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Undoing the Miseducation of Black America: W.E.B. DuBois

Welcome to HARLEM!!!
Are you black? Do you speak Spanish? How about Chinese? Arabic? Are you gay? Are you a girl? Do you live in the US? Do you have a nickname? If you answered yes to any combination of the above questions, chances are you probably have a good sense of what W.E.B. DuBois ("doo-boyz") meant when he referred to his African-American dual identity and you would probably like the two-named man Stephanie and I met yesterday in New York.

To many people he is known as Andrew Jackson, to others Sekous Molefi Baako, but no matter what you call him he will sure talk your ear off about W.E.B. DuBois and just how important he is to African-American history. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Andrew Jackson believes African Americans are born from two cultures and have two different souls: one African, the other American. For this reason, Andrew Jackson has a name that represents his American upbringing and another which celebrates his African heritage. His two names represent what African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois called his "twoness," his dual identity, his being a part of two different cultures, two different states of being. For Andrew and for many African-Americans, the use of two names is a way of remembering who he and his ancestors were and who he and his family are today. naacpapollo.jpg: Harlem's super famous Apollo Theatre!

So, just who WAS this W.E.B. DuBois? According to our friend, Sekou, and to lots of other Americans, W.E.B. DuBois was, perhaps, the most influential African American intellectual of the 20th century. He was a complicated and contradictory man who was born from 19th century Victorian ideals and grew into the revolutionary activism of the early 20th century. He claimed to support all of the arts so long as it furthered the African American experience, and yet he denounced Jazz, as a form of low culture. As an academic he understood the world as facts, yet as a novelist he understood it through emotions. Through all of his complexities, many still say he was single handedly responsible for the undoing of the miseducation of Black American at the beginning of the 20th century.

He was born in a small, predominantly white Massachusetts town and grew up there, in New England among whites, never gaining a strong sense of his African heritage. During his studies he noticed that his history and sociology courses were very white centered. In fact, when he learned about the history of the Civil War in school, he was taught that Reconstruction was an attempt on behalf of southern white plantation owners to escape from the savagery that slavery had brought upon THEM! Such wild distortions of history inspired DuBois to document the history and the sociology of the African American experience from a black perspective. He devoted himself to these sociological investigations, published extensively for more than sixteen years, and maintained his dream of creating African American encyclopedia. DuBois was personally dedicated to rewording US history and to giving it a black voice.

This home is where DuBois's heart is...and where he did all that studying

Because his talents as a sociologist and historian were unequaled, DuBois received much attention for his academic work and became the first African-American to graduate from Harvard in 1895. At the time DuBois believed social science could provide the knowledge to solve the race problems he witnessed in the US, but he soon became disenchanted with the worsening human rights violations against African-Americans and frustrated with the politics of the most influential black leader at the time, Booker T. Washington. Booker T., as I, Trekker Stephen will call him, urged blacks to ACCEPT discrimination and to elevate themselves through hard work and the respect of the dominant white culture. Although DuBois and Washington both wanted to elevate their African-American race, DuBois thought Booker T.'s policy of accommodation would never better the situation of American blacks. He did not think that the dominant white population would ever just allow blacks out of their sphere of subordination.

Culture Blend...the Pan African US flag embodies DuBois's idea of an African American dual identity.

After years of academic study, DuBois came to the conclusion that social change could only be accomplished through agitation and protest. In fact, DuBois insisted on agitation. He believed it was the social responsibility of intellectuals to make social movement happen and thought it should be their vital mission to teach the black community about their rights as human beings and to instill in them a pride in their heritage.

So, in the summer of 1905, DuBois put down his books and became an activist. He and 29 other prominent blacks met secretly in Niagara Falls and created a political manifesto calling for civil liberties and the abolition of racial discrimination. The Niagara Movement, as it became called, was a direct attack to the passive platform of Booker T. and was to be a militant group of activists dedicated to turning over the apple cart, if you will, and to actively pursuing equal rights. The movement drew immediate attention and soon grew into 30 different branches but because of a lack of funds and a permanent staff and because it opposed Booker T. the movement lost steam. The ideas that inspired the Niagara activists did not lose steam, though.

In fact, after the Springfield riots in 1908, when thousands of whites assaulted a small Black community in Illinois, the ideas that inspired the Niagara Movement became stronger than ever...so strong they started to attract white sympathizers and activists. After the riots, it became clear that many whites wanted to keep blacks in their place and that the black obedience advocated by Booker T. would never accomplish racial equality. Fearing even more dramatic race problems, DuBois and his Niagara activists joined up with several white liberals to form the bi-racial NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). After the failures of the Niagara movement to gain mass public support, DuBois accepted that social change and integration would require the cooperation of the white population. For him, the NAACP forged this middle road of interracial agreement and would oppose racism and work for the abolition of segregation in housing, education, and employment.

REVEALED...DuBois vision for an African-American encyclopedia

While working at the NAACP, he founded the organization's magazine for racial equality, The Crisis. As the research director and editor, DuBois found an avenue for spreading the word about racial injustice. In this role he was the primary propagandist for the black movement between 1910 and 1914. He articulated a Black cultural nationalism and encouraged the development of black literature and art. DuBois was, in fact, an instrumental figure in the Harlem Renaissance in so far as he published the works of Langston Hughes and other African-American literary figures.

Though one the organizations founders, DuBois grew to become one of the NAACP's biggest critics. After several years with the organization, he didn't feel that the organization was doing enough for the betterment of the race. He wanted more radical change and less emphasis on a system of legal advocacy and welfare. DuBois believed that the development of social programs and grass roots organizing would be more effective than the NAACP's bourgeois legislative agenda.

With this agenda in mind, DuBois became increasingly more activist minded and began to publish articles that were not necessarily aligned with the NAACP's policies. In fact, his Pan African and communist affiliations kept him on the outside of NAACP politics and the current civil rights movement. His critics in the organization soon began to argue that DuBois had gone too far left for them to carry out their legislative agenda, adequately. The NAACP, then in a financial crisis, could not support DuBois visions for The Crisis. It was important for the organization to support DuBois' removal from the NAACP because the organization was competing for the same support and resources as other Black movements at the time (like the Garveyites), and could not afford any internal troubles.

Like DuBois, cultural leader, Sekou Molefi Baako, seeks freedom through education

Not only did DuBois' views lead to his resignation from the NAACP, the organization he helped create, but they also invited the attention of McCarthyism, the 1950s political front dedicated to purging the American population of communism. During the McCarthy hearings in 1951, he was indicted as an unregistered communist agent. He was eventually acquitted but he had already become disillusioned with the United States. He soon moved out of the country and, later, renounced his American citizenship.

DuBois fans like our friend, Sekou Molefi Baako, feel he was significant to the African-American experience because he was an intellectual whose work and studies gave the black community an authentic history. He is a symbol of intellectual independence and teaches us "that it's cool to be intelligent". DuBois grew up learning nothing about his race or race relatons but he soon became the first African American to graduate from Harvard, invented the field of African American sociology, and founded the most influential civil rights organization in the 20th century. He rose above his circumstances, freed his mind, and created his own life, just like we have the chance to do everyday.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: The 1908 Race Riots
Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history
Stephanie - Two nations, one country