Patient Asses


W.E.B. Du Bois


March 1, 1930

I met my friend one morning on Seventh Avenue as we were hurrying opposite ways to our work. She asked:

“Did you attend Smuts lecture?”

I did not.

She said: “He does not strike me as sincere.”

I quite agreed with her.

And then she said: “You were wise in advocating Pan-Africanism.”

I thanked her. I was glad that she saw the point. I wished again, as I have often wished, that other people would see it. Here was a statesman from the Union of South Africa. Effort was made before his visit to the United States to commit the colored people to support of him and his policy in order that their action might influence their colored brethren in South Africa. As he was about to arrive, a movement was put on foot to get colored leaders to sign a laudatory address and thank Jans Smuts for his South African Negro program! This was fortunately blocked. Then a quiet conference was arranged in Washington by the Phelps Stokes Fund in which the program was confined to carefully restricted discussion of the American race problem and arranged so as to include no single Negro who had been in South Africa or had expert knowledge of the South African situation.

In the meantime, however, Mr. Smuts, himself, supplied a good deal of missing information. He had no sooner opened his mouth at Town Hall, New York City, than he put his own foot deeply and completely in it. He compared Negroes to patient asses and wanted them to dance and sing! Negroes have been more patient than most asses and asses do not usually dance and sing. Indeed, the animals that dance and sing best are the least patient with demagogues like Smuts.

Dr. Moton of Tuskegee, who among a half-dozen Negro leaders sat upon the platform, was the only one who had the courage to challenge Smuts then and there. We congratulate him upon the deed.

Smuts explained. He meant nothing derogative. He was complimenting Negroes. That is Smuts all over! Shrewd, wary, insincere, distrusted throughout South Africa by black and white, Boer and Briton, desperately trying to pose in Europe and America as a great Liberal and forever damned by his determination to keep black folk in eternal subjection to white, while salving the fools with fair words. Herzog, his opponent and the present Premier, is at least sincere. He is as narrow in his “Nigger” hatred as Smuts, but his narrowness is lack of knowledge and not deliberate and suave hypocrisy. Herzog wants to learn. Smuts will never learn. He knows it all now.

And he ought to know it. He and his party established the color caste of South Africa in its present form. From the founding of the Union of South Africa until 1924, Smuts has been a member of the Cabinet and often Prime Minister. During this time he helped establish and vigorously defended the following caste system for black men:

  1. Disfranchisement of all persons of Negro descent, except in Cape Colony, and even there Negro voters can not vote for Negro candidates.
  2. Disarming the natives by excluding them from the militia.
  3. Depriving natives of their land and prohibiting them from buying land except in restricted areas. This legislation gave a million and a half whites 87 per cent of the land and five million natives 13 per cent.
  4. Excluding Negroes from the Civil Service.
  5. “Jim Crow” regulations for railroads and public buildings. There are separate Post Offices for blacks, either at the back of the white Post Office or underground. Even here, no native clerk is employed and natives must take off their hats when entering any public building. In some cases they cannot walk on the sidewalk.
  6. Direct taxation on natives, at the rate of $5 to $10 a year and using most of this money for the benefit of the whites, who pay no poll tax.
  7. Educational facilities are so meagre that 95 per cent of the natives are illiterate. In the Transvaal for a long time the government grant native schools was about the same sum as they expended for the upkeep of animals in the Pretoria Zoo.
  8. The pass system which compells every native to be registered and carry a pass without which he is subject to arrest and imprisonment.

Some of these regulations do not apply to persons of mixed blood and educated natives not living in tribes, but even for them the caste discrimination and restrictions are humiliating and disgraceful and make South Africa the worst place on earth for colored folk to live.

Conceive what would happen to an Englishman who had treated Irishmen in this way and who came to the United States to lecture? How many Irishmen would be sitting on his platform grinning at him? We certainly are patient asses. We shall never secure emancipation from the tyranny of the white oppressor until we have achieved it in our own souls.

How much might have been accomplished for the advantage of Africa and the reputation of American Negroes if we had with quiet dignity refused to sit on Smuts’ platform and to go into conference with him except on the clear understanding that we would be perfectly free to demand from him an explanation of South African conditions and his part in making them. Why was it not perfectly in order for some member of that conference to ask Jan Smuts courteously but firmly why he had deliberately lied at Town Hall and told a questioner that an American Negro could buy land and live in South Africa? Meantime, can not everyone see how necessary it is for persons of Negro descent in all parts of the world to understand their respective problems? How humiliating to see prominent American Negro leaders put themselves in a position to appear as catspaws against the plain wishes and interests of their blood brothers in Africa! The problems of Negroes differ, to be sure, the world over in many intricate and vital respects, but at bottom, they are the same: the political disfranchisement of Negro blood; the distortion of the facts of Negro history and accomplishment; racial discrimination in everyday life; limitation of education so as to increase black serfdom and white profits: “Jim-Crow” policies of all sorts and personal insult based on color of skin.

The degree in which these various disabilities are applied differs in different countries and at different times, but they are all present in some degree in every Negro group. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that these Sroups understand each other; that British Negroes stop criticizing and sneering at American Negroes; that American Negroes realize what British Negroes are accomplishing and enduring; that South Americans and West Indians cease making a white skin their one clear ideal; that African Negroes keep in close touch with their cousins overseas, and that all Negroes look toward the Black World in an effort to be intelligent and thoughtful and helpful in the development of the black folk of all lands.

This does not involve in the slightest degree any attempt needlessly and ignorantly to interfere in the government or self-development or self-determination of the different groups or any widespread migration; but it does call for intelligence and co-operation in every possible way and on the broadest scale.

This is the deep and unanswerable demand for a Pan-African movement. Who will respond?

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1930. “Patient Asses.” The Crisis. 37(3):100–101.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1930. “Patient Asses.” The Crisis 37 (3): 100–101.