Remembering DuBois

by Steven Swayne | 11/20/03 6:00am

Anniversaries do not always neatly coincide with history, but invocations of the past often have much to say about the realities of the present.

These thoughts came to mind as I was reading David Levering Lewis's biography of W.E.B. DuBois. In 1906, DuBois, author of "The Souls of Black Folks" and founder of the NAACP, met with others in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, for the second annual meeting of the Niagara Movement. The choice of location was symbolic: they were commemorating the 100th anniversary of John Brown's birth.

Brown, a white abolitionist who led a raid on the federal armory in Harper's Ferry in hopes of starting a black uprising, was born in 1800, so those who met in Niagara were six years late in their remembrance. And here I am, almost three years early in remembering and invoking the 1906 Niagara meeting. Two centenary remembrances in spirit only. But just as the events of 1906 caused DuBois and others to think of Brown then, so do the events of 2003 cause me to recall Niagara now.

The connections I see between then and now revolve around civil rights for gay Americans. For those who object to comparing black civil rights with gay civil rights, let me, a black gay man, cite Mel Boozer, another black gay man of a generation ago. "I know what it means to be called a nigger. I know what it means to be called a faggot. And I can sum up the difference in one word: none." To dismiss the black gay experience as unimportant to a discussion on gay civil rights is akin to dismissing the Harvard-trained DuBois as unrepresentative of blacks and thus unqualified to speak about black civil rights.

He was qualified, and for the Niagara conference, he authored an "Address to the Country." "In the past year," DuBois wrote, "the work of the Negro-hater has flourished in the land." That work consisted of disenfranchising black voters, discriminating against blacks in travel and public accommodations, and undermining the education of black children. Nothing close to this type of systemic assault has yet affected gay Americans. But we are seeing the stirrings of this type of majority opposition to the gay minority.

The work of the gay-hater has flourished in the land this past year. In the wake of positive court rulings on behalf of gay Americans, some Americans are demanding that lawmakers bring the "gay scourge" under control, by state law at a minimum, by federal constitutional amendment if necessary. It reminds me of calls in the early twentieth century to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote, or calls mid-century, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, to restrict the federal government in race relations or to make busing for integration illegal.

DuBois wrote that "against this [systemic discrimination] the Niagara Movement eternally protests We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America." DuBois upset many, but he was right. Blacks were equal in fact and thus must be made equal in law.

The fundamental reason why gay Americans are not yet equal in law -- why gays cannot legally protect their relationships and families to the extent that straight people can, cannot serve in the military, and cannot adopt -- is because most Americans refuse to accept gay people as equal in fact. The majority of Americans presume that gays are inferior, just as a majority of white Americans (especially in the South) presumed in 1906 that blacks were inferior. And just as whites then were unapologetic about their beliefs, so many straights today are unembarrassed to confess that, to them, gay people are sub-human or, more perniciously, simply need to act straight -- have to "pass" -- in order to eliminate the "gay problem." But gays will no longer participate in self-oppression; we don't need to pass.

DuBois listed five demands: the right to vote; the elimination of separate accommodations (which he called "un-American, undemocratic, and silly"); the freedom to associate; equity in law enforcement; and proper education. The outer two claims have no immediate parallel to the gay experience, but the inner three certainly do, as laws segregating and singling out gays persist.

DuBois provocatively asked: "Cannot the nation that has absorbed 10 million foreigners into its political life without catastrophe absorb 10 million Negro Americans into that same political life at less cost than their unjust and illegal exclusion will involve?" Again, in echo: cannot America make an equal number of gays fully enfranchised American citizens?

In his biography of John Brown, DuBois wrote that "the cost of liberty is less than the price of repression." And with the price tag of gay repression mounting -- in special conclaves lambasting gay clergy, in conservative campaigns denouncing same-sex marriage, in taxpayer dollars fueling attempts to enact laws and amendments that would make gay Americans permanent second-class citizens -- we would better use our fiscal and moral capital by giving gays freedom under the law.

John Brown's body may lie a-moldering in the grave, but the undying truth he stood for -- freedom cannot be denied -- marches on. DuBois knew and invoked that truth in his day. Let us fall into step with this truth now.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!