W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most important civil-rights activists of the first half of the 20th century. He is best known as one of the co-founders of the NAACP. He was also the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, a feat he accomplished in 1895. Du Bois’ ethos emphasized the value of hard work. In addition to his activism, he was a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University as well as a poet, playwright, and a novelist. He deeply admired Stalin, describing him as “simple, calm, and courageous.” Du Bois was bald, slight of build, and sported an impressive, expansive mustache for much of his adult life.
In 1914, Du Bois sent his teenage daughter Yolande to the Bedales School, a co-ed British boarding school. Bedales is in the village of Steep in Hampshire. It was designed for 150 students and its early curriculum featured modern languages, science, design, gardening and drama. From its inception it was one of the most expensive boarding schools in England and also one of the most exclusive. Du Bois wrote a letter to Yolande, as fathers do, to offer some encouragement, life advice, and how to deal with people reacting to her race. “You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances,” he said. “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.”
Beyond the “curious little annoyances,” though, Du Bois wanted to underscore a deeper point. “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.” Yolande was being afforded an incredible privilege; her father wanted her to see that privilege for what it was – an unmerited gift of chance – and to therefore enable her to embrace rather than squander that opportunity.
He continued: “Deserve it, then.”
It would be easy enough to brush off this letter as the hope of a father for his daughter to get the most of her education, and it certainly is that. But the deeper instruction has been resonating with me since I first read that letter, a low hum constantly at the base of my skull. Here we are, in America. We possess unfathomable technology. Every tap and faucet has clean, drinkable water. Food is plentiful and cheap. At my fingertips, as I type this sentence, I have access to the sum of the world’s knowledge. I can learn about anything I want, at any time of the day. When I stand up and walk around, I carry that access in my pocket. What an amazing privilege.
Millions of boys and girls and men and women all over this world – and throughout the expanse of time – would give almost anything they possess to be where I am. And I am here by no merit of mine, but only by lucky chance.
“Deserve it, then.”
Are we living in a way that acknowledges the incredible gifts and advantages we have simply to be here? Or are we living in a way that presumes that the world owes us these rewards simply because we’re alive? Are we cultivating gratitude or entitlement? We can’t tell anyone else what to do, but we can take it upon ourselves to earn this great blessing, to say, “I may not have done anything to earn this, but I am going to live in such a way that this gift is not squandered on me.”
“Deserve it, then.”
At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” a dying Captain Miller tells James Ryan, “Earn this.” Earn the sacrifice of the five men who died to save yours. Earn their blood and the grief of their families. Ryan doesn’t know how. Fifty years later, he says to Miller’s tombstone, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” We may not have anyone who lost their life to preserve ours. But we can live our lives in a state of constant appreciation, a tireless effort to enjoy and embrace our gift of chance. Not as an obligation, as a child guilted into eating her vegetables; rather, as an opportunity only possible through the sacrifice of someone else and the roll of a die.
Du Bois finished his letter by saying, “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 bedroom. 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.”