REMEMBERING THE IMPACT OF AN HISTORIC VISIONARY AND CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
This year marks five decades since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As a touchstone for the civil rights movement, it is remembered most commonly for the soaring oratory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll be moved by the songs of Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, rallied by the fiery rhetoric of SNCC Chairman John Lewis, and inspired by the magisterial photographs of 250,000 people mobilizing to demand desegregated schools, fair housing, and a livable wage.
As we reflect on the meaning and consequences of the March on Washington, let us pause and reach even deeper into its archive. Here we’ll find a fleeting remark packed with meaning for our contemporary moment. Towards the end of a long day, executive secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, invited the attendees to recognize a very recent loss. The night before, across the Atlantic Ocean in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95, Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had died.
“Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose to take another path,” Wilkins intoned from a lectern soon to be occupied by Rabbi Joachim Prinz and then Dr. King, “it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the century, his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you wanna read something that applies to 1963, go back, and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois published in 1903.”
Indeed, Souls, and all of W. E. B. Du Bois’s extraordinary life’s work makes for as profound a reading experience today as it must have in 1963. An astonishing number of contemporary authors are inspired by his persistent commitment to effectively understand the meaning of race, blackness, freedom, and democracy, inclined always towards justice for the “world’s darker peoples.”
In the last decade, nearly one thousand books, theses, and dissertations have taken up Du Bois in one way or another, complementing the scores of new editions of his own now canonical writings.
The year 2012 alone saw the publication of dozens of scholarly books considering Du Bois in relation to such themes as race and photography, the relationship between race and religion, histories of American socialism and American music, philosophies of education, and the persistent legacies of slavery and debt.
How should we account for this wide-ranging interest? Why does Du Bois matter so much today?
Clearly, one reason is that, unlike so many key figures enacting what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams”— those political projects that envision more egalitarian forms of justice—Du Bois survived. He survived multiple professional exclusions, debilitating illnesses, and persistent state repression that only increased with age.
He wrote over 20 books (including four autobiographies), supervised a groundbreaking series of sociological studies of rural black life (1897-1910), edited the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis (1910-1934), wrote a groundbreaking history called Black Reconstruction in the U.S. (1935) and embarked on an encyclopedic study of Africa and its diasporas.
He was instrumental in petitioning the UN on behalf of African-American human rights and fought vociferously to curtail the development of nuclear weapons. Across this gargantuan oeuvre, we learn of the dynamic thought and political acuity of a radical pragmatist, someone who, in the words of Amiri Baraka, was “constantly in the act of changing himself as the open reflection of an ever changing world.”
At the same time, echoing forth to us from the Jim Crow violence of racial segregation in which Souls was written is the incisive claim that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
You cannot understand the modern world, Du Bois argues, without understanding the crucible of race in which it has been forged. For a nation built through the dehumanizing regimes of European colonization, chattel slavery, gratuitous violence, and the convict-lease system, Souls provides a kaleidoscopic lens to view the glaring contradictions to American freedom.
Today, we only need to look at the highly differentiated distribution of wealth and health, or the demographics of the 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, or the 600,000 people that move through its immigrant detention facilities, to see the contemporary explanatory power of Du Bois’s formulation.
Souls also names a powerful vision of double consciousness that emerged from a centuries-long subjection to white supremacy. Black people, Du Bois argued, carry a “sense of always look at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
He recognized that such brutalizing metrics produce radical limits on how the nation views and values itself, limits buttressed by dominant (and seemingly “neutral”) scholarly assumptions that Souls forcibly contests.
At the same time, double consciousness enables what Du Bois calls “second sight,” such that black people have knowledge of the deeper truths of American modernity, its violent contradictions as well as its underutilized emancipatory resources. After all, “we who are dark,” Du Bois wrote in the 1920s, “can see America in a way that white Americans cannot.”
We return to Du Bois because Souls of Black Folk was the beginning of his work, but not its culmination. We return not in spite of his choosing “another path,” as Wilkins intimated in 1963, but precisely because of it. That path led Du Bois to criticize what he saw as the foreshortened horizon of liberal integration epitomized by the March on Washington.
He resolutely refused America’s Cold War limitations on forms of political thought that described freedom solely through U.S. capitalism’s market-based lexicon, drawing instead on the thick political vocabularies of African and Asian anti-colonialism and Soviet communism.
At age 93, this “other path” would catapult Du Bois’s expatriation to the newly independent nation of Ghana, where he resided with his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, to work with the esteemed anti-colonial leader Kwame Nkrumah. (When Nkrumah was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup after Dr. Du Bois’s death, Ms. Graham Du Bois joined her son, David, in Egypt, where they together reported on the revolutionary dynamics linking Arab and African struggles for liberation.)
Most pressingly, five decades after his passing and his conspicuous absence at the March on Washington, we dwell with Du Bois to recognize that fighting for a world without exploitation in the United States has always demanded an international vision attuned to the intertwined violences of race, imperialism, and war.
Du Bois’s own late-in-life revision to the color-line thesis is especially prophetic in this regard. “[T]oday,” he wrote in the 1953 preface to the Jubilee edition of Souls, “I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today, [such that] war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.”
Here, Du Bois highlights the deep cleavages around who has access to conditions of peace and who is subjected to conditions of war. Contending with such divisions would require reckoning with those lacerating circuits of oppression, dispossession, and dehumanization that centuries of European imperial violence and trans-Atlantic chattel slavery have carved into the world.
Today, another exceptional African-American Harvard graduate, another veritable member of Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth,” has recently been elected to his second term as president of the United States. Under his watch, we have witnessed a resolute commitment to liberal integration (now more often termed “inclusion”)— carving out possible pathways to legal status for the nation’s 11-million undocumented immigrants, for instance, or expanding access to civil rights for gays and lesbians.
At the same time, one also sees a tortuous prison regime that locks up and locks out millions of black, brown, and poor white people; the exponential expansion of an immigrant detention and deportation regime unparalleled in American history; the deployment of an open-ended campaign of aerial warfare to police the homeland’s globalized borders; and the enablement of freedom’s promise to be dictated by corporate investment.
When the brutalities of a society saturated with such forms of violence have been rendered banal, we turn to Du Bois to plumb the thick emancipatory dreams persistently articulated by and for the world’s darker peoples, to draw on their searing legacies and insights. We need Du Bois today, perhaps more than ever.