W.E.B Du Bois and the Lingering Effects of Slavery

In January 1957, Black scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote an article titled “Negro History Centenaries” for the radical periodical National Guardian. He encouraged commemoration of anniversaries “which deeply affect the history of the Negro race and of his country.” These included the centennial of the Dred Scot Supreme Court decision that year and the centenary of abolitionist John Brown’s death, which would occur in 1959.

In Du Bois’ mind, emphasizing Black history noted the “cultural tie” African-descended people had to American history. The 19th century anniversaries he suggested commemorating had profound contemporary significance for Black freedom in 1957, a critical moment in the modern Civil Rights Movement. Du Bois did not call for a simple remembrance that something happened but instead advocated for the use of current events as a lens through which to mark an historical anniversary.

Du Bois’ call for historical commemoration reminds us of the brilliance of his intellectual achievements and scholarship. It also illustrates how Du Bois produced historical knowledge and used historical analysis to speak to the pressing concerns of the times through which he lived, a practice that remains relevant today.

Revisiting a small sample of Du Bois’ writing on enslavement and its legacy is one way to engage in the thoughtful and analytical historical commemoration he called for in 1957. Du Bois’ Harvard Ph.D. thesis, published in 1896 as The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, provides substantial content with which to wrestle. The historical profession positively reviewed the work, and its intellectual innovation cut a new path for the academic study of enslavement, which continues to advance digital tools for historical analysis.

The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade documents how — at the very moment the United States promoted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by deploying the collective language of “We the People” — state and federal lawmakers maneuvered constitutionally to extend the practice of trading enslaved people. They crafted statutes that denied the full humanity of African-descended people. Combining rigorous scientific and quantitative analysis with historical narrative, Du Bois’ book closed with a literary apostrophe that restated its arguments while bringing the matter of enslavement to a point of ethical concern. A section titled “The Lesson for Americans” presented a stinging critique of the nation’s founders.

It identified the “moral, political, and economic monstrosity” of enslavement that “arose principally from the cupidity and carelessness of our ancestors.” Du Bois argued that calculated greed coupled with anti-Blackness infused the nation’s genesis with crippling compromises of moral standing.

While considering the conditions through which he lived in the late 1800s (namely the presence of Jim Crow and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision handed down the same year that he published this book), Du Bois commended critical study of enslavement’s history by attending to the questions of justice and equity such an analysis raised. “Although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, any social evil to grow,” he stated. “From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.”

A new edition of The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade appeared in 1954 when Du Bois was 86 years old. In it, he wrote an “Apologia” that considered over a half-century of intervening scholarship and political reflection. He examined psychological conditions of oppression and liberation and by reading Karl Marx on economic democracy, and regretted not including a fuller exploration of economic factors and class struggle in his book’s first edition. However, from the vantage point of 1954 — another signature moment in the modern black freedom struggle — the question of America’s future in light of its history of ethical compromises concerning racial and economic justice was far from certain.

According to Du Bois, a nation’s “moral cowardice” that dodges the economic and political consequences of enslavement’s “afterlife” spells an uncertain, and potentially disastrous future. The degraded economic, psychic, social, and political conditions produced by anti-Blackness have extended well beyond slavery’s legal termination into the present day. The recognition of those conditions, however, provides the very possibility of liberation’s full realization.

What enslavement’s legacy means at this moment in America is fraught with tension, controversy, and misinformation. Recent comments by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam reveal extreme ignorance while they lay bare the lies in which whiteness so readily traffics. This moment also presents space to tackle questions about reparations for descendants of enslaved people beyond mere rhetorical gestures or empty symbolism. It requires a robust reckoning with the “moral debts” of enslavement’s long shadow.

Du Bois’s question that concluded The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade demands as much attention today as it prompted over a century ago, most especially in 2019 as the nation wrestles with some of the darkest corridors of its past: “How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised?”

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.