Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois' Antiracist Activism
|Aug 27, 2019|
On August 28, 1963, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. Among the speakers and performers, Martin Luther King Jr.’s soaring address became a signature of the Black Freedom Struggle. However, another moment that day marked an equally important historical juncture: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Roy Wilkins announced the death of W.E.B. Du Bois.
One day before the March on Washington, the 95-year-old scholar passed away in Accra, Ghana. “Regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path,” Wilkins stated, “it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume ofThe Souls of Black Folkby Du Bois, published in 1903.”
While dismissing Du Bois’ communism, Wilkins praised one of the late Black scholar’s most iconic books as a key text in the struggle for Black freedom, a literary light on liberation’s pathway.
Commemorating the anniversary of Du Bois’ passing over half a century ago reveals a sense of urgency for what matters most about his legacy today: his commitment to antiracism and his devotion to cultivating a capacious intellect.
Historian and public intellectual Ibram X. Kendi defines antiracism as supporting racial equality at the policy level. He further writes that antiracists practice racial equality by speaking about, writing about, or otherwise actively supporting antiracist ideas. Du Bois was an antiracist because he demanded changes in policy and law aimed at supporting racial justice in the form of legal and economic equality for Black people. A 1958 speech of his on freedom in Africa dealt with the continent’s future:“Will you for temporary advantage… spend your income in paying interest on borrowed funds; or will you sacrifice your present comfort and the chance to shine before your neighbors, in order to educate your children, develop such industry as best serves the great mass of people and make your country strong in ability, self-support and self-defense?”
It still rings true today as we choose either to support the temporary comforts of a nation built on racist policies or to leverage a collective antiracism to remake our society.
By naming the color line the 20th century’s perennial issue announced Du Bois’ intention to obliterate racial inequality. As a scholar, he pursued antiracism through intellectual production by writing books on slavery, Reconstruction, African history, the Civil War, abolitionism, and world wars, all of which centered, one way or another, on Black equality. He promoted antiracism through lectures and lessons in the classrooms of Wilberforce University, Atlanta University, and in New York City’s New School for Social Research and Jefferson School of Social Science, challenging students to think about the role of history, literature, and social science as tools to make the world a more just and equal place. He expressed antiracism through the written word by commenting on the day’s current events in hundreds of newspaper articles that condemned lynching, anti-Black violence, and economic injustice.
Du Bois’ practices of antiracism extended to the building of institutions like the NAACP and assisting organizations like the Council of African Affairs and the Peace Information Center.
He mobilized antiracist scholarship by organizing and cultivating the latest academic research on racial equality through the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory, the Phylon Institute, and the Encyclopedia Africana project.
Importantly, his antiracist conceptualizations were not limited to the United States. Du Bois’ efforts as a citizen of the world worked to forge political and economic alliances between African-descended people throughout the Diaspora. Above all, Du Bois’ principled daily practice of antiracism incessantly assailed injustice and sought to eradicate it.
Du Bois’ intellectual activism exhibited an expansive curiosity, which animated his unwavering quest for Black liberation and Black freedom. He was always on the lookout for new knowledge and a new approach that would solve the puzzle and the problem of racism and discrimination in both the US and world. This curiosity stemmed from the liberal arts orientation of his own education, and it resulted in an educational philosophy that sought to combine the disciplines of history, literature, sociology, and art as intellectual pursuits that could imaginatively result in a future rooted in racial and economic equality. For example, his first book in 1896 explored the legal and moral arguments related to Transatlantic Slave Trade, a work that remains relevant for grappling with the slavery’s long shadow. Three years later he published a pioneering sociology text titled The Philadelphia Negro, a 120-year-old study still important for understanding the complexity of Black life.
Du Bois didn’t just operate in the mode of protest through scientific, scholarly documentation; his intellectual curiosity also inspired him to explore the beauty of black culture — music, literature, and art in particular — as powerful expressions of humanity.
In other words, he sought to expand the connections between politics and culture. With its use of musical bars, literary creation, and history, The Souls of Black Folk is one of his books that exemplifies the intersection of art and equality. Similarly, his innovative practice of liberation journalism through The Crisis aimed to creatively yet boldly examine the multitude of Black experiences. Du Bois’ literary sensibilities extended to the composition of novels such as Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) as well as the publication of poetry — creative endeavors that promoted freedom and justice.
The cultivation of a capacious intellect made space and time for stirring the imagination, for contemplating life beyond debilitating struggle and exploitative toil, what historian Robin D.G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams.” This was not a utopian fantasy or an invisible world beyond. His works called for the enactment of a self-possessed life, unquestioned personhood, and the freedom of being.
Du Bois’ relentless curiosity about the world produced antiracist conviction and practice that emboldened survival during times of fracture and fatigue. The final partition of his 1947 book The World and Africa offers a compelling meditation that connects intellectual work with activist labor. The section, titled “The Message,” restated the book’s main argument about the immediate necessity of Black liberation across the world and the central need of all human beings to realize its global possibility in the future: “I dream of a world of infinitive and valuable variety; not in the laws of gravity or atomic weights, but in human variety in height and weight, color and skin, hair and nose and lip.”
Du Bois’ historical imagination pursued what he called a “realm of true freedom: in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination; in gift, aptitude, and genius — all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build into it, all wealth of inborn individuality.” He stated that “each effort to stop this freedom of being is a blow at democracy — that real democracy which is reservoir and opportunity… There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even Peace.”
Du Bois’ words about freedom written at the end of World War II embody both the resilience of Black life and resistance to white supremacy. They express antiracist ideas and call for antiracist practices by imagining a world of racial justice and economic equality.
About the Author
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a sections editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.