josie’s family survives, but at the cost of Josie’s life. Society finds it easier to incarcerate Jim than promote his potential. The town may look more prosperous, but most families are broken and, like the Burkes, forever trapped in a world built by and for those who are more privileged and powerful.
Du Bois’ “progress” 100 years ago looks startlingly like today. Some politicians tout record lows in black unemployment as progress. It is progress, of course, but so was the Burke farm. So was Jim’s underemployment. No amount of growth was going to tear down Jim Crow for Josie, Jim, and the Burkes, just as no number of service jobs will resolve 21st-century systemic racism. Raw employment numbers are not and never were the answer to mass incarceration, educational iniquities, wage gaps, and bias. These successes are mere accommodations in the system, be it 1903 or 2020. Substantial, meaningful justice requires changes to the institutions, laws, and norms that permit injustice in the first place.
Advocating systems change sounds to some people like favoring something that would defeat individual initiative. Rather, it implicates everyone in both problems and solutions as we all share the duty to be antiracist. In light of Black History Month, we ought to read, listen, vote, and organize as though progress and human dignity depended on it.
“How shall a man measure Progress where the dark-faced Josie lies?” In 2020, it starts with recognizing the Josies in our communities, then making sure they stand alongside us, strong and proud at the flush of a new day.
Noah Nieting is a writer and a resident of Bloomington.
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