Booker T. vs W.E.B.— a classic debate to advance the race

Photos courtesy Wikipedia (l-r): W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington

I wouldn’t trade my elementary education in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1970s for nothing in the world. We were the first generation to benefit from the fruits of a post-Civil Rights Movement era education. 

Our teachers were African American, Jewish, White, and Caribbean. I remember them being accepting, loving, and full of enthusiasm and innovation. I was in the sixth grade at PS 138. There was this one Afro-wearing teacher whom I would never forget. 

Ms. Yvonne Clarke wasn’t afraid to inject a sense of Black pride and urgency in every lesson she taught. We always had to do a little extra in her class. Some of the students didn’t like it, but I did, even though she spared me no punishment for my classroom antics. 

I looked forward every day to her tough-love approach to teaching. I recall one assignment to memorize a poem by Dudley Randall about the two Black-thought titans of the 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois, a social scientist, and Booker T. Washington an educator. 

Booker T. and W.E.B.
By 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.

Not only did we have to memorize the poem, we had to be able to explain its meaning using a method Ms. Clarke taught us called Line by Line Explication. Can you imagine an assignment like this in the sixth grade? 

I’m sure it would be a daunting assignment for today’s college freshman. The debate on which was the most vital path for African Americans to advance by two of the most influential minds of the 1920s was spirited, fun, and thought-provoking. 

We laughed and encouraged each other as each student took turns reciting without looking at our mimeographed copies. I believe we were excited because the poem rhymed, and we were trying to sound like the famous boxer Muhammed Ali who was then in his prime. 

Who won the debate? We all did. Both W.E.B and Booker T. Washington were correct. There is always more than one way to advance the race. But whatever path we choose, we must get to work!

Dudley Randall, “Booker T. and W.E.B.” (1969). Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Dudley Randall.