His words spoke to our soul!
W.E.B. Du Bois, or William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, was one of the most prolific writers, teachers, sociologists, and activists of his time. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, to Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt. His father left when he was two, but his mother did her best, pushing him to become the first person in his extended family to attend high school.
After graduating, he attended Fisk University, the historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee, where he became editor of the student magazine, The Herald. Once leaving Fisk, DuBois received his master’s in History from Harvard University, then became the first Black person to receive a doctorate from the university in 1895. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” became his first book.
Du Bois was ahead of his time, using data to solve social issues for the Black community, and his writing, like “The Souls of Black Folk”, was seen as required reading in African African Studies. He was mentored by Ida Wells-Barnett, who shared his belief that Black people should aggressively demand civil rights. They worked together often and went on to become co-founders of the NAACP. He was a pan-Africanist who in 1908 came up with the idea for “Encyclopedia Africana”, gathering the history and achievements of people of African descent to create unity within the African diaspora. He worked on this for several decades, working through lack of funds and professional battles, but it was never finished.
In 1961, he left the country to live in Ghana at its president’s invitation and became a citizen there. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963, in Ghana and was given a state funeral.
His legacy lives on; below are some of our favorite quotes by the scholar who left an indelible mark on the world.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
“You are not and yet you are: your thoughts, your deeds, above all your dreams still live.”
“But what of Black women?… I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire.”
“We say easily, for instance, ‘The ignorant ought not to vote.’ We would say, ‘No civilized state should have citizens too ignorant to participate in government,’ and this statement is but a step to the fact: that no state is civilized which has citizens too ignorant to help rule it.”
“Reader of dead words who would live deeds, this is the flowering of my logic: I dream of a world of infinitive and valuable variety; not in the laws of gravity or atomic weights, but in human variety in height and weight, color and skin, hair and nose and lip. But more especially and far above and beyond this, is a realm of true freedom: in thought and dream, fantasy and imagination; in gift, aptitude, and genius—all possible manner of difference, topped with freedom of soul to do and be, and freedom of thought to give to a world and build into it, all wealth of inborn individuality. Each effort to stop this freedom of being is a blow at democracy—that real democracy which is reservoir and opportunity . . . There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even Peace.”
“Perhaps even higher than strength and art loom human sympathy and sacrifice as characteristic of Negro womanhood.”
“Perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic of current America is the attempt to reduce life to buying and selling. Life is not love unless love is sex and bought and sold. Life is not knowledge save knowledge of technique, of science for destruction. Life is not beauty except beauty for sale. Life is not art unless its price is high and it is sold for profit. All life is production for profit, and for what is profit but for buying and selling again?”
“But we do not merely protest; we make renewed demand for freedom in that vast kingdom of the human spirit where freedom has ever had the right to dwell:the expressing of thought to unstuffed ears; the dreaming of dreams by untwisted souls.”
“I believe in pride of race and lineage and self; in pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves.”
“The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get.”
“Undoubtedly among Negro voters there is a good deal of indifference and lack of knowledge concerning woman suffrage. We tend to oppose the principle because we do not like the reactionary attitude of most white women toward our problems. We must remember, however, we are facing a great question of right in which personal hatreds have no place. Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women suffrage; every argument for woman suffrage is an argument for Negro suffrage: both are great movements in democracy. There should be on the part of Negroes, absolutely no hesitation whenever and wherever responsible human beings are without voice in their government. The man of Negro blood who hesitates to do them justice is false to his race, his ideals and his country.”
“A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”
“But one thing is sure and that is the fact that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants have had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and have one long memory. The actual ties of heritage between the individuals of this group, vary with the ancestors that they have in common and many others: Europeans and Semites, perhaps Mongolians, certainly American Indians. But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa.”
“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.”
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechte