My Character

When I was a young man, we talked much of character. At FiskUniversity character was discussed and emphasized more than scholarship. I knew what was meant and agreed that the sort of person a manwas would in the long run prove more important for the world thanwhat he knew or how logically he could think. It is typical ofour time that insistence on character today in the country hasalmost ceased. Freud and others have stressed the unconsciousfactors of our personality so that today we do not advise youthabout their development of character; we watch and count theiractions with almost helpless disassociation from thought of advice.

Nevertheless, from that older generation which formed my youthI still retain an interest in what men are rather than what theydo; and at the age of 50, I began to take stock of myself andask what I really was as a person. Of course I knew that self-examinationis not a true unbiased picture; but on the other hand withoutit no picture is quite complete.

From childhood I tried to be honest; I did not mean to take anythingwhich did not belong to me. I told the truth even when therewas no call for the telling and when silence would have been golden. I did not usually speak in malice but often blurted out the truthwhen the story was incomplete and was therefore as seemed to mewrong. I had strict ideas about money and its earning. I workedand worked hard for the first 25 cents a week which I earned. I could never induce myself to gamble or take silly chances becauseI figured the loss vividly in fatigue and pain. Once on a Frenchtrain I played the pea in a shell game and lost two dollars. Forty years later in Mexico I won two dollars on a horse race. These were my first and last games of chance.

I was careful about debt. My folk were poor but seldom in debt. I have before me a statement of my indebtedness, September 1,1894, when I started on my first life job. My salary was $800a year and my living expense I calculated at: Board $100; Room$35; Clothes $65; Books $100; Debts $350; Sundries $25--Total$675; Savings $125. This proved too optimistic but still I keptout of debt. When I taught at Atlanta at a salary of $1,200 ayear for 12 years, I owed nobody. I had a wife and child andeach year I took them somewhere north so as to give them freshair and civilization. It took every cent of my salary, togetherwith small fees from lectures and writing, to pay our way andyet only once was I compelled to overdraw my salary for a monthahead.

Saving I neglected. I had had no experience in saving. My mother'sfamily with whom I lived as a child never had a bank account norinsurance; and seldom a spare dollar. I took out a small lifeinsurance of $1,000 when I was 27. I was cheated unmercifullyby the white Pennsylvania company in the fee charged because Iwas colored. Later after marriage I took out $10,000 of insurancein a Negro company, the Standard Life. Eventually the companywent bankrupt and I lost every cent. I was then too old to obtainmore insurance on terms which I could afford.

My income has always been low. During my 23 years with the NAACP,I received for the first five years $2,500 a year. For the next18 years, $5,000. With savings from this I bought a home andthen sold it later for an apartment building in Harlem. Therewere five apartments, one of which my family was to occupy andthe others I calculated would pay me a permanent income. Butthe house was overpriced; neglected orders for expensive sewerrepairs were overdue. The down payment which I could afford waslow and the property was overloaded with three mortgages on whichI had to pay bonuses for renewal. Downtown banks began to squeezeblack Harlem property holders and taxes increased. With the depression,tenants could not pay or moved.

There was one recourse: to turn the property into a rooming housefor prostitution and gambling. I gave it to the owners of themortgages and shouldered the loss of all my savings at 60 yearsof age. In all this I had followed the advice of a friend skilledin the handling of real estate but who assumed that I was tryingto make money and not dreaming of model housing conditions. Asmany of my friends have since informed me, I was a fool; but Iwas not a thief which I count to my credit.

I returned to Atlanta University in 1934 at a salary of $4,500a year but still out of debt. When ten years later I was retiredwithout notice, I had no insurance and but small savings. A whiteclassmate, grandson of a railway magnate, berated me for not wishingto give up work. He could not conceive of a man working for 50years without saving enough to live on the rest of his days. In money matters I was surely negligent and ignorant; but thatwas not because I was gambling, drinking or carousing; it wasbecause I spent my income in making myself and my family comfortableinstead of "saving for a rainy day." I may have beenwrong, but I am not sure of that.

On one aspect of my life, I look back upon with mixed feelings;and that is on matters of friendship and sex. I couple them designedlybecause I think they belong together. I have always had morefriends among women than among men. This began with the closecompanionship I had with my mother. Friends used to praise mefor my attention to my mother; we always went out together armin arm and had our few indoor amusements together. This seemedquite normal to me; my mother was lame, why should I not guideher steps? And who knew better about my thoughts and ambitions? Later in my life among my own colored people the women beganto have more education, while the men imitated an American culturewhich I did not share: I drank no alcoholic beverages until Iwent to Germany and there I drank light beer and Rhine wine. Most of the American men I knew drank whiskey and frequented saloonswhich from my boyhood were out of bounds.

Indeed the chief blame which I lay on my New England schoolingwas the inexcusable ignorance of sex which I had when I went southto Fisk at 17. I was precipitated into a region, with loose sexmorals among black and white, while I actually did not know thephysical difference between men and women. At first my fellowsjeered in disbelief and then became sorry and made many offersto guide my abysmal ignorance. This built for me inexcusableand startling temptations. It began to turn one of the most beautifulof earth's experiences into a thing of temptation and horror. I fought and feared amid what should have been a climax of trueliving. I avoided women about whom anybody gossiped and as Itried to solve the contradiction of virginity and motherhood,I was inevitably faced with the other contradiction of prostitutionand adultery. In my hometown sex was deliberately excluded fromtalk and if possible from thought. In public school there wereno sexual indulgences of which I ever heard. We talked of girls,looked at their legs, and there was rare kissing of a most unsatisfactorysort. We teased about sweethearts, but quite innocently. WhenI went South, my fellow students being much older and reared ina region of loose sexual customs regarded me as liar or freakwhen I asserted my innocence. I liked girls and sought theircompany, but my wildest exploits were kissing them.

Then, as teacher in the rural districts of East Tennessee, I wasliterally raped by the unhappy wife who was my land-lady. Fromthat time through my college course at Harvard and my study inEurope, I went through a desperately recurring fight to keep thesex instinct in control. A brief trial with prostitution in Parisaffronted my sense of decency. I lived more or less regularlywith a shop girl in Berlin, but was ashamed. Then when I returnedhome to teach, I was faced with the connivance of certain fellowteachers at adultery with their wives. I was literally frightenedinto marriage before I was able to support a family. I marrieda girl whose rare beauty and excellent household training fromher dead mother attracted and held me.

I married at 29 and we lived together for 53 years. It was notan absolutely ideal union, but it was happier than most, so faras I could perceive. It suffered from the fundamental drawbackof modern American marriage: a difference in aim and functionbetween its partners; my wife and children were incidents of mymain life work. I was not neglectful of my family; I furnisheda good home. I educated the child and planned vacations and recreation. But my main work was out in the world and not at home. That workout there my wife appreciated but was too busy to share becauseof cooking, marketing, sweeping and cleaning and the endless demandsof children. This she did naturally without complaint until ourfirstborn died--died not out of neglect but because of a city'scareless sewage. His death tore our lives in two. I threw myselfmore completely into my work, while most reason for living leftthe soul of my wife. Another child, a girl, came later, but mywife never forgave God for the unhealable wound.

As I wandered across the world to wider and higher goals, I sensedtwo complaints against the pairing of the sexes in modern life: one, that ties between human beings are usually assumed to besexual if a man and woman are concerned and two, that normal friendshipsbetween men and women could not exist without sex being assumedto be the main ingredient. Also, if a man and woman are friends,they must be married and their friendship may become a cloyingintimacy, often lasting 24 hours a day, with few outside friendsof the opposite sex on pain of gossip, scandal and even crimeengulfing the family. My travel and work away from home savedus from this. One difficulty of married life we faced as manyothers must have. My wife's life-long training as a virgin, madeit almost impossible for her ever to regard sexual intercourseas not fundamentally indecent. It took careful restraint on mypart not to make her unhappy at this most beautiful of human experiences. This was no easy task for a normal and lusty young man.

Most of my friends and helpers have been women, from my mother,aunts and cousins, to my fellow teachers, students, secretaries,and dreamers toward a better world. Sex indulgence was neverthe cause or aim of these friendships. I do not think my womenfriends ever gave my wife harm or unease. I was thoughtful ofher comfort and support and of her treatment in public and private. My absence from home so much helped in the household drudgery. I still make my own bed of mornings; for many years I preparedmy own breakfast, especially my coffee; I always leave a bathroomcleaner than when I enter; but sewing and sweeping I neglect. I have often wondered if her limitation to a few women friendsand they chiefly housekeepers; and if her lack of contact withmen, because of her conventional upbringing and her surroundings--ifthis did not make her life unnecessarily narrow and confined. My life on the other hand threw me widely with women of brainsand great effort to work on the widest scale. I am endlesslygrateful for these contacts.

My first married life lasted over half a century, and its endingwas normal and sad, with the loneliness which is always the priceof death. To fill this great gap, and let my work go on, I marriedagain near the end of my days. She was a woman 40 years my juniorbut her work and aim in life had been close to mine because herfather had long believed in what I was trying to do. The faithof Shirley Graham in me was therefore inherited and received asa joy and not merely as a duty. She has made these days richand rewarding.

In the midst of my career there burst on me a new and undreamedof aspect of sex. A young man, long my disciple and student,then my co-helper and successor to part of my work, was suddenlyarrested for molesting men in public places. I had before thattime no conception of homosexuality. I had never understood thetragedy of an Oscar Wilde. I dismissed my co-worker forthwith,and spent heavy days regretting my act.

I knew far too few of my contemporaries. I was on occasion incomprehensiblyshy, and almost invariably loath to interrupt others in seekingto explain myself. This in the case of my fellow Negroes wasbalanced by our common experiences and shared knowledge of whateach other had lived through; but in the case of white companions,and especially those newly met, we could not talk together, welived in different worlds. We belonged to no social clubs, anddid not visit the same people or even stand at the same liquorbars. We did not lunch together. I did not play cards, and couldnever get wildly enthusiastic even over baseball. Naturally wecould not share stories of sex.

Thus I did not seek white acquaintances, I let them make the advances,and they therefore thought me arrogant. In a sense I was, butafter all I was in fact rather desperately hanging on to my self-respect. I was not fighting to dominate others; I was fighting againstmy own degradation. I wanted to meet my fellows as an equal;they offered or seemed to offer only a status of inferiority andsubmission.

I did not for the most part meet my great contemporaries. Doubtlessthis was largely my own fault. I did not seek them. I deliberatelyrefused invitations to spend weekends with Henry James and H.G. Wells. I did not follow up an offer of the wife of HavelockEllis to meet him and Bernard Shaw. Later, when I tried to callon Shaw he was coy. Several times I could have met Presidentsof the United States and did not. Great statesmen, writers andartists of America, I might have met, and in some cases, mighthave known intimately. I did not try to accomplish this. Thiswas partly because of my fear that color caste would interferewith our meeting and understanding; if not with the persons themselves,certainly with their friends. But even beyond this, I was notwhat Americans called a "good fellow."

This too illustrates a certain lack of sympathy and understandingwhich I had for my students. I was for instance a good teacher. I stimulated inquiry and accuracy. I met every question honestlyand never dodged an earnest doubt. I read my examination paperscarefully and marked them with sedulous care. But I did not knowmy students as human beings; they were to me apt to be intellectsand not souls. To the world in general I was nearly always theisolated outsider looking in and seldom part of that inner life. Partly that role was thrust upon me because of the color of myskin. But I was not a prig. I was a lusty man with all normalappetites. I loved "Wine, Women and Song." I workedhard and slept soundly; and if, as many said, I was hard to know,it was that with all my belligerency I was in reality unreasonablyshy.

One thing I avoided, and that was envy. I tried to give the otherfellow his due even when I disliked him personally and disagreedwith him logically. It became to me a point of honor never torefuse appreciation to one who had earned it, no matter who hewas. I loved living, physically as well as spiritually. I couldnot waste my time on baseball but I could appreciate a home run. My own exercise was walking, but there again I walked alone. I knew life and death. The passing of my first-born boy wasan experience from which I never quite recovered. I wrote:

"The world loved him; the women kissed his curls, the menlooked gravely into his wonderful eyes, and the children hoveredand fluttered about him. I can see him now, changing like thesky from sparkling laughter to darkening frowns, and then to wonderingthoughtfulness as he watched the world. He knew no color-line,poor dear--and the veil, though it shadowed him, had not yet darkenedhalf his sun. He loved the white matron, he loved his black nurse;and in his little world walked souls alone, uncolored and unclothed.I--yea, all men--are larger and purer by the infinite breadthof that one little life. She who in simple clearness of visionsees beyond the stars said when he had flown--'He will be happyThere; he ever loved beautiful things.' And I, far more ignorant,and blind by the web of my own weaving, sit alone winding wordsand muttering, 'If still he be, and he be There, and there bea There, let him be happy, O Fate!'

"Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and songand sweet-smelling flowers. The trees whispered to the grass,but the children sat with hushed faces. And yet it seemed a ghostlyunreal day--the wraith of Life. We seemed to rumble down an unknownstreet behind a little white bundle of posies, with the shadowof a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they didnot say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they didnot say much-- they only glanced and said 'Niggers.'"

My religious development has been slow and uncertain. I grewup in a liberal Congregational Sunday School and listened oncea week to a sermon on doing good as a reasonable duty. Theologyplayed a minor part and our teachers had to face some searchingquestions. At 17 I was in a missionary college where religiousorthodoxy was stressed; but I was more developed to meet it withargument, which I did. My "morals" were sound, evena bit puritanic, but when a hidebound old deacon inveighed againstdancing I rebelled. By the time of graduation I was still a "believer"in orthodox religion, but had strong questions which were encouragedat Harvard. In Germany I became a freethinker and when I cameto teach at an orthodox Methodist Negro school I was soon regardedwith suspicion, especially when I refused to lead the studentsin public prayer. When I became head of a department at Atlanta,the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading inprayer, but the liberal president let me substitute the Episcopalprayer book on most occasions. Later I improvised prayers onmy own. Finally I faced a crisis: I was using Grapsey's Religionand Politics as a Sunday School text. When Grapsey was hauledup for heresy, I refused further to teach Sunday School. WhenArchdeacon Henry Phillips, my last rector, died, I flatly refusedagain to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30thyear on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institutionwhich defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitationof labor and war. I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Unionto modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy andthe refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools.

Religion helped and hindered my artistic sense. I know the oldEnglish and German hymns by heart. I loved their music but ignoredtheir silly words with studied inattention. Great music cameat last in the religious oratorios which we learned at Fisk Universitybut it burst on me in Berlin with the Ninth Symphony and its Hymnof Joy. I worshipped Cathedral and ceremony which I saw in Europebut I knew what I was looking at when in New York a Cardinal becamea strike-breaker and the Church of Christ fought the Communismof Christianity.

I revered life. I have never killed a bird nor shot a rabbit. I never liked fishing and always let others kill even the chickenswhich I ate. Nearly all my schoolmates in the South carried pistols. I never owned one. I could never conceive myself killing a humanbeing. But in 1906 I rushed back from Alabama to Atlanta wheremy wife and six-year old child were living. A mob had raged fordays killing Negroes. I bought a Winchester double-barreled shotgunand two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot. If a whitemob had stepped on the campus where I lived I would without hesitationhave sprayed their guts over the grass. They did not come. Theywent to south Atlanta where the police let them steal and kill.My gun was fired but once and then by error into a row of CongressionalRecords, which lined the lower shelf of my library.

My attitude toward current problems arose from my long habit ofkeeping in touch with world affairs by repeated trips to Europeand other parts of the world. I became internationally-mindedduring my four years at Harvard, two in college and two in thegraduate school. Since that first trip in 1892, I have made 15trips to Europe, one of which circled the globe. I have beenin most European countries and traveled in Asia, Africa and theWest Indies. Travel became a habit and knowledge of current thoughtin modern countries was always a part of my study, since beforethe First World War when the best of American newspapers tookbut small account of what Europe was thinking.

I can remember meeting in London in 1911 a colored man who explainedto me his plan of leading a black army out of Africa and acrossthe Pyrenees. I was thrilled at his earnestness! But graduallyall that disappeared, and I began building a new picture of humanprogress.

This picture was made more real in 1926 when it became possiblefor me to take a trip to Russia. I saw on this trip not onlyRussia, but prostrate Germany, which I had not seen for 30 years. It was a terrible contrast.

By 1945 all these contacts with foreign peoples and foreign problemsand the combination of these problems with the race problem herewas forced into one line of thought by the Second World War. This strengthened my growing conviction that the first step towardsettling the world's problems was Peace on Earth.

Many men have judged me, favorably and harshly. But the verdictof two I cherish. One knew me in mid-life for 50 years and waswithout doubt my closest friend. John Hope wrote me in 1918:

"Until the last minute I have been hoping that I would havean opportunity to be with you next Monday when you celebrate therounding out of 50 years in this turbulent but attractive world. But now I am absolutely certain that I cannot come, so I am writingMr. Shillady expressing my regret and shall have to content myselfwith telling you in this letter how glad I am that your 50th birthdayis going to be such a happy one because you can look back on somuch good work done. But not the good work alone. What you maylook upon with greatest comfort is good intention. The fact thatevery step of the way you have purposed to be a man and to serveother people rather than yourself must be a tremendous comfortto you. Sometime soon if I chance to be back in New York I amgoing to have you take your deferred birthday dinner with me. You do not realize how much that hour or two which we usuallyspend together when I am in New York means to me."

Joel Spingarn said:

"I should like to have given public expression by my presenceand by my words, not merely to the sense of personal friendshipwhich has bound us together for 15 years, but to the gratitudewhich in common with all other Americans I feel we owe you foryour public service. It so happens that by an accident of fate,you have been in the forefront of the great American battle, notmerely for justice to a single race, but against the universalprejudice which is in danger of clouding the whole American traditionof toleration and human equality.

"I congratulate you on your public service, and I congratulateyou also on the power of language by which you have made it effective. I know that some people think that an artist is a man who hasnothing to say and who writes in order to prove it. The greatwriters of the world have not so conceived their task, and neitherhave you. Though your service has been for the most part thenoble one of teacher and prophet (not merely to one race or nationbut to the world), I challenge the artists of America to showmore beautiful passages than some of those in Darkwater and The Souls of Black Folk."

Let one incident illustrate the paradox of my life.

Robert Morse Lovett was perhaps the closest white student friendI made at Harvard; when not long before his last visit to NewYork about 1950 he wanted to see and talk with me, he proposedthe Harvard Club of which he was a member. I was not. No Negrograduate of Harvard was ever elected to membership in a Harvardclub. For a while Jews were excluded, but no longer. I swallowedmy pride and met Lovett at the Club. A few months later he died.

From W.E.B. DuBois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century.New York, NY: International Publishers Co. Inc., 1968, pp. 277-288.

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