|An early witness to merciless flogging and
brutal mental cruelty by various white overseers, at the age of seven or eight, he
understood that "it was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that
afforded the true explanation of slavery."
Like most African Americans, Washington did not have to be told that a color line existed.
He remembered hearing, with his family and other slaves, a Yankee soldier read the
Emancipation Proclamation from the veranda of his master's house. Washington wrote that at
this moment, "my mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her
children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks."
He was only four years old at the time. W. E. B. DuBois, on the other hand, wrote that he
learned of race and racism between the ages of ten and twelve, an unusually long period of
racial innocence. Unlike Douglass in the slave society of Maryland's Eastern Shore,
DuBois' sense of race evolved not with "a jump or a jolt---but very gradually." Being a fraction of one percent of the 5000
people in Great Barrington, Blacks were not particularly feared. Adults had an
understanding of the race etiquette awaiting young DuBois. Washington trails behind
Douglass and DuBois in his realization of the role of race and racism in determining both
status and prospects: he saw as a "great human law, which is universal and eternal,
that merit, no matter under which skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and
rewarded." Washington attempted to
argue that, merit notwithstanding, great adversities generate greater motivation:
"looked at from this standpoint, I almost reach the conclusion that often the Negro
boy's birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is
concerned." As a precocious student
in Great Barrington, DuBois fancied himself intellectually superior to most persons of
either race and believed that the applause he received was meritorious. He took solitary
satisfaction in his belief that his future achievements would prove beyond any doubt his
basic superiority to them, their only claim to fame being that they knew him when they
were all students. In their youth none of these men escaped the pervasive social realities
of the color line.
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