The Transgression of Realism from Washington's Up from Slavery to Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk

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The act of taking a situation as it is and having the ability to deal with it accordingly, often known as the act of realism, happens to be an idea that many people struggle to master. However, two men named William Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, refused to fall into that category of the population. Both men became known for refusing to conform to the beliefs of society and accept the suppression of black rights. In both, The Souls of Black Folk by William Du Bois, and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, the men discuss one of the most prominent problems of the twentieth century, the division of color. Both men dedicated their life’s work to accomplish what they thought would be small changes in society, that in turn ended up changing the way the whole world viewed the lines of division. That being said, although both men had differing stances about how to endorse equal rights for African Americans, they both managed to create a literary platform of their founding arguments in a way which supported and converged the ideals of realism.

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Immediately following the civil war, blacks began facing acts of suffering and discrimination. The Souls of Black Folk by William Du Bois, is a piece that has forever gone down in history for being one of the most strongly influential pieces in not only American literature but America in general. Du Bois highlighted the issues of the color line, while invoking change during a time in the twentieth century when many African Americans had limited voice. Therefore, he declared that people of color should no longer accept the standing values for which they were being held to at the time. Thus, encouraging many Americans to use their voice to influence change in voting rights, civil equality, and the right to higher education. Now, judging by the cover of, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, many are lead to believe there is in fact no correlation in relation to Du Bois’ piece, The Souls of Black Folk, seeing as they have been historically known for disagreeing on many things. However, it in fact follows rather closely to Booker T. Washington’s story of, Up From Slavery, an autobiography in which Washington details his life in a series of events ranging from his upbringing as a slave, to the peak in his career as a social activist. Upon reading and analyzing the two stories, you begin to see that although they differ in many aspects, they compare in the sense that they resonate well with the audience due to the presentation of realism.

This idea of realism, an idea in which these two pieces so strongly exemplify, was a notion to actualize the writings of the 19th century, in opposition to the romanticism era that had been so prominent pre-civil war. A realist narrator concerns himself with the “here” and “now” aspects of writing, thus explaining why both of these pieces were known to not only be so relatable but also invoke so much headway with the people. Washington became one of the first men to illustrate a strongly intended realism piece with his autobiography, Up From Slavery. His story brought realism to life like many had never seen before, especially from the works of a black, has been slave, turned educated activist. He served the public with the naked truth behind his story from slavery to success and managed to support his argument along the way. He believed that if blacks gained an economic foothold, and proved themselves useful to whites, then civil rights and social equality would eventually be given along the way. (quote needed)

In opposition to the work of Washington, with the publication of Du Bois’, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois surfaced as the new-found activist for the African American community, through which many began to depend on his leadership to make headway in the rights of the people. In his piece, he gave a voice to the feelings and thoughts of many African Americans, during a time when many had no voice. In his piece he states, “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land. Whatever of good may have come in these years of change, the shadow of a deep disappointment rests upon the Negro people, — a disappointment all the more bitter because the unattained ideal was unbounded save by the simple ignorance of a lowly people.” (Bois 11), therefore, claiming that although black people were granted freedom, they still didn’t have the equal rights they deserved. This which supported his idea of realism when he began to inspire blacks to stop accepting life as it is and start advocating for changes that would ultimately bring about a higher standard of living for the community as a whole. He spoke to the people about the events that were occurring during that time and sparked a new-found sense of hope in many who believed they deserved more.

At the end of the day, when comparing the literary pieces of Washington and Du Bois, the foundation of their writing arises from the same subject, the rights of the African American People. Both stories tied together in the sense that they both made monumental changes to the footprint of American literature, as we transitioned away from the romantic era and started to voice more realistic ideals. Those ideals which would have previously been hidden from the public eye, were now being brought to life through the form of realism writing in American literature. Thus changing the way we wrote forever, and opening new doors to opinion and change, post-war. Both authors stood firmly in the decision to advocate for their rights, however they did so in very different ways. Although they both brought about the use of realism and successfully voiced their opinions to the audience in a way that would have before this era of realism been suppressed, they have been historically known for believing in approaching change differently. Washington told a story of his life in which he told the American people that by working hard and slowly making adjustments to society, change was inevitable. Whereas Du Bois on the other hand, voiced his story to the public in a way that highlighted the idea that if you didn’t invoke change within yourself as a piece of society, then society would forever remain the same. Discussing voting rights in particular, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois said, “so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North and South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds … we must unceasingly and firmly oppose [him]” (Bois). He inevitably believed in a more hands activist approach, in comparison to the literary works of Washington who was believed to be more of a peace maker than an activist when it came to realism writing.

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