A black and white photo of W.E.B Du Bois.
Image Source: National Museum of African American History and Culture / the Herndon Foundation

The Continuing Relevance of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Work

The day before the March on Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois passed away at the age of 95, closing decades of groundbreaking organizing and scholarship. A brief glance at Du Bois’ biography reveals him as one of the founders of not only the NAACP but the discipline of sociology (ThoughtCo). 

Du Bois coined the concept of “double consciousness” to describe the psychological burden of being a Black American (NAACP). He also developed the theory of the “psychological wage” paid to white workers. In an incredibly influential text, he shared the provocative conclusion that it was the desertion en masse of enslaved peoples — a general strike — that took down the Confederacy and that the Civil War and Reconstruction are best understood as a workers’ revolution led by enslaved people (African American Intellectual History Society). 

He pioneered new methods in empirical social science and historiography (Stanford). Actively fighting against American racial capitalism, white supremacist violence, and imperialism were also lifelong commitments of Du Bois. Biography and texts both, in his case, prove treasure troves for those of us confronting the same problems today

The best way to make sense of Du Bois’ biography is by reading his own words. We’ve compiled excerpts from some of his books, articles, poems, and speeches below.


Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil

“I believe in Liberty for all men: the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.”


Black Reconstruction in America

“The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black as well as white, became free – were given schools and the right to vote – what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected? This was the great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States and continued in the minds of thinkers down through the slavery controversy. It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations.”


The Souls of Black Folk

“Daily the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression. The laws are made by men who have little interest in him; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration; and, finally, the accused law-breaker is tried, not by his peers, but too often by men who would rather punish ten innocent Negroes than let one guilty one escape.” 


My Country ‘Tis of Thee

My country tis of thee,

Late land of slavery,

         Of thee I sing.

Land where my father’s pride

Slept where my mother died,

From every mountain side

         Let freedom ring!

My native country thee

Land of the slave set free,

         Thy fame I love.

I love thy rocks and rills

And o’er thy hate which chills,

My heart with purpose thrills,

         To rise above.


The Souls of White Folk

“Here is a civilization that has boasted much. Neither Roman nor Arab, Greek nor Egyptian, Persian nor Mongol ever took himself and his own perfectness with such disconcerting seriousness as the modern white man. We whose shame, humiliation, and deep insult his aggrandizement so often involved were never deceived. We looked at him clearly, with world-old eyes, and saw simply a human thing, weak and pitiable and cruel, even as we are and were.

These super-men and world-mastering demi-gods listened, however, to no low tongues of ours, even when we pointed silently to their feet of clay. Perhaps we, as folk of simpler soul and more primitive type, have been most struck in the welter of recent years by the utter failure of white religion. We have curled our lips in something like contempt as we have witnessed glib apology and weary explanation. Nothing of the sort deceived us. A nation’s religion is its life, and as such white Christianity is a miserable failure.”


Address to the Nation

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”

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