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The great educator and humanitarian W.E.B. Du Bois. (photo public domain)
The publication of “Black History Month: What Would DuBois Do?” on AOL’s Black Voices February 23 serves as a significant indicator of how relevant and powerful the teachings of the great Du Bois remain. Though not as celebrated in the United States as such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Du Bois in his own right had every bit as much of impact upon the world as they.
While we cannot know with certainty how Du Bois might have responded to such unfolding history as the revolution in the Middle East, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the International Year for People of African Descent, or America’s tug of war over States’ rights and Federal government responsibilities, the following excerpt from The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois provides some sense of how he might:
Du Bois, History, and the World
The first half of the 20th century in the United States and much of the world was an era when racial and ethnic differences determined even the most uncontrived actions. Stepping into a restaurant, boarding a train, engaging in sexual relationships, or running or voting for a public office were all ruled by notions of differences between groups. Race remained an element that tempted society in general and historians in particular to half-truths, shortsightedness, and outright falsifications.
However, as Du Bois noted in his many observations on the nature of history, it was important to realize that the record of human interaction was much more than an account of entanglements between people with varying shades of skin color. It was also the log of humankind’s ability or inability to rise above age-old phobias, the persistent pain of ignorance, and the perennial disgrace of perennial war.
Men and women recognizing history for the master teacher that it was, would do well to sit at its feet and absorb the many valuable lessons it had to share, no matter how hurtful or embarrassing some might be. Historians who willfully employed history (and one could easily add religion to or substitute it for this equation) to magnify the achievements of one group while diluting those of another, undermined history’s potential “to guide the world nearer and nearer that perfection of human life for which we all long.” By adhering to the details of “the things that actually happened in the world,” it becomes apparent enough that glorious achievements and dismal failures filled entire chapters in every group’s story.
A sincere respect for the integrity of historical truth also made it possible to acknowledge that the domination of one group by another--be the division by race or gender or class or religion--was not the only possibility for nations in the 20th century. That such domination had occurred in history was irrefutable. However, equally irrefutable were instances of cooperation between different social groups and those moments of invention and advancement not characterized at all by group interaction but born of the labors of individuals within groups. Women had been leaders as well as followers. Blacks had been world travelers and heads of kingdoms as well as slaves. Europeans and Asians had engaged in peaceful trade as well as ruinous war.
In short, the greatest lesson from the master teacher history was very possibly an expanded awareness of the options for human interaction available to the world. The startling gift of modern life was the ability to choose from an array of possibilities with an informed intelligence and thus extend the record of humanity’s glory rather than glorify the record of its infamy and annihilation.