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Cicero Crosses the Color Line:

The Pro Archia Poeta and W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois tells of two hot summers he spent teaching sharecroppers’ children in the rural South, and of his students’ difficulties attending school: “When the Lawrences stopped, I knew that the doubts of the old folks about book-learning had conquered again, and so, toiling up the hill, and getting as far into the cabin as possible, I put Cicero ‘pro Archia Poeta’ into the simplest English with local applications, and usually convinced them—for a week or so” (1999: 49). In my paper, I argue that this famous passage’s true significance to the ‘program’ of The Souls of Black Folk has been underestimated. Throughout Souls, Du Bois presents himself as a besieged advocate of higher education for disenfranchised blacks in a manner that consistently recalls Cicero’s self-portrayal as a defender of poetry and the liberal arts.

Prior discussions of the Pro Archia’s appearance in Souls (Cowherd 2003: 295-96; Cook and Tatum 2010: 107-14) have concentrated on Du Bois’s social and historical contexts. By contrast, I focus specifically on the text’s authorial persona. Cicero’s speech of 62 BCE defends the Greek poet Archias, who faces expulsion from Rome. The orator’s audience, recently embroiled in war (e.g., bellum magnum atque difficile et in multa varietate terra marique versatum, Arch. 21) is now preoccupied with business and ‘industry,’ but Cicero urges them to appreciate intellectually loftier pursuits (12-32): higher education and poetry that, like Archias’s, praises their past exploits (e.g., omne ingenium contulerit Archias ad populi Romani gloriam laudemque celebrandam, 19).

Similarly, Du Bois portrays his postbellum black readers as living at a time “when war memories and ideals were rapidly passing” (1999: 34). Under the leadership of Booker T. Washington, the former slaves’ political “programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life” (40). Du Bois argues that in order for the African American community to explore its full potential, at least a “Talented Tenth” (72) should go to college in order to “study, [think, and] appeal to the rich experience of the past” (73). As in the Pro Archia, an appeal to pursue a higher education is thus coupled with a call to appreciate empowering works that celebrate events of the recent past, such as the defeat of slavery and blacks’ educational accomplishments.

Both Cicero and Du Bois also make use of their own—as well as some celebrated colleagues’—accomplishments to illustrate their argument. At Arch. 12-14, Cicero explains in detail how his own studies motivated him to pursue a political career that ultimately led to his defeat of Catiline. Similarly, great literature inspired notable Romans like Scipio Aemilianus and Cato the Elder to their most impressive deeds (si nihil ad percipiendam colendamque virtutem litteris adiuvarentur, numquam se ad earum studium contulissent, 16). Likewise, Harvard-graduate Du Bois adduces his own and his contemporaries’ successes in order to justify his call for college training: “Fifty years ago the ability of Negro students in any appreciable number to master a modern college course would have been difficult to prove. To-day it is proved by the fact that four hundred Negroes” had received degrees from the nation’s leading colleges (69).

Souls’ reference to the Pro Archia thus emerges as far from fleeting. Du Bois deliberately models his persona on Cicero’s (1) to demonstrate his mastery of Latin oratory, and (2) to provide an empowering illustration that the ancient statesman’s fight for education is comparable to that of the black political writer. The result is a universalization and modernization of a canonical—and formerly ‘white’—text. In its new incarnation, Du Bois’s updated Pro Archia aids in the advancement of those its existence had previously helped to oppress.