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W. E. B. Du Bois: Relevant as Ever

Working on both Berkshire’s upcoming African American Heritage in the Housatonic Valley and our soon-to-be-ready website,, I’ve been thinking a lot about W. E. B. Du Bois–Great Barrington’s most famous native son. In my book group, we just read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain about a bright, talented black man whose light skin gives him the chance to “pass” as white throughout his life. We discussed the decision that any number of African Americans may have wrestled with through the last century: whether to face a rascist society head-on or grab the chance to live without the barriers that prejudice brings.

None of us was sure what we would actually do if faced with this dilemma. But in his groundbreaking 1903 work, Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois makes it clear where he stands:

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking 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. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Although clearly wishing for a society in which color made no difference, Du Bois faced the world head on. As Martin Luther King Jr. reflected, “History cannot ignore W. E. B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths.”

4 thoughts on “W. E. B. Du Bois: Relevant as Ever

  1. I’m always awed by Du Bois’s prose. Living in Great Barrington, walking down to the office on a street he sledded on as a boy, it’s thrilling and yet quite incredible to think of him watching the same sunrise over East Mountain, the same swollen Housatonic river from the bridge on the other side of Main Street. His writing about Great Barrington is as beautiful, and precise, as the passage Marcy quotes here, and I only wish there were more of it.

  2. I’ve been to Great Barrington twice as a guest speaker and have studied DuBois’s life for 20 years.

    There are several reasons DuBois remains relevant. I would suppose that because standing up and crying out against oppression is an activity which is as timeless as the oppression which inspires it is key.

    Also, there comes once every other generation or so a person whose light shines so brightly that we can still see it years after the light is physically extinguished. DuBois’s life and vision are emblematic of this.

    I have argued for some time that a big reason for the continued relevance – keeping the “light” motif in mind is that discussions DuBois had with us a century ago are only now just being understood. Things he cared about, things he did, and our interpretations of them are being revisited everyday.

    There is more to say, but this is something upon which we can reflect until the next…

  3. Please visit our new Du Bois site: for much more about Du Bois’s life and work. We welcome comments and suggestions, and David Levinson is especially eager to hear from researchers and organizations focusing on Du Bois’s life and legacy.

  4. Jesse Lee Peterson’s SCAM is focused towards Booker T.Washington’s views on education for blacks, in debate with W.E.B Dubois: STRAIGHT UP: cheers for Washington, ZIPPO for Du Bois…
    Washington’s experience as a former slave triumphs over Du Bois perspective on what status’ blacks should retain in society. It seems as though Dubois in defense of “Pan Africanism” is not content of how blacks are misrepresented in society. Although Du Bois intentions are to give blacks a “name” in society, he preaches that their education should be segregated, away from the whites who would deviate blacks from reaching their full potential. Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson’s “Scam” puts into perspective the state of the black Americans in today’s society. The Pan Africanism movement introduced by Dubois is in effect the downfall of the black race. The need to separate from the white American society, and hold onto hatred to America has crippled the black community, distracting them from becoming a successful race in America. Instead of separating blacks from whites, Booker T. Washington had another idea, teaching blacks practical skills, enabling them to contribute and succeed in American society. Dubois preached protest and agitation putting up a wall between the whites and blacks that has done a serious disservice to the black community to this day. The anti American sentiment with in the black race, still bickering about reparations and mistreatment has not gotten the black community any further along. Booker T. Washington preached that hard work, learning practical skills, and promoting racial peace would be the key to delivering the black race from bondage. What happened to the black race throughout American history is inexcusable on the part of the white race, however filling blacks with hate, sorrow, and anti American attitude, will only continue to hold the race back and limit the great potential they have proven capable of achieving.

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