Document 1: W. E. B. Du Bois, "Opinion," The Crisis, 24 (October 1922): 247-53.
This article by the longtime editor of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, offers an early perspective on birth control by a leading voice in the African American community. The rhetoric in the article, which is an editorial for a special issue on children, engages several lines of argument circulating in the birth control movement. Du Bois positions birth control as a tool for building stable families that can support racial progress. In particular, he argues for birth control as a means to ensure the health of women and children. In his view, women needed to be able to space childbearing out over enough years to allow them to maintain their health, properly look after their children, and contribute to social progress of the community. The article both uses a pejorative tone in lecturing those "who have endless children" for failing to see the impact of this pattern on women and children and demonstrates a strong commitment to fighting segregation by "wealth, class or race or color." Shortly after this article appeared, Sanger and her supporters agreed that she should accept all invitations to speak before African American audiences. In 1930, Sanger invited Du Bois to offer remarks at a "house-warming" reception at the Harlem Clinic, which he accepted.
Du Bois, a sociologist, was a founding member of the Niagara movement, which began when a group of African Americans met in 1905 to renounce segregation and formulate a new direction for African American reform. In 1909, members of the Niagara movement formed the NAACP and Du Bois became its director of publications and research. Soon he gained national recognition for his articles in The Crisis that challenged the policy of accommodation to segregation supported by Booker T. Washington, at the time the national political leader of the African American community. That series of articles and Washington's replies in The New York Age have become known as the Du Bois-Washington debates.
For Du Bois's perspective on birth control for African Americans in 1932, see Document 17B.
Vol. 24. No. 6 OCTOBER, 1922 Whole No. 144
of WEB Du Bois
THE Children's Number of The Crisis brings many thoughts. We remember, first—in sadness—The Brownies' Book, which was a monthly children's number but which failed for lack of support—not by fault of the children, bless you, no! They wanted and want and need it. But grown-ups are unbelievably stupid!
Grown-ups think of little children as "cunning," "pretty," "cute" and "amusing." The new mother dresses them up like living dolls, in ribbons, frills and furbelows, and with many a "Don't get dirty," "Keep out of the mud," "Be careful," "Naughty, naughty," she proceeds to impress it upon One-year-old that the chief end of man is to be an impossible prig. Our jails are full of children who once were unbelievably cunning.
Thus with over-dressing and "showing off," our children are spoiled. This is particularly the case with groups like American Negroes of the better class who are striving to improve their condition and push their children up and on. Their very anxieties make them either neglect or misconceive their children. Looking back on their own narrow, sordid, unlovely infancy, they proceed to dose their children with endless candy, toys and kissings, or, if they themselves were spoiled children of a "second generation," they ruin their own offspring with unlimited freedom and indulgence.
It is, indeed, hard to be stern, cold and practical with the Flesh of your Flesh whom you are rearing for a sneering, cruel world. It is hard to guide them where you yourself are unguided. These are the reasons why we spoil our babies. It is a frantic prevision of ill as much as thoughtlessness.
Yet we know that "children" are the only real Progress, the sole Hope, the sure Victory over Evil. Properly reared and trained and there is no Problem or Wrong that we cannot withstand.
AMONG colored people, especially the advancing groups, marriage and birth are still slightly improper subjects which cannot be discussed with plain sense. The world has left us behind in this respect and we must needs rapidly catch up.
Here is a man and a woman. The natural and righteous cry of their bodies calls for marriage to propagate, preserve and improve mankind. But there are difficulties. First, as to ideals: the man—an educated Negro American of 1922—is himself a spoiled child. He has been catered to and petted by a mother. Coming up with small means, the family purse has been drained for his benefit. He has helped in his own support, but his work has brought him into contact with the luxury of the white rich; he has seen gluttony and tasteless splendor; futile women gorgeously gowned; royal homes, with yachts and automobiles. What does he think of marriage? He conceives
of it as a very expensive indulgence, and for the enthroning of One Woman—which woman is to be His, and of him, and for him? And that woman must be not simply as someone has said, "A cross between a butterfly and a setting hen," but in addition, thinking of his own mother, he conceives his wife also as a trained, efficient Upper Servant, who can cook, serve, wash, clean, market and nurse; she must also be able to dance, play the piano, talk on politics and literature, entertain with daintiness, play tennis and drive an automobile.
To increase the complication the modern young colored woman has her own ideas and ideals. Her husband must have money and good looks. He must be a college graduate, a professional man, or at least a business man; hardly a mechanic, and certainly never a menial servant. He must have, ready for delivery on the wedding day: a well-furnished home in a good neighborhood, a servant or a day's worker, a car and a reputation that brings his picture to the pages of leading colored weeklies.
The result of all this theory is trouble. The best dancers are seldom the best cooks, and those who keep up with literature have little leisure to keep up with bad children. If a man's wife is chiefly for exhibition and entertainment, she cannot be expected to be an efficient business manager of a home, and mother, nurse and teacher of children. And, too, young men of marriageable age are not apt to be at once handsome, educated, talented, rich and well-known. Something must be sacrificed; the educated and talented must wait long if not always for wealth; the rich may come handicapped by a servile position and no education; while the handsome—well, fools are often handsome.
All these are of course types of a small but significant class. Down through the mass of laborers and servants we meet every human variation; men too poor, too undisciplined too selfish to marry; women too ignorant, too lonely, too unfortunate to marry.
Thus, practically, marriage must be a compromise and if the compromise is based on common sense and reasonable effort, it becomes the center of real resurrection and remaking of the world. If it fails, then it should be dissolved—quietly and decisively in the divorce court. Any doctrine of marriage that conceives a quarrelling, unhappy, sordid and compulsory union of man, woman and children as better than peace and work even with poverty, is fundamentally wrong.
YESTERDAY I saw a young man and woman and their three children. And I was told: Four of their children are dead. I said: "That is a crime! It is not simply a misfortune—it is a deliberate crime which deserves condign punishment." No woman can bear seven children in ten years and preserve her own health and theirs. No man who asks or permits this deserves to be a husband or father.
Birth control is science and sense applied to the bringing of children into the world, and of all who need it we Negroes are first. We in America are becoming sharply divided into the mass who have endless children and the class who through long postponement of marriage have few or none. The first result is a terrible infant mortality: of every 10,000 colored children born 1,356 die in the first year, while only 821 die among whites. The second result is the senseless putting off of marriage until middle life because of the fear that
marriage must necessarily mean many children.
Parents owe their children, first of all, health and strength. Few women can bear more than two or three children and retain strength for the other interests of life. And there are other interests for women as for men and only reactionary barbarians deny this. Even this small number of children should come into the world at intervals which will allow for the physical, economic and spiritual recovery of the parents. Housework is still a desperately hard and exacting occupation. It can and should be simplified and lightened by the laundry, the bakery, the restaurant, and the vacuum cleaner; but with all that it remains a job calling for strength, time and training. Social intercourse, which is largely in the hands of wives, is a matter of thought, effort and delicate adjustment. The education of children in the home calls for intelligence, study and leisure. To add to all this the physical pain and strain of child birth is to give a woman as much as she can possibly endure once in three, four or five years.
THERE is much in the theory that the infant child is a higher vegetable, to be fed, aired, cleaned and let alone. At the same time the little miraculous, marvellously unfolding mind is there and the home training that does not begin at least as late as the cradle, is losing precious time. Yet of the babies pictured this month in our columns, how many are being carefully, systematically educated, and how many are being regarded as negligible playthings whose "education" will begin at five or six? Five or six is already too late to learn thoroughly a thousand things: the value of tears and laughter; regular meals and regular sleep; sitting, standing, walking; cleanliness, patience and sacrifice; self-assertion and love—all these are cradle lessons. If they are untaught, how hard, how nearly impossible, is the task of the public school. How easily a teacher could paint a home after following the child one day in the kindergarten.
OF the meaning of a child there are many and singularly different ideas. Some regard a child as a bond slave, born to obey immediately and without reflection or question; some regard a child as an automation which absorbs advice and replies with action; some look upon a child as an Item of Expense until he can work and earn: some think of children as a kind of personal adornment of the parents, bringing them praise for beauty when young, for smartness when older, and for high distinction in wealth or brains when grown.
Meantime few people think of the child as Itself—as an Individual with the right and ability to feel, think and act; a being thirsty to know, curious to investigate, eager to experiment. Many folk while not knowing or dreaming these things at first, discover them later in some tense moment when father and "baby" face each other—grim, tense, angry; and father says, "You shall not!" and baby says, "I will!" The education of parents dates usually from some such soul-revealing moment. Blockheads who cannot learn usually try forthwith to beat the "stubbornness" out of the child by blows. If they succeed, they kill the spirit of the little man and leave little which the world needs. If they fail, they leave determination, without love or reverence.
Others learn. They realize with a start: Here is Somebody Else. I must inform, I must teach, I must
persuade, I must direct. But if they are honest they soon learn that in a duel between two human wills even though one is four and the other forty, there is information to be imparted on both sides; and that youth can teach age some things; and that persuasion is a game that two can play; and that Experience, great as it is, is not all. Many people begin with trying to teach and persuade and end by commanding in anger, "instant" obedience, leaving the child with a tremendous and never-to-be-forgotten sense of being wronged and cheated. Only God's Few take this dialogue between Age and Childhood seriously and give to it as much time and money and study and thought as they give to their clothes and houses and horses. And some give more.
THERE is a widespread feeling that a school is a machine. You insert a child at 9 a.m. and extract it at 4 p.m., improved and standardized with parts of Grade IV, first term. In truth, school is a desperate duel between new souls and old to pass on facts and methods and dreams from a dying world to a world in birth pains without letting either teacher or taught lose for a moment faith and interest. It is hard work. Often, most often, it is a futile failure. It is never wholly a success without the painstaking help of the parent.
Yet I know Negroes, thousands of them, who never visit the schools where their children go; who do not know the teachers or what they teach or what they are supposed to teach; who do not consult the authorities on matters of discipline—do not know who or what is in control of the schools or how much money is needed or received.
Oh, we have our excuses! The teachers do not want us around. They do not welcome co-operation. Colored patrons especially may invite insult or laughter. All true in some cases. Yet the best schools and the best teachers pray for and welcome the continuous and intelligent co-operation of parents. And the worst schools need it and must be made to realize their need.
There has been much recent discussion among Negroes as to the merits of mixed and segregated schools. It is said that our children are neglected in mixed schools. "Let us have our own schools. How else can we explain the host of colored High School graduates in Washington, and the few in Philadelphia?" Easily. In Washington, colored parents are intensely interested in their schools and have for years followed and watched and criticized them. In Philadelphia, the colored people have evinced no active interest save in colored schools and there is no colored High School.
Save the great principle of democracy and equal opportunity and fight segregation by wealth, class or race or color, not by yielding to it but by watching, visiting and voting in all school matters, organizing parents and children and bringing every outside aid and influence to co-operate with teachers and authorities.
In the North with mixed schools unless colored patrons take intelligent, continuous and organized interest in the schools which their children attend, the children will be neglected, treated unjustly, discouraged and balked of their natural self-expression and ambition. Do not allow this. Supervise your children's schools.
In the South unless the patrons know and visit the schools and keep up continuous, intelligent agitation, the teachers will be sycophants, the studies designed to make servant girls, and the funds stolen by the white trustees.
THE END OF IT ALL
YES, marriage is sacrifice, child bearing is pain, and education is eternal vigilance. But the end of it all is Progress. Without marriage there can be today no properly guarded childhood. In the United States 1,256 Negro children out of each 10,000 born are illegitimate. Poor, little, innocent waifs, homeless and half-cared for. Without child-bearing families there can be few future workers and torch-bearers. Without education we grope in eternal darkness like cats gayly and ignorantly chasing their tails. But with children brought with thought and foresight into intelligent family circles and trained by parents, teachers, friends and society, we have Eternal Progress and Eternal Life. Against these, no barriers stand; to them no Problem is insoluble.
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