Dead people make the best heroes. Why is that?
Because dead people don’t talk back. Dead people don’t ask troubling questions. Dead people don’t possess the audacity to correct misconceptions and misperceptions about who they really were as opposed to who we need them to be.
Dead people are very cooperative.
This year marks the centennial of one of the most important American texts of the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Already the celebrations have begun in various academic circles. NPR talk show host Tavis Smiley has done several segments honoring DuBois and his remarkable book. Articles and books are being written, both scholarly and otherwise, trying to place DuBois in appropriate perspective while at the same time reintroducing him to an audience that may not be aware of who he was or why he was so significant.
On its surface, I suppose this is OK. After all, DuBois was without question one of the most important intellectuals of his time. He was the first to accurately predict that the issue of race and the color line would be the defining American issue for generations to come. Furthermore, he was the black leader who led the opposition to the immensely influential Booker T. Washington. At the time, Washington was pretty much the Head Negro In Charge as well as the darling of the white establishment. He had earned both positions essentially by instructing his black brethren to work hard to endear themselves to whites by becoming the most industrious, indispensable little house slaves they could be. Give up trying to aspire to greater things, he said. Abandon the dangerous folly of integration and equality. “Cast down your buckets where you are” became one of his more notable — and questionable — admonishments.
DuBois said the hell with that, and pretty much wrote Washington off as an Uncle Tom — in public.
DuBois paid for his daring, but I think most would agree that, one century later, African-Americans are far better off possessing the right to speak truth to power than settling for the ability to cheerfully shine massa’s shoes like nobody else can.
So it’s relatively easy to see why DuBois merits so much attention. But there is a flip side to all this attention intended to reanimate DuBois. Although the saying goes that hindsight is 20/20, that is often completely untrue when the focus is on controversial leaders and public figures. The more time passes, the more the tendency leans toward smoothing over the rough edges — or to ignore them altogether — so that the anointed public figure can be made more easily digestible for public consumption.
The dead are very cooperative.
David Levering Lewis, a professor of history at Rutgers University whose two-volume biography of DuBois won two Pulitzer Prizes, has virtually withdrawn from any participation in the numerous celebrations that have been scheduled to honor DuBois’ work due to his concern about this very same phenomenon. In an article in the April 4 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lewis explains his reticence.
“I have some unease about this kind of commemorative exuberance,” he is quoted as saying. “What happens during anniversary celebrations is that ‘the nice stuff’ in an author’s work is embraced and underscored, and the dangerous stuff, implicit or explicit, falls by the wayside.”
As an example, Lewis points out that DuBois, who eventually became a Marxist, also became a great admirer of the Russian dictator Josef Stalin, a murderer of millions of his own people. When Stalin died, according to Lewis, DuBois wrote a glowing tribute to the man that I’m willing to bet many of those who are celebrating him today will never mention because it is too embarrassing and too at odds with how his supporters want him remembered — just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s supporters get upset every time someone brings up his documented extramarital affairs. That image would detract from his sainthood.
The point is that human complexity, in concert with our inevitable screwups, is what make us human. Therefore, if DuBois is to be celebrated, then he should be celebrated as a whole, not in part. Anything short of a commemoration of the whole man is a lie and a sham. To acknowledge a man’s faults and limitations doesn’t make him any less of a man, it simply confirms his membership in the human race where all of us fall short of perfection.
Speaking of lies and shams, let’s turn our attention back to the war. There don’t seem to be any reliable figures as to how many Iraqis, innocent or otherwise, have been killed during this conflict. That part is not hard to figure since we mostly have to depend on the claims made by Iraqi officials, and that information may not be any more believable than when our own President Bush tries to tell us that his administration possesses the magical ability to deliver a $500 billion tax cut that will somehow stimulate the creation of more than one million jobs by the conveniently appropriate election year of 2004. He will perform this feat of derring-do while calmly paying off the steadily escalating billions of dollars that this war is costing you the taxpayer — and will continue to cost you for years to come.
This man isn’t George Bush, he’s Harry Houdini.
But getting back to the dead Iraqis. What’s bothersome about this is that it’s much easier for Americans to support a war when they don’t see what war really is. Despite all the hundreds of journalists that have been “embedded” into the scenery, all we seem to get back here are slickly produced slide shows and other air-brushed images that pretend to show the war but aren’t showing the war at all. It would be a really neat trick if it didn’t have such deadly consequences.
Various news programs have occasionally aired segments where this issue has been debated among journalists. None other than “Nightline” host Ted Koppel has even weighed in favoring showing the good, the bad and the ugly of warfare, but it hasn’t made much difference. The decision has apparently been made somewhere up there on the top floor that this is to be a nifty victorious war. No muss, no fuss.
Until the bill comes due.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org