WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT DU BOIS was born on February 23,1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He passed away in the newly independent African nation of Ghana on August 27, 1963. This year is the one hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of his birth. It is an occasion to celebrate his life, study his work and reflect upon our common future.
W.E.B. Du Bois is an extraordinary figure in African American and world history. He is America’s greatest thinker and one of the most consequential minds of the modern epoch. His scholarship and ideas reshaped the landscape of human knowledge. He revolutionized knowledge, contributing to the advance of human consciousness, especially among the darker races. Contrary to European claims, Du Bois insisted that Africa and Asia are the wheels of human civilization. He therefore reasoned, to stand with Africa and Asia was to stand with humanity. As a freedom fighter he stood unconditionally with the colonized darker races of the world and with working people in their struggles for freedom, social justice and world peace.
Perhaps no thinker has contributed more to our scientific understanding of white supremacy, slavery, colonialism and their connections to capitalism, war and poverty. He did more, however, than analyze the problems faced by humanity; he sought solutions to them. In this respect he had utmost confidence in people and their capacity to solve the problems of our time. Knowledge, in his understanding, should serve freedom and must be anchored to the struggles of common women and men.
He once commented that the mystic spell of Africa is all over America producing its best men and women. That mystic spell produced Du Bois. It is from Africa that he descended, it is to humanity that he made his greatest contributions. To Africa and the darker nations he contributed the gifts of scientific knowledge, scholarship and a life-long commitment. Humanity could not understand itself, Du Bois reasoned, without understanding Africa. Moreover, humanity could not be truly free until Africans were free.
This recognition led inevitably to his idea of the unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggles against white supremacy and colonialism; what is in essence the intercivilizational unity of humanity’s majority. This unity in the cause of human liberation was for him an expression of true democracy. His deep commitment to anti-racist and peoples’ democracy drew him to conclude that the problems of the oppressed races and nations could not be solved by capitalism, and insisted upon a socialist remaking of the world economy.
Du Bois thought on a grand scale. He seemed unable to think in any but colossal terms. He conceived of the solutions to humanity’s problems in global terms. He envisioned the struggle for human rights as a continuum reaching back to the most ancient of times and into the furthest reaches of our contemporary imaginations. Black humanity was an integral part of humanity; therefore the liberation of Africans was part of the liberation of humanity.
The central concept of his sociological and historical research was the Black worker. The Black worker was for him both a theoretical concept and the manifestation of the main collective agent of social transformation. His discovery of the Black worker as a distinct force in history was a special contribution to and development of the notion of class conflict as first developed by radical European thinkers and socialists. He theorized gender, Black women’s oppression and democracy through the lenses of the Black worker.
He rethought his earlier notion that a talented tenth would constitute a leadership class for Black folk. His new idea was that a guiding one-hundredth would lead the race; its members would come equally from the Black working class and intellectuals.
Du Bois insisted upon applying scientific methods, careful data collection and analysis and reasoned argumentation to all social problems. As a social scientist he was more than a pioneer; he is an example of how science should be done in the face of intractable problems. An extraordinary feature of his scientific practice was the manner in which he combined literature, fiction and poetry to scientific investigation. These combined methods of investigation gave to many of his discoveries, observations and predictions a prophetic character. For instance, in 1900 at the First Pan African Conference held in London Du Bois proclaimed, “The Problem of the twentieth century is the Problem of the color line”. Not only was it accurate for the twentieth century, it remains so for the twenty-first. His probing the modalities of the Black mind led to his idea of double consciousness, or two-ness, in the ways that Black folk see themselves in the world. His study of the problem of whiteness and white identity as emerging from the special psychological benefits flowing to white folk from white identity; he called this a wage for whiteness.
Moreover, he saw whiteness and empire as barriers to the discovery of truth. The white world’s commitments to truth, reason and science were undermined by their stronger commitments to whiteness, white privilege and colonialism. He questioned the morality, religion and ethical clarity of those who were silent about or active participants in racial oppression. He concluded that morality and truth were best expressed through the striving of Black folk, rather than the hollow pontifications of whites. These investigations led him to conclude that for real democracy as opposed to that democracy hollowed out by white supremacy, to be realized and for white people themselves to be free, whiteness must be abolished.
Du Bois insisted that art, literature and music must serve freedom and democracy. As such, they must be anchored to the struggles of the oppressed for emancipation. Art that is for individual profit, or upholds or obscures the nature of oppression, has abandoned the purpose of art. He thus called for an artistic and cultural revolution among Black folk.
All of this considered, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois stands as a figure of world historic significance because he was uncompromising in the struggles to emancipate the oppressed and bring peace and justice to our planet. He never retreated from or abandoned the battlefield of resistance. In celebrating Du Bois we celebrate a scholar, scientist, poet and freedom fighter. He is a man not just of the 20th century, he is a figure of our century. In celebrating his work and legacy we uphold the fight for justice in the twenty-first century.
In this spirit we call upon the people of Philadelphia, the nation and the world to embrace and celebrate William Edward Burghardt Du Bois as part and parcel of our commitments to struggle and as an expression of confidence in our common future.
We salute Du Bois’s scholarship, uncompromising commitment to peace and justice, but more than anything we embrace the fact that rather than popularity he stood for principle and he strove to be on the right side of history. In the end we uphold his belief in humanity and his moral courage.
For more information on the Year of Du Bois in Philadelphia, please visit: https://www.yearofdubois.org/