Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Talking Points: W.E.B. DuBois on Materialism

September 30th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

W.E.B. DuBois (1868 – 1963)

If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; — what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?

Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your heart that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that — but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.

from “Criteria of Negro Art,” a speech given at the Chicago Conference for the NAACP (1926).


The most thought-provoking line in this entire passage is, “Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your heart that these are not the things you really want.” It bespeaks a idealism and even an innocence, both of which I find endearing, especially coming from an intellectual and political powerhouse like DuBois, whose words and actions inspired generations of anti-racist activists. The notion that, in our heart of hearts, Black folks want nothing more than the contentment and humble pleasures of a life lived simply just hasn’t borne itself out.

Having vanquished Jim Crow as well as most legal constraints on Black progress, African Americans seem no less enamored with material wealth. Granted, racism is still very much alive; but even within the vast and expanding Black middle class, the appeal of “living large” seems in no danger of fading.

The reasons for this are many, and a recent study conducted by Wharton and U Chicago researchers indicates that it is based in the desire of African Americans to be perceived as affluent by the people around them. This desire to look rich, however, has very real and very negative consequences on Black families’ efforts and abilities to move beyond appearances and take steps toward real, true prosperity and financial independence.

I’ll be blogging on the fascinating research finds of three Wharton and U Chicago researchers who set out to determine whether or not Black people and Latinos really did spend more money on “bling” and other accoutrements.

Stay tuned!

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African American Students, African Americans, Alicia Jillian Hardy, Black History, Black Professors, race, Racism on Campus, Uncategorized, W.E.B. DuBois

6 Responses

  1. Tom Humes

    Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. Jacqueline

    No doubt, the desire to look rich has ruined many a family and destroyed many a soul. The proverbial bucket never gets filled and each life is lived, consumed with sadness and disappointment because there’s not enough of anything in the world to make them feel complete.

  3. hagar's daughter

    To say that Blacks are “enamored” with material gains is an understatement IMHO. Black folks want to LOOK rich without building wealth.

    DuBois would be disheartened with our progress.

    I look forward to your follow up. I learn so much here.

  4. Mari-Djata

    That was a very deep post. Just looking around on my college campus, I can see the truth you have written. The women here dress up in their finest everyday when they are only going to class or to a friend’s house. Many have large SUVs even though you can’t find a lick of gas in Atlanta. It is definitely an expensive facade to appear more well-off than one truly is.

  5. prof bw

    thank you for posting this quote. For me the most poignant part is the question “what is it that you would want?” I’ve asked this a lot on my blog and in my classroom and I too fear I am as naive as DuBois about the answers I expect, or hope, to come back.

  6. Ajuan Mance

    Thanks to all of you for weighing in on this topic. It really strikes at the core of our values as a nation.

    I completely agree with Hagar’s Daughter. DuBois would be sad to see where we have ended up after all of his work. I mean, while Black people have made their way into so many professions and neighborhoods and institutions that we did not have access to in DuBois’s day, the emphasis throughout the community on garish displays of wealth holds us back in ways that segregation never did. It’s style over substance at its worst.

    To be clear, I don’t believe that it’s inherently wrong to buy a pair of expensive shoes — IF YOU CAN AFFORD IT. The problem is that Black folks’ expenditures on visible signs of wealth are drawing money away from other areas, like saving and education. That, to me, is scary.

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