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"Commencement Address at Atlanta University, May 31, 1906"
Franz Boas

Franz Boas. "Commencement Address at Atlanta University, May 31, 1906," Atlanta University Leaflet, No. 19 (S.l: s.n.).

Robert Williams' Notes:
Du Bois considered Boas' commencement speech at the 1906 Atlanta University graduation to be an important moment for him. In Black Folk Then and Now (1939) Du Bois set up the background for his "awakening" as a result of Boas' speech:
Few today are interested in Negro history because they feel the matter already settled: the Negro has no history.
    This dictum seems neither reasonable nor probable. I remember my own rather sudden awakening from the paralysis of this judgment taught me in high school and in two of the world's great universities. Franz Boas came to Atlanta University where I was teaching history in 1906 and said to a graduating class: You need not be ashamed of your African past; and then he recounted the history of the black kingdoms south of the Sahara for a thousand years. I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard and I came then and afterwards to realize how the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted.

Boas' "Commencement Address" was excerpted and published in the Atlanta University Publications:
* as "Old African Civilizations" in the Atlanta University Studies # 20, which is entitled Select Discussions of Race Problems, edited by John Alvin Bigham (1916) (AUP # 20 is accessible online via links at this intra-site page).
* on pp.18-21 in Atlanta University Studies # 11, entitled The Health and Physique of the Negro American (1906) and edited by Du Bois (AUP # 11 is available online via links at this intra-site page).

Franz Boas published other works of a similar nature:
* "Human Faculty as Determined by Race." Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, v.43 (1895): 301-327 [start page at Google Books].
* "What the Negro Has Done in Africa." The Ethical Record, 5:2 (February-March 1904): 106-109 [start page at Google Books].
* "The Negro and the Demands of Modern Life: Ethnic and Anatomical Considerations." Charities, 15:1 (7 October 1904) 85-88 [start page at Google Books].
* The Mind of Primitive Man (NY: Macmillan Co., 1911) [Digitized editions available at Google Books and at the Internet Archive].

Dr. Lee D. Baker (Duke University) provides downloadable PDFs of several of his articles on Boas: publications page.

Further details on Boas are available in the form of a "Biographical Memoir" available at the National Academy of Sciences: Robert H. Lowie's "Franz Boas, 1858-1942" [PDF: ~860 MB] (Vol. XXIV – Ninth Memoir, 1947).

Commencement Address


Atlanta University, May 31, 1906



Professor of Anthropology in Columbia

University, New York

I have accepted with pleasure the invitation to address you on this day, because I believe that the broad outlook over the development of mankind which the study of the races of man gives to us, is often helpful to an understanding of our own everyday problems, and may make clear to us our capacity as well as our duty. I shall speak to you from the standpoint of the anthropologist, of one who has devoted his life to the study of the multifarious forms of culture as found in different races.
Modern life makes certain definite demands upon us and requires certain qualities of character. In judging the work of men, it is, however, well to remember that there have been cultures different from ours and that the qualities that are today dominant and most highly esteemed, and the possession of which makes a person a most useful member of society, have not always had the same value; and may at a later period be superseded by others not so highly valued now. In early ages brute force was one of the highest qualities of man. Sagacity counted little. At the present time energetic self-assertion counts for most, while in the age of early Christianity humility won the highest praise. Such differences in the valuation of our activities are also found at the present time in countries that have developed untouched by the influence of modern civilization.
Our gifts, our wishes and our ideals are not alone determined by the demands of the civilization in which we live, but each of us has his own individuality which makes him more or less fit to adapt himself to the demands of life. Therefore it behooves young men and young women to tarry long enough before rushing into the activities of a busy life, to know what powers are given to them, what they are able to achieve and what place their work is to occupy in the conflicting interests of modern life.
On the day when the student leaves the protecting wings of the institution which has nurtured and trained his mind, he naturally halts with a last glimpse backward. Then he looks forward timidly, but at the same time with the exuberant joy of having acquired the right of independent action, and now he is in the midst of the struggle which even to the best, is not all sweetness of success, but bound to bring the bitterness of disappointment. Then will come the test of your strength, of your loyalty to the ideals that your instructors have tried to instil into you.
If these trials are not spared to the youth who enters the struggle of life, a member of a homogeneous people, they will be encountered with even greater certainty in communities where diverse elements live side by side, and have to work for their joint welfare as well as for the protection of their separate interests.
This is to be your future. The more clearly you recognize the tasks it involves, the better you will be fitted to fill your place in the life of the nation.
The fundamental requirement for useful activity on your part is a clear insight into the capabilities of your own race. If you did accept the view that the present weakness of the American Negro, his uncontrolled emotions, his lack of energy, are racially inherent, your work would still be a noble one. You, the more fortunate members of your race, would give your life to a great charitable work, to support the unsteady gait of your weak brother who is too feeble to walk by himself. But you have the full right to view your labor in an entirely different light. The achievements of races are not only what they have done during the short span of two thousand years, when with rapidly increasing numbers the total amount of mental work accumulated at an ever increasing rate. In this the European, the Chinaman, the East Indian, have far outstripped other races. But back of this period lies the time when mankind struggled with the elements, when every small advance that seems to us now insignificant was an achievement of the highest order, as great as the discovery of steam power or of electricity, if not greater. It may well be, that these early inventions were made hardly consciously, certainly not by deliberate effort, yet every one of them represents a giant's stride forward in the development of human culture. To these early advances the Negro race has contributed its liberal share. While much of the history of early invention is shrouded in darkness, it seems likely that at a time when the European was still satisfied with rude stone tools, the African had invented or adopted the art of smelting iron.
Consider for a moment what this invention has meant for the advance of the human race. As long as the hammer, knife, saw, drill, the spade and the hoe had to be chipped out of stone, or had to be made of shell or hard wood, effective industrial work was not impossible, but difficult. A great progress was made when copper found in large nuggets was hammered out into tools and later on shaped by smelting, and when bronze was introduced; but the true advancement of industrial life did not begin until the hard iron was discovered. It seems not unlikely that the people that made the marvelous discovery of reducing iron ores by smelting were the African Negroes. Neither ancient Europe, nor ancient western Asia, nor ancient China knew the iron, and everything points to its introduction from Africa. At the time of the great African discoveries toward the end of the past century, the trade of the blacksmith was found all over Africa, from north to south and from east to west. With his simple bellows and a charcoal fire he reduced the ore that is found in many parts of the continent and forged implements of great usefulness and beauty.
Due to native invention is also the extended early African agriculture, each village being surrounded by its garden patches and fields in which millet is grown. Domesticated animals were also kept; in the agricultural regions chickens and pigs, while in the arid parts of the country where agriculture is not possible, large herds of cattle were raised. It is also important to note that the cattle were milked, an art which in early times was confined to Africa, Europe and northern Asia, while even now it has not been acquired by the Chinese.
The occurrence of all these arts of life points to an early and energetic development of African culture.
Even if we refrain from speculating on the earliest times, conceding that it is difficult to prove the exact locality where so important an invention was made as that of smelting iron, or where the African millet was first cultivated, or where chickens and cattle were domesticated, the evidence of African ethnology is such that it should inspire you with the hope of leading your race from achievement to achievement. Shall I remind you of the power of military organization exhibited by the Zulu, whose kings and whose armies swept southeastern Africa. Shall I remind you of the local chiefs, who by dint of diplomacy, bravery and wisdom united the scattered tribes of wide areas into flourishing kingdoms, of the intricate form of government necessary for holding together the heterogeneous tribes.
If you wish to understand the possibilities of the African under the stimulus of a foreign culture, you may look towards the Soudan, the region south of the Sahara. When we first learn about these countries by the reports of the great Arab traveller Iben Batuta, who lived in the 14th century, we hear that the old Negro kingdoms were early conquered by the Mohammedans. Under the guidance of the Arabs, but later on by their own initiative, the Negro tribes of these countries organized kingdoms which lived for many centuries. They founded flourishing towns in which at annual fairs thousands and thousands of people assembled. Mosques and other public buildings were erected and the execution of the laws was entrusted to judges. The history of the kingdom was recorded by officers and kept in archives. So well organized were these states that about 1850, when they were for the first time visited by a white man, the remains of these archives were still found in existence, notwithstanding all the political upheavals of a millennium and notwithstanding the ravages of the slave trade.
I might also speak to you of the great markets that are found throughout Africa, at which commodities were exchanged or sold for native money. I may perhaps remind you of the system of judicial procedure, of prosecution and defense, which had early developed in Africa, and whose formal development was a great achievement notwithstanding its gruesome application in the persecution of witchcraft. Nothing, perhaps, is more encouraging than a glimpse of the artistic industry of native Africa. I regret that we have no place in this country where the beauty and daintiness of African work can be shown; but a walk through the African museums of Paris, London and Berlin is a revelation. I wish you could see the scepters of African kings, carved of hard wood and representing artistic forms; or the dainty basketry made by the people of the Kongo river and of the region near the great lakes of the Nile, or the grass mats with their beautiful patterns. Even more worthy of our admiration is the work of the blacksmith, who manufactures symmetrical lance heads almost a yard long, or axes inlaid with copper and decorated with filigree. Let me also mention in passing the bronze castings of Benin on the west coast of Africa, which, although perhaps due to Portuguese influences, have so far excelled in technique any European work, that they are even now almost inimitable. In short, wherever you look, you find a thrifty people, full of energy, capable of forming large states. You find men of great energy and ambition who hold sway over their fellows by the weight of their personality. That this culture has, at the same time, the instability and other signs of weakness of primitive culture, goes without saying.
To you, however, this picture of native Africa will inspire strength, for all the alleged faults of your race that you have to conquer here are certainly not prominent there. In place of indolence you find thrift and ingenuity, and application to occupations that require not only industry, but also inventiveness and a high degree of technical skill, and the surplus energy of the people does not spend itself in emotional excesses only.
If, therefore, it is claimed that your race is doomed to economic inferiority, you may confidently look to the home of your ancestors and say, that you have set out to recover for the colored people the strength that was their own before they set foot on the shores of this continent. You may say that you go to work with bright hopes, and that you will not be discouraged by the slowness of your progress; for you have to recover not only what has been lost in transplanting the Negro race from its native soil to this continent, but you must reach higher levels than your ancestors had ever attained.
To those who stoutly maintain a material inferiority of the Negro race and who would dampen your ardor by their claims, you may confidently reply that the burden of proof rests with them, that the past history of your race does not sustain their statement, but rather gives you encouragement. The physical inferiority of the Negro race, if it exists at all, is insignificant when compared to the wide range of individual variability in each race. There is no anatomical evidence available that would sustain the view that the bulk of the Negro race could not become as useful citizens as the members of any other race. That there may be slightly different hereditary traits seems plausible, but it is entirely arbitrary to assume that those of the Negro, because perhaps slightly different, must be of an inferior type.
The arguments for inferiority drawn from the history of civilization are also weak. At the time when the early kingdom of Babylonia flourished the same disparaging remarks that are now made regarding the Negro might-have been made regarding the ancestors of the ancient Romans. They were then a barbarous horde that had never made any contribution to the advance of that civilization that was confined to parts of Asia, and still they were destined to develop a culture which has become the foundation and an integral part of our own. Even later the barbarous hordes of northern Europe, who at the time of the ancient Romans were tribal groups without cultural achievements, have become the most advanced nations of our days.
Thus, impartial scientific discussion tells you to take up your work among your race with undaunted courage. Success will crown your endeavors if your work is carried on patiently, quietly and consistently.
But in taking up your position in life you must also be clear in regard to the relation of your work to the general life of the nation, and here again anthropology and history will help you to gain a healthy point of view. It is not the first time in human history that two peoples have been brought into close contact by the force of circumstances, who are dependent upon each other economically but where social customs, ideals and -- let me add -- bodily form, are so distinct that the line of cleavage remains always open. Every conquest that has led to colonization has produced, at least temporarily, conditions of this kind. The conquest of England by the Normans, the Teutonic invasion of Italy, the Manchoo conquest of China are illustrations of this point. But other instances are more typical. The position of Armenians and Greeks in Turkey, and the relations of the castes of India, bring up the same problem.
The best example, however, is that of the Jews of Europe, a people slightly distinct in type, but originally differing considerably in customs and beliefs from the people among whom they lived. The separation of the Jew and the Gentile was enforced for hundreds of years and very slowly only were the various occupations opened to him; very slowly only began to vanish the difference in customs and ideals. Even now the feeling of inequality persists and to the feeling of many the term Jew assigns to the bearer an exceptional position. And this is so, although the old barriers have fallen, although in the creative work of our times, in industry, commerce, science, and art, the Jew holds a respected place. Even now there lingers the consciousness of the old, sharper divisions which the ages have not been able to efface, and which is strong enough to find -- not only here and there -- expression as antipathy to the Jewish type. In France, that let down the barriers more than a hundred years ago, the feeling of antipathy is still strong enough to sustain an anti-Jewish political party. I have dwelt on this example somewhat fully, because it illustrates the conditions that characterize your own position.
Even members of the same people, when divided by social barriers, have often been in similar relations. Thus has the hereditary nobility of Europe -- although of the same descent as the people -- held itself aloof for centuries and has claimed for itself superior power and a distinct code of honor. In short, you may find innumerable instances of sharp social division of a people into groups that are destined to work out jointly the fate of their country.
You must take to heart the teachings of the past. You observe, that in the case of the Patricians and Plebeians in Rome, of the nobility and the townspeople of more modern times, it has taken centuries for the exclusive groups to admit the ability of the other groups, and that after this had been achieved, it was impossible for long periods to break down the constantly recrudescent feeling of difference in character. You observe, furthermore, that when there is such a slight difference in type as between European and Jew, the feeling of distinction persists strongly, long after the reasons that created it have vanished. You must, therefore, recognize that it is not in your power, as individuals, to modify rapidly the feelings of others toward yourself, no matter how unjust and unfair they may seem to you, but that, with the freedom to improve your economic condition to the best of your ability, your race has to work out its own salvation by raising the standards of your life higher and higher, thus attacking the feeling of contempt of your race at its very roots.
It is an arduous work that is before you. If you will remember the teachings of history, you will find it a task full of joy, for your own people will respond more and more readily to your teachings. When they learn how to live a more cleanly, healthy and comfortable life, they will also begin to appreciate the value of intellectual life, and as their intellectual powers increase, will they work for a life of greater bodily and moral health. The vastness of the field of improvement and the assurance of success should be an ever present stimulus to you, even though it will take a long time to overcome the inertia of the indolent masses. On the other hand, if you carry on your work with side glances on your white neighbor, waiting for his recognition or support of your noble work, you are destined to disappointment. Remember that in every single case in history the process of adaptation has been one of exceeding slowness. Do not look for the impossible, but do not let your path deviate from the quiet and steadfast insistence on full opportunities for your powers.
Your advance depends upon your steadfastness of purpose. While the white man may err from the path of righteousness and, if he falls by the wayside, will have to bear the blame for his weakness individually, any failure of one of your race, and particularly any fault of one of you who have enjoyed the advantages of education, will be interpreted only too readily as a relapse into the old ways of an inferior race. If, therefore, you want to overcome the old antagonism, you have to be on your watch all the time. Your moral standards must be of the highest.
Looking at your life work thus, everything should combine to make you happy idealists. A natural goal has been set before you, which -- although it may lie in the dim future -- will be attained, if every one of you does his or her duty; in the fulfillment of which you are supported by the consciousness of your responsibility. May happiness and success be the reward of your endeavors!
[End of original text.]  


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