This is a project created by Cameron Jackson for ENG 238 African American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University (Spring 2015), taught by Dr. Crystal Anderson. It is a conversation between two African American writers who discuss a contemporary issue. This dialogue gives students an opportunity to engage in close reading and relate literary texts to contemporary ideas.
Authors: W.E.B. DuBois and Sojourner Truth
Issue: The Wage Gap for African American Women
W.E.B. DuBois: Truth, we both know that the black women of our time were under appreciated for far too long. This issue still exists today since black women are one of the lowest paid minority groups in the work force. I suggest that our sisters focus more on long-term education and becoming civically engaged in order to influence policies on pay equality. As I wrote in my essay, “The Damnation of Women,” we should be uplifting a well-rounded, independent black woman: “We will pay women what they earn and insist on their working and earning it; we will allow those persons who vote to know enough to vote, whether they be black or female, white or male” (770). Rather than entering the workforce so quickly, our sisters should focus on obtaining advanced degrees and less on working minimum wage jobs and starting families. Additionally, they must pressure legislators to recognize their economic plight.
Sojourner Truth: Dubois, I am honestly not surprised by this mistreatment, but you place too much value on changing the white-dominated economy. If they will not respect us enough to give us equal pay, then we must pay ourselves. We must be self-supporting and invest in more black female-owned businesses. During my speech, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?,” I told the audience about the work that black women can endure: “I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and arn’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and arn’t I a woman?” (180). We could always do the same work as men, but never shared the benefits. We must value our own entrepreneurship, because my black sister has been stripped of her earnings for far too long.
DuBois: To be quite frank, your vision is beautiful, but unrealistic. It sounds quite easy for every black woman to turn to her own resources and operate her own separate economy, but this would not last and would be detrimental to the nation’s economy. Do not underestimate the impact that a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree could have on a young black woman’s trajectory. Black women began their economic freedom through menial, yet physically laborious work: “they furnished a million farm laborers, 80,000 farmers, 22,000 teachers, 600,000 servants and washerwomen, and 50,000 in trades and merchandising” (768). Instead of having to struggle through minimum-wage work, a woman could increase her chances for higher pay if she were to reach for the highest peaks of education. By breaking these glass ceilings, my hope is that she would weaken patriarchal values that do not grant her equal pay.
Truth: Your suggestion lacks practicality itself. Black women everywhere, not just in minimum wage jobs, are earning less pay. This does not allow them to have as much money to spend on certain expenses such as food and gasoline, let alone higher education. How do you expect all these young black women to pay for all of these advanced degrees? You attended the prestigious Harvard University, but not everyone has that privilege. They have always excluded us from education: “Den dey talks ‘bout dis ting in de head—what dis de call it?’ ‘Intellect,’ whispered some one near… ‘If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yourn holds a quiart, would n’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?’” (180). We have always had to forge our own way economically, instead of waiting for an institution of higher learning to tell us how we can achieve it.
DuBois: Truth—that is a very good point. However, that ties into my argument earlier about civic engagement among black women. Because our race is not always able to provide for ourselves in terms of higher education, we must put more pressure on policymakers to see our young women as an investment in the future. As I have said in my own writing: “The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When, now, two of these movements—woman and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning” (769). Both of these movements involved striving for civic engagement, and we must do the same. More scholarship programs must be created for graduating high school students. Additionally, black people in our nation who have been through higher learning and experienced its economic benefits must dedicate themselves to uplifting others through financial support.
Truth: You say that we must prove to “them” that our young black women are worth the investment. What better way is there to do that than to allow them to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors? We have capital. We have talent. Most of all, we have willpower. Black females have always been underestimated. As I asserted during my own speech: “if de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all ‘lone, dese togedder….ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again, and now dey is asking to do it, de men better let em” (180). We’re just asking for the chance to forge our own way. DuBois, I question whether you are more of an advocate for your own woman or for the white educational and economic system…
DuBois: I must admit, I am slightly offended. Never doubt my belief in the willpower of black women. I have always shown my support for my sisters, throughout my life and in my writing. As I wrote before: “I have always felt like bowing myself before them in all abasement, searching to bring some tribute to these long-suffering victims, these burdened sisters of mine, whom the world, the wise, white world, loves to affront and ridicule and wantonly to insult” (771). Truth, I believe in them just as much as you do. But because I know so much about their strength and ability to conquer all things, I fully believe in their ability to conquer the educational system. We must stop viewing the educational and economic system as something that is just “white.” Because it was built upon the backs of our ancestors, we must take our claim to it as well.
Truth: Pardon me, but I have always been suspicious of the systems that have been established in this nation. I frequently speak of religion because it has a large impact on my life. Yet, the white men have been using religion as a tool to keep black women out of their systems for centuries. I have tried to use Jesus Christ in an argument to change minds: “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ want a woman…Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him” (180). No matter how loudly we speak, or how much we work to refine our points of argument, they will not hear us. Now you see why I favor autonomy in our economic activity. There needs to be a change, because the current systems are just not working for us.
DuBois: All I ask is that you have a little faith. The black woman is capable of many, many things. But above all: “The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge” (761). In order to gain wisdom and refine her skills, I believe every black woman has the right to a solid education. I must say, your arguments have swayed me, and I do see value in creating more black female-owned businesses. Yet, I do urge them to further develop themselves in college before they enter into the workforce. After that, they can start their own companies, or open local businesses, whatever they want to do to show the world their talents. Truth, I think that we can reach a compromise since we both care so much about the state of black women in our nation.
Truth: Now you are seeing my side! Perhaps I was being unrealistic in arguing that all black women should stay away from the traditional workforce. I just think that it would feel good to create our own value, since black women have never been made to feel important. As I said in my infamous speech: “Dat man ober der say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best place every whar. Nobody eber help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or give me any best place” (180). Since no one has ever tried to help us, it’s time for us to help ourselves. By taking control of our lives economically, we will find independence through many other avenues. I must add, your thoughts have changed my view as well. I do see the value in using education as a supplement to our economic endeavors.
Gates Jr, Henry Louis, and Valerie A. Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature 3, no. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.