On October 29, 1914, 46-year-old Du Bois wrote a letter to his only surviving teenage daughter, Yolande, as she arrived in England to attend Bedales; one of England’s most expensive and prestigious boarding schools. This was an uncommon opportunity for a woman of color at this time, 50 years or so before the struggle for civil rights, and W.E.B. Du Bois know how challenging this could be for her.
W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, pan-Africanist and civil rights pioneer—the first African-American person to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. This distinguished feat made him a living testament to his belief in education as a way to change one’s fate. Dr. Du Bois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, is on the list 100 books of must-reads for afropolitan women.
Many African parents share Dr. Du Bois’s values about education. Many of us are products of scholarship-funded ivy league educations and or a good ol’ Western education from a decent state school—some the first in our families to attend universities, at all. Du Bois makes us aware of the privilege that comes with education, the opportunity to use it for self-mastery. We owe it to ourselves to take advantage all that’s available to us despite the fear of the unknown.
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.