W.E.B. Dubois on Earning One’s Privilege: His Magnificent Letter of Advice to His Teenage Daughter
“Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life… Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself.”
By Maria Popova
Sociologist and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868–August 27, 1963) was the first African American person to receive a doctorate from Harvard — an achievement that both reflected and affirmed his faith in the life-changing power of education. So when his daughter Yolande — his only surviving child — was about to turn fourteen in 1914, Dr. Du Bois decided to enroll her in one of England’s most prestigious and expensive public boarding schools: Bedales, alma mater to such diverse alumni as British racing driver and cryptographer Margaret Allan, poet and artist Frieda Hughes (daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes), singer Lily Allen, and actor Minnie Driver.
At a time when women did not yet have the right to vote, the Civil Rights movement was still half a century away, and most major American universities only admitted women in special annexes, if at all, it was an uncommon privilege for a young woman of color to study at Bedales. It was also an extraordinary opportunity for her to inhabit her highest human agency, do as Nietzsche had counseled young free spirits a generation earlier — “become master over yourself, master of your own good qualities… acquire power over your aye and no and learn to hold and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims…” — and put into practice Seneca’s timeless advice on fortifying one’s soul, penned two millennia earlier.
Shortly after Yolande’s arrival in England, Dr. Du Bois wrote her an extraordinary letter. He wanted to make sure, in words loving and luminous, that his teenage daughter understood both her privilege and her indelible human rights.
The letter, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to fulfillment in the creative life, Benjamin Rush on how to travel, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and Eugene O’Neill on the true measure of success — is a masterwork of parental advice, containing some of the wisest, warmest words for anyone to live by. Radiating from it is an abiding truth about privilege, all the more disquieting yet urgently important today: Whatever privilege may come to us unbidden, be it by birth or by chance, we must then earn and deserve through the integrity and intentionality of our actions.
46-year-old Du Bois writes to Yolande on October 29, 1914:
Dear Little Daughter:
I have waited for you to get well settled before writing. By this time I hope some of the strangeness has worn off and that my little girl is working hard and regularly.
Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert or merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.
Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. People will wonder at your dear brown and the sweet crinkley hair. But that simply is of no importance and will soon be forgotten. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely. Enter into the spirit of your big bed-room. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
I shall write each week and expect a weekly letter from you.
Yolande went on to be an educator and an activist, and married the Harvard-educated poet Countee Cullen fourteen years later, with Langston Hughes as groomsman.
Posterity is a trove of timeless wisdom in its slim but potent entirety. Complement this particular excerpt with Simone Weil on the crucial difference between our rights and our responsibilities and Margo Jefferson on the provisions of privilege, the revisit W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known correspondence with Einstein about race.
Published February 23, 2016