The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

I had to be reminded that 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest thinkers of the 20thcentury:  W.E.B. Dubois.

Du Bois passed away the day before the legendary 1963 March on Washington.  In fact, a few months prior to his death he wrote a solidarity statement with those engaged in the march.  A brief and reluctant tribute was offered for him to the marchers by then NAACP leader Roy Wilkins. 

I was too young to have been at the 1963 March on Washington, but Du Bois’ name was quite familiar to my household, and not simply due to his historic significance.  Du Bois had been a family friend; in fact, he and my great-grandfather, the renowned pre-Harlem Renaissance poet, author, and anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite, had not only been good friends, but were also colleagues teaching at Atlanta University.  In visiting the Du Bois Archives at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst recently I was reminded of that friendship.

Regardless of the family friendship, Du Bois stood as a critical figure for my family, though I do remember my grandmother describing him as “distant.”  This reference remained in my memory over the years because it helped to summarize a piece of Dubois that would, in some respects, haunt him for much of his life.

Du Bois was as brilliant as he was complicated.  His life and career were far from a straight line.  Though there are certainly consistencies, he was not above changing his mind and, in some cases, admitting error.  He was as committed to social justice as he was contradictory.  In many ways one or another version of Du Bois’ notion of the “Talented Tenth” clung to him despite the fact that he passionately believed in social movements and struggle.  He supported US involvement in World War I, despite vehemently—and correctly—denouncing it upon its conclusion.  He advanced Pan Africanism while at the same time allowing himself to be played by the US establishment in the efforts to destroy Marcus Garvey.  That said, his remarkable work on the Reconstruction period in US history, his deep analysis of colonialism and race, his anti-Cold War stand, all made him the giant that he is recognized as having become.  And, as he aged, despite a certain “distance”—and what some would characterize as elitism—one can certainly argue that he prioritized social movements and the activists who made them possible.

 While Dubois was an activist, he was fundamentally a scholar and theorist; in some respects a political architect.  A Black Internationalist through his bones, his pre-1945 Pan-Africanism was not mass movement in character, this to be noted despite the historic significance of the Pan-African Congress movement that he helped to bring into being and nurture.  The Pan-Africanism articulated by Marcus Garvey, by contrast, was certainly not as far left-leaning as that advanced by Du Bois, but it achieved a mass character that has never been rivaled, at least among US African Americans.

The focus of this essay is on Du Bois as Black Internationalist, one of the many components of his life and career.

Du Bois attended the 1900 Pan African Conference held in London, which had been led by the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams. It was, however, in the Pan-African Congresses, specifically the first four beginning in 1919, where Du Bois was central, and in the fifth, celebrated.  

Du Bois’ internationalism did not start in 1919, but World War I and its aftermath had a decisive impact on his development.  This is illustrated in the final/revised version of his The Souls of White Folk. One of my favorite Du Bois pieces, this is a passionate, biting critique of imperialism and colonialism, but also very much a critique of the workers’ movements in the colonial countries that, in most cases, saw their interests in line with imperialism.  The essay reads, in many respects, as if it were written just yesterday and can be used as a jumping off point for discussions regarding race, class and imperialism.

The politics of the Pan-African Congress movement evolved over time.  It was significant that the origins of this movement were largely to be found outside of Africa and particularly in the Western Hemisphere.  It was a movement for emancipation on multiple levels. Yet it was only one part of the larger Pan-Africanist movement. As mentioned earlier, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association represented a multi-class, largely Western Hemispheric expression of a complicated Pan-Africanism that was anti-colonial, emigrationist, but far from anti-capitalist.  Indeed, Garvey proposed that Britain and the USA support an emigrationist movement of people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere back to Africa, a sort of Liberia or Sierra Leone on a much larger scale.  There was, in addition, the working class-centered Pan-Africanism that was articulated by the Communist International, documented brilliantly by Hakim Adi in his book, Pan-Africanism and Communism.

Du Bois’ Black Internationalism was complicated in respects other than in his approach to building the Pan-African Congress movement.  Du Bois was, like much of the colonial and semi-colonial world (frequently referenced during the early to mid-20th century as the “darker races”), taken with and inspired by the growth of Japan as a major world power.  The impact of the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) on the “darker races” cannot be overstated.  It obliterated the notion of white superiority. And, given that imperial Japan presented itself—ironically—as a people drawing from other people, their racism towards other Asians was frequently obscured.

Du Bois somehow missed the racist and imperialist character of Japan.  Much like others who have fallen into the notion of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he failed to see, at least until the early 1940s, the nefarious objectives of Japan.  In that sense, Du Bois misread the complicated character of the forces that had an objective interest in opposing Western domination.  The reality is that these forces had an assortment of reasons to do so.

The post-World War II environment brought forward both the continuity and expansion of Du Bois’ Black Internationalism, while also accompanied by his increased involvement in domestic US politics.  His role as a leader of the Council on African Affairs—along with Paul Robeson—represented some of the best of left-wing Black Internationalism.  Though the CAA was focused on Africa, it understood the importance of the larger struggle of the “darker races” including, but not limited to, the independence movement on the Indian subcontinent.

The immediate aftermath of World War II also witnessed the 5th Pan African Congress, this one held in Manchester, Britain.  Du Bois was a major figure at this Congress, but was not the leading convener, though his leadership was recognized.  This Congress, in contrast with the first four, struck a different tone and was very much focused on the question of independence for the colonies, though expressing clear solidarity with people of African descent outside of the Continent.

Adding to the post-war moment, Du Bois’ 1947 book, The World and Africa, was an exceptional collection of insightful essays on different aspects of the questions of race, colonization and the past and future of Africa.

The Cold War, beginning in 1946, not only repressed Dubois, but was an instrument to suppress progressive social movements—internally and externally—and reshape the way in which the US public saw US foreign policy.  One critical angle on this was the matter of colonialism and decolonization.  A related point was the manner in which US African Americans understood the continent of Africa.

Though the USA had articulated a politics of democracy and decolonization under President Franklin Roosevelt, the politics of the Cold War reshaped that discussion.  The USA held the question of a movement’s attitude towards the Soviet Union—and later China—as a litmus test for its legitimacy in the eyes of Washington.  Thus, to the extent that individuals, including but certainly not limited to Dubois, took a stand for consistent decolonization and support for the forces leading such struggles, irrespective of whether they were communists or other leftists, such individuals encountered more than a jaundiced eye from the US political establishment.  Du Bois was blacklisted, along with Robeson, and placed in the never-never land of internal exile until he was ultimately able to regain his passport and relocate to Ghana.

Du Bois was a Black Internationalist and Pan-Africanist.  His internationalism, though highly focused on people of African descent, was never limited to people of African descent.  To a great extent that fact is what made him particularly dangerous to the US political establishment since it had been the aim of the US political establishment in the Cold War to refocus US African Americans away from the anti-colonial struggles generally, and African liberation movements in particular.  Du Bois continued to draw connections, as part of his internationalism, among other things applauding the Chinese Revolutions and its efforts to not only break from its semi-colonial status, but to embark on an alternative development path.  Such an approach was unacceptable to the US political establishment and efforts were undertaken to not only repress Du Bois, but to suppress such discussion.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, unless someone was reading a publication from the Communist Party, USA, or reading the Muhammad Speaks (of the Nation of Islam), and, perhaps, a few other smaller groups, Africa was largely presented as the land of Tarzan and of backward Black peoples south of the Sahara, and corrupt and scheming Arabs and Azawad (Berbers) in northern Africa. The efforts of Du Bois and his colleagues to break that mold would only bring about success years after Du Bois passed away.

Du Bois not only understood the global nature of the “color line” but undertook continuous efforts to challenge it. Those efforts, over the course of the post-World War I period, increasingly moved him politically leftward, as he articulated an analysis and politics that challenged imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy.  At the same time, Dubois was insufficiently attuned to the class forces at work in the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements, class forces that would in far too many cases, undermine efforts at full and consistent emancipation or, as in the case of pre-1945 Japan, were not beyond wearing a mask in order to disguise their real intentions.

The courage and brilliance of Du Bois make his life and work worth studying and celebrating.  Someone who could have taken so many other paths, paths that would have been quite acceptable to the US political establishment, chose the road less traveled.  And for that we owe him so much.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a past president of TransAfrica Forum and a longtime writer and trade unionist.  His most recent work is a political/murder mystery, The Man Who Changed Colors, from Hardball Press.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Zillah Eisenstein: Newest Misogyny/Ies

By Michael Ruse: Anti-Vaxxers And The Covid Crisis: The Sorry Story Of The Pernicious Influence Of A Pseudo-Science

By Rev. Matthew V. Johnson, Jr: A Letter Of Concern To Black Clergy Regarding “Cop City”

By Firoze Manji: Amílcar Cabral And The Politics Of Culture And Identity

By Andrew Feenberg: The “New” Lukács

By Bill Fletcher, Jr: The Continued Relevance Of W.E.B. Du Bois, Sixty Years On

By Philip Green: On Liberalism

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