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Celebrating a Black Radical – W.E.B. Du Bois

February 23, 2011

On this day in 1868, William E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The son of a Haitian landowner and a Dutch-African mother, he became an important American sociologist and intellectual leader, one of the first to study and address racism from every possible angle—through scholarship about race’s impact on the American culture, through an examination of the potential of integration, through a rejection of differences between the races, as a political issue, and as a pathway to cultural separatism.

The first Black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, Du Bois became a professor, founding the Department of Social Work at Atlanta University and also teaching at other colleges, including the New School in Greenwich Village. He was the author of thousands of articles and 22 books, including The Souls of Black Folk, John Brown, Black Reconstruction, and The Negro. His theory that African-American issues and the struggle for racial equality had made an indelible mark on the culture and politics of the United States was initially rejected and mocked. Du Bois fired back, writing, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

Also discredited at the time was Du Bois’ visionary exploration of the rise of crime among Blacks in the South, which he connected to their struggle to find a footing in a largely White society. Du Bois wrote, “[The] appearance of crime among the southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions–of a stress of life greater than a large part of the community can bear…To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.

Part of what made Du Bois a target for heavy criticism among reactionary Whites was his attitude about his race. While Booker T. Washington encouraged Blacks to accept discrimination, be humble, and to take a back seat until Whites were ready to give Blacks a full place in society. Du Bois took the exact opposite view. He felt that Blacks should question Whites on every aspect of their attitudes about race, and continually challenge their actions and their sense of entitlement and authority. Only then could society hope to begin to break down to what Du Bois saw as the institutionalized and entrenched racism in American culture.

In 1900, Du Bois was one of the leaders of the first Pan-African Conference, held in London, and worked on four more conferences through 1927. In 1909, Du Bois became one of the founders of the NAACP and its publications director, although later his political views became too radical for the organization. During this same year he started his crusade against eugenics, declaring there were no inherent difference between people of different races. He embraced Communism and attempted to create a Communist wing of the New York State Legislature.

Du Bois was indicted in 1951 as “an unregistered agent for a foreign power.” A federal judge later ordered his acquittal, but his political views were further used in attempts to discredit him and his work among mainstream scholars. Martin Luther King addressed this hypocrisy head-on in a speech he made about Du Bois just four days before his own assasination:

We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years…In contemporary life, the English speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist, or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist.

In 1961, Du Bois was denied a passport to travel with his wife to Ghana. By this time, he had become completely disillusioned with the United States. Du Bois rejected this act of state repression by openly becoming a member of the Communist Party, claiming Ghanaian citizen, and traveling to Accra. He never returned to the U.S., dying in Accra two years later in 1963.

In his prose-poem “Credo,” Du Bois described his beliefs about racism and equality in these two beautiful passages:

I believe in the Devil and his angels, who wantonly work to narrow the opportunity of struggling human beings, especially if they be black, who spit in the faces of the fallen, strike them that cannot strike again, believe the worst and work to prove it, hating the image which their Maker stamped on a brother’s soul…

I believe in Liberty for all men; the space to stretch their arms and their souls; the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of God and love.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. whiteylawful permalink
    February 23, 2011 9:04 am

    W.E.B. Do Bois and all the rest are the white racist’s dream come true.

  2. miles permalink
    February 23, 2011 4:32 pm

    Black people fighting back scares racist white people. As a white person, I couldn’t be more ecstatic at seeing the racists squirm.

  3. November 16, 2012 10:28 pm

    He encouraged alienation from Americanism and The West. He was Catholic as well.

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