The Color Line (Review Essay)Historians in the News
tags: African American history, book reviews, WEB Du Bois
Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. She is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History. Her latest book is On Juneteenth. (August 2021)
W.E.B. Du Bois carried himself as if he were “the Negro race.” Throughout his very long life—ninety-five years—his personal successes and victories were the successes and victories of all African-Americans. The problems he encountered as a Black man were the problems of Black people the world over. This way of thinking started early. His childhood in New England—Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts—introduced him to the troubled racial dynamics of the United States and to a way of coping with them. In his most acclaimed work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois described both the moment he discovered that he was on the vulnerable side of the racial divide and his response to that realization:
In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.
As he grew older and took note of the “dazzling opportunities” placed before white people, Du Bois decided that he would “wrest” some of those prizes from them. Whatever innate competitiveness he possessed was sharpened and directed by the experience of being treated as different and, on some occasions, as inferior.
In the decades that followed his Great Barrington youth, Du Bois won many of the privileges and honors that the world had seemed to reserve for whites. He went from one scholarly and professional triumph to another—graduating from Fisk University, the University of Berlin, and Harvard University, where he was the first Black person to earn a Ph.D.; becoming one of the founders of a new field, sociology; and in 1909 helping to start a new organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He wrote dozens of articles and books, and edited magazines. He was a walking refutation of the concept of Black inferiority.
Throughout his career, Du Bois believed it was important to find and showcase the accomplishments of other Blacks like him—though, of course, there really was no one, of any race, quite like him. A born scholar, preternaturally disciplined and driven by belief in the power of rationality and evidence, he was convinced, particularly during his early career, that examples of Black achievement would serve as effective answers to the scientific racism that had become ascendant in the nineteenth century. Numbers mattered. Person by person, fact by fact, information about Blacks of ingenuity would put the lie to the doctrine of white supremacy. That talented Blacks managed to excel even in the face of the depredations of Jim Crow and lynching was further proof of the worthiness and genius of the race.
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