A friend contacted me yesterday for help in tracking down the provenance of a quotation attributed to W.E.B. Dubois, the towering writer, scholar, and activist who contributed so greatly to the liberation of African Americans. Here it is:
Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.
If you google Dubois’ name and the first three words, you’ll find more than three million hits. The quotation has been the epigram for books and reports, the Urtext for conferences and dialogues, and an all-around handy reference for almost any rumination on the importance of art. It is always attributed to Dubois, but without citing any specific reference.
The thing is, as near as I can tell, the words do not belong to Dubois. (If I’m wrong, write me, please, and I’ll print a retraction.) My first doubts had to do with the lack of a cited source. My second doubts turned on the voice: Dubois’ was an elegant and formal cadence, and this quotation sounds so casual and contemporary.
All hail the internet, because it didn’t take more a few key strokes to confirm my doubts. The oldest in the vast list of links was a New York Times piece from 1996 on the effect of Henry Louis Gates’ leadership on the evolution of Black Studies. Scroll down about halfway, and you’ll find scholar-activist Cornel West paraphrasing Dubois to make a point:
‘But [Oprah]’s got relatives and friends broke as the 10 Commandments,’ he said. ‘Just focusing on Oprah won’t show us how the race problem can be solved. It’s more complex than that. Du Bois said begin with art, because art tries to take us outside of ourselves. It’s a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and a context so conversation can flow back and forth, and we can be influenced by each other.’
Someone, somewhere, decided that was a direct quote, and so it has become, as least as far as the World Wide Web has any say in the matter. It’s not a hard thing to understand.
First, we love to cite authorities in support of our own beliefs, borrowing credibility from those whose credentials confer a permanent benefit of the doubt. We especially love it when our own beliefs are insurgent or our own credibility is under attack, which fits advocates of art’s public purpose to a T. When I first began writing about these subjects, my essays were compendia of quotations, a way of mounting the troops in defense of my own ideas. When I finally realized that the universe of knowledge is vast enough to contain not only every possible agreement but every possible dismissal, I recognized that saying Albert Einstein or W.E.B. Dubois or Mickey Mantle agrees with me isn’t much of an argument. I still love a felicitous phrase, and collect quotations in aid of elegance (rather than proof). But other people’s wisdom has become a condiment for my writing, rather than the main course.
Second, in this case, the “quotation” expresses a truth experienced firsthand by those who have cited it, a profound understanding that in the crucible of art, our self-understanding and connection to others are forged, that in the presence of beauty and meaning, we can open to ourselves and others. My own certainty of this truth is unshakeable, grounded in a cellular knowledge of art’s role in my own life and in so many others I have observed.
It’s true whether W.E.B. Dubois said it or not.
My friend’s query got me curious, though. I am by no means familiar with every word that Dubois wrote, but I am guessing that this, from his extremely interesting 1926 talk “Criteria of Negro Art” (which opens with the great scholar’s justification for talking about art at all at an NAACP annual conference), is the grain of sand that Cornel West used to create the pearl of wisdom that now festoons the internet under Dubois’ name:
Thus it is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of Beauty, of the preservation of Beauty, of the realization of Beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before. And what have been the tools of the artist in times gone by? First of all, he has used the Truth — not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding. Again artists have used Goodness — goodness in all its aspects of justice, honor and right — not for sake of an ethical sanction but as the one true method of gaining sympathy and human interest.
The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice.
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
What else to listen to today? The late, great, Etta James, who transmuted suffering to sweetness with the utmost grace. In honor of the day, this version of “A Sunday Kind of Love” from 1961.