In Architecture by Moonlight, I struggle to describe my fellow workers. Haitians work ethic is different from ours. I don’t wish to romanticize it, nor imply it’s lesser or greater. Although many find value in my descriptions, the third-world experts at Partners in Health objected that I was politically insensitive; they need to guard against their precious donors. Meanwhile, freewheeling critics in the twittersphere – thirsty for cyber blood and beholden to no one – lifted phrases out of context and stabbed me as a paternalistic neo-liberal. Since I offended, and was offended, from all sides, I figured I was doing a fair balancing act. Still, my descriptions fell short of what I wished to convey.
Fortunately, I came upon a W. E. B DuBois’ passage of in The Gift of Black Folk:
“As a tropical product with a sensuous receptivity to the beauty of the world, he is not as easily reduced to be the mechanical draft-horse which the northern European laborer became. He…tended to work as the results pleased him and refused to work or sought to refuse when he did not find the spiritual returns adequate; thus he was easily accused of laziness and driven as a slave when in truth he brought to modern manual labor a renewed valuation of life.”
I am honored to be speaking at Howard University this Monday February 23, 2015. I am particularly glad to have come upon Mr. DuBois description before that event. If there is anywhere in America where the contributions of black labor should be most accurately represented, it is at Howard University.