Decades after his death, W.E.B Du Bois stands as one of the great intellectual giants of the 20th Century. Born in Massachussets after the Civil War, Du Bois became the first Black man to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, and was one of the founders of the NAACP and the Niagara Movement. He authored works such as The Souls of Black Folk, The Philadelphia Negro, and Black Reconstruction in America, and is widely considered to be one of the founders of American sociology. Du Bois’s brilliance extended beyond the academy to the world of politics. He denounced accommodationists such as Booker T. Washington, thundered against Jim and Jane Crow and the reign of terror in the South with its segregation, race laws, and lynch mobs, along with the evils of imperialism and colonialism and the inherent cruelty and injustices of capitalism. A supporter of the Russian Revolution and a socialist, he would be swept up in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, becoming an outlaw in his own country, hauled into court at the age of 83 and barely escaping imprisonment. He left the United States in 1960 for Ghana to die in exile. The Chris Hedges Report examines some of Du Bois’s fundamental ideas with his biographer Dr. Gerald Horne, who holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at The University of Houston.
Dr. Gerald Horne is an acclaimed historian and professor at The University of Houston. He is the author of dozens of books, including his most recent works The Counter Revolution of 1836: Texas Slavery & Jim Crow and the Roots of American Fascism, and The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism int he Long Sixteenth Century.
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The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome to the Chris Hedges report. W. E. B. Du Bois was the first Black to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, and the Niagara Movement. And one of the seminal scholars of American history, author of work such as The Souls of Black Folk; The Philadelphia Negro, his ethnographic survey of Black life that established the field of urban sociology; and Black Reconstruction in America, a work that radically altered our understanding of the social and political struggles for democracy by Black Americans in the post-bellum South, and which many consider one of the finest works of American history ever produced.
He was as fearless as he was brilliant. He denounced accommodationists such as Booker T. Washington, thundered against Jim and Jane Crow and the reign of terror in the South with its segregation, race laws, and lynch mobs, along with the evils of imperialism and colonialism and the inherent cruelty and injustices of capitalism. A supporter of the Russian revolution and a socialist, he would be swept up in the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, becoming an outlaw in his own country, hauled into court at the age of 83 and barely escaping imprisonment.
He left the United States in 1960 for Ghana to die in exile. Du Bois, like all great intellectuals, gave us the vocabulary to explain ourselves to ourselves. He rivaled, or was rivaled, perhaps, only at the time by John Dewey, although Dewey lacked Du Bois’s understanding of the mechanics of empire and the dark machinations of white supremacy. We will today examine some of Du Bois’s fundamental ideas with his biographer, professor Gerald Horne, the Moores Professor of History and African American studies at the University of Houston.
So Gerald, Du Bois writes that Blacks in America are gifted with what he calls a second sight or a double consciousness. And I wondered if you could explain that, and perhaps even explain his very controversial concept of the talented 10th.
With regard to the former point, he’s referring to the fact that Black Americans have roots in Africa. And as many anthropologists subsequently have tended to suggest, when our ancestors were handcuffed, manacled, and dragged across the Atlantic, they did not necessarily leave behind all of their culture. You see this, obviously, with regard to music and dance. Linguists have suggested that you see it reflected in the kind of English that Black Americans, at least many of them, tend to speak. One of the sights that Du Bois is referring to is this knowledge of Africa, this African ancestral and cultural background. And of course the other sight is insight into the United States. Insight into settler colonialism. Insight into white supremacy. All of which were necessary in order to survive, if not maintain ones sanity.
Likewise, with regard to the talented 10th, it was a flexible concept when initially devised. It seemed to refer to Du Bois’s overemphasis on education and the university and college experience as helping to develop a cadre of individuals who would lead the Africans in North America out of the wilderness that is North America. But as time passed — And this was indicative of Du Bois’s thinking — That particular concept tended to evolve to the point where, towards the end of its life, it tended to resemble a vanguard, the kind of vanguard that you see proclaimed by the Black Panther Party when it comes to in existence in Oakland in 1966, or vanguard parties, which you see all across the planet earth.
So that particular evolution of that thought is also indicative of the evolution of one W. E. B. Du Bois, who, as you correctly suggested, had a socialist ethos based in no small measure on the fact that as early as the 1890s — And recall he was born in 1868 — He had matriculated at the University of Berlin in Germany, with Germany having perhaps the most advanced socialist movement of that era. And as early as 1912 — And this, of course, after having returned to the United States and founded the NAACP — He had become a member of the Socialist Party. And that was not unusual, with regard to founders of the NAACP, particularly the non-Black founders, such as the feminist leader Mary White Ovington. And it’s sad and unfortunate that association with the NAACP with socialism, in a sense, has fallen victim to the ravages of the Cold War and the ravages of the post-1945 Red Scare.
In the end, he was pushed out by the NAACP, wasn’t he?
That is correct, that he was pushed out twice, in fact. The first time in 1934, although you may be able to say that instead of being pushed, he leaped. That is to say there was an ideological conflict with the leadership of the NAACP circa 1934, and that led to his first departure. But then the departure no doubt that you are referring to takes place in 1948, when you have this pivotal presidential election involving the democratic incumbent, Harry S. Truman, the former vice president under the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had passed away in April 1945, Mr. Truman was pitted not only against the Republican New York leader — Speaking of Thomas Dewey — But also pitted against another former vice president of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, referring to Iowa’s Henry A. Wallace, also a former Secretary of Agriculture. Henry A. Wallace ran on a third party ticket, one of the most serious third party tickets ever devised for presidential politics in this country, speaking of the Progressive Party.
What was striking about the Progressive Party which helped it to attract the attention and the support of W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and many other figures on the left, was that it ran a very strident anti-Jim Crow campaign, refusing to speak before Jim Crow audiences, which was the trend amongst the two major parties, which generally capitulated to Jim Crow.
However, in 1948, Du Bois was doing a second tour of duty with the NAACP. He had returned to this organization a few years earlier during the glow of the anti-fascist war, when the right wing in the United States was on the back foot, since they resembled all too clearly the foe that was being battled in Nazi Berlin. And so Du Bois was invited back to become a kind of a Secretary of Foreign Relations with NAACP, to help to craft the anti-colonial campaign that would eventuate in the independence of many African and Caribbean nations in succeeding decades. However, by 1948, with his support for the progressive party and with the NAACP leadership led by the moderates, speaking of Roy Wilkins and Walter White, who had made a deal with the democratic party, where in return for anti Jim Crow concessions, they would toss overboard, those to their left and the tossing overboard of Du Bois in 1948 as this presidential campaign was getting underway was a turning point in the history of the left.
It was a turning point in the history of black America and was a turning point in the history of the United States and the world. With regard to black America, obviously it’s fair to say, that this community has hardly recovered from that ideological damage that was inflicted by the marginalizing and sidelining of those of the left. Particularly those of the socialists left, like Du Bois. As a result, the black community was hardly in a position to fathom what was going on as many were receiving anti Jim Crow concessions, and yet many others were not able to take advantage of the fact that now you could eat at certain restaurants, but of course, because of the attack on working class organizations, it meant you did not necessarily have the money to pay the bill. And that kind of anomaly still besets us, which is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to study the life and legacy of one W.E.B Du Bois.
I just want to go back to that double consciousness because I’d always read it as essentially the necessity by oppressed peoples of being bi-cultural in order to survive. White southerners would often tell northerners that they understood black people because they lived among them, when in fact they had no understanding of black culture, black society or what black people thought, because of course they were completely dominant. Whereas, black people with one false step, even of course after slavery, it could mean their death. And so they had to understand white society in its most intimate detail in order to exist within that system of oppression. Would that be a fair reading of Du Bois?
I think that is true. I think that is largely accurate. I think as suggested that this concept of double site, double basically involves in the first instance, not only some awareness of the African cultural and ancestral background, but in the wilderness of North America, it also suggests some awareness of the peculiar folk ways of Jim Crow, the peculiar folk ways of white supremacy and settler colonialism because one false step could lead to one’s demise, therefore in Dixie, in the south and to a certain extent in the north too, but certainly more so in Dixie, you had to be aware that many Euro Americans would get upset if you, as a black person, looked them in the eye, for example.
They would get upset if you are walking on the side walk towards them and you don’t step into the gutter, you don’t step into the street. Some might get upset if you were driving in a car and you pass them in the passing lane that would be seen as a terrible faux pas that ultimately could lead to your demise. So I think it’s fair to say that this double consciousness was not only a cultural device. It was also a kind of survival device. So it was necessary in order to avoid being subjected, to murder or manslaughter.
Du Bois excoriated Booker T Washington for his acceptance of segregation, for the emphasis on vocational training for blacks at the expense of the humanities and the world of ideas and I think his arguments seem especially relevant in an age when STEM now dominates curriculums, especially in these privatized charter schools in poor communities of Du Bois rights at one point.
And I’m quoting, “And the final product of our training must be neither psychologists nor a brick Mason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideas, broad, pure, and inspiring ideas of living, not sorted money, getting not apples of gold. The workers must work for the glory of his handy work, not simply pay the thinker must think for truth, not for fame and all this is gained only by human strife and longing by ceaseless training and education by founding right on righteousness and truth on the unhampered search for truth by founding the common school on the university and the industrial school on the common school and weaving thus a system, not a distortion and bringing a birth, not an abortion.” I wondered if you could expand on what Du Bois is saying here.
I think what Du Bois is saying and the nature of his dispute with the aforementioned Booker T. Washington, the so-called Wizard of Tuskegee, who founded the institution now known as Tuskegee University, once known as Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The essence of the dispute was that Du Bois was thinking more expansively and broadly. Suggesting that black people did not necessarily come to university as a kind of trade school to be trained as a craftsman of some sort, which of course had it’s debilitates, because let us suggest you’re being trained as a carpenter, but if you’re not allowed to gain entrance to the union, then you may not be able to apply your trade, or you might only be able to apply your trade if the unionized carpenter’s going strike, and then you can cross the picket line work as a scab, ditto for a brick layer or electrician, et cetera.
And so Du Bois was thinking more expansively suggesting that not only black people, but people in general should be educated more broadly so that they could help to develop the intellect and the awareness that would allow them to reform and be radicalize, if need be, indeed revolutionize if need be, in society in which they found themselves. And if you look at his tenure as a professor, particularly at Atlanta University in Georgia, you will see that reflected.
If you look at the journal that he founded at Atlanta University, speaking of phylon, you will see that particular ethos reflected. And I think it’s fair to say that to a degree, history has absolved Du Bois because I’m afraid to say that Booker T. Washington, who’s received a kind of revival in recent years, which I think is a reflection of the conservatism in which the United States now finds itself, that Booker T. Washington was basically suggesting, as noted, training people for occupations and jobs that and feels that they would have difficulty entering. And so he was basically elbowing a black people towards a cul-de-sac in a sense, and in the long run, it seems to me at least, that training thinkers, training people broadly and expansively training people to be aware of languages other than English, for example, that is the surest route to develop intellectually and also develop as a citizen worthy of that title.
I want to read another Du Bois quote to you. He writes, “What in the name of reason does this nation expect of a people poorly trained and hard pressed and severe economic competition without political rights and with ludicrously, inadequate common school facilities, what can it expect but crime and listlessness offset here and there by the dog had struggles of the fortunate and more determined who are themselves bullied by the hope that in due time, the country will come to its sense.” I think this observation by Du Bois, for me, is especially apt in the age of neoliberalism, austerity, militarized police, mass incarceration, where of course we’re all supposed to go out and be entrepreneurs, because there aren’t any jobs. What’s he saying about economic racism, about crime, about the carceral state and about law?
What he’s fundamentally saying, and this is a title of an essay that I’m publishing shortly, is that to a certain degree, black Americans have been accidental citizen citizens. That is to say that for the longest, particularly after the founding United States, elite Euro American opinion had the idea that black Americans should be expelled from this continent. That is the origins of the founding of the west African state known as Liberia approximately 200 years ago. And even during the US Civil War, even after the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863, you found as the Lincoln White House was still negotiating to expel black people who were then in the process of saving the Republic from being overthrown by slaveholders, he was dickering with Brazil. He was dickering with his counterparts. And what is now the Dominican Republic. Over the years, he had dickered with central America, with Ecuador, et cetera.
And one of the reasons why people like myself, myself, of course being the descendant of the slave Africans in North America, one of the reasons why a person like myself is still here and not in Brazil or Liberia or Hispaniola is because none of those countries would take us. They said, “Thank you very much. We have enough black people we don’t need anymore.” And so the United States was stuck with us. I guess you could say to the United States credit, the authorities just didn’t put us on the ship and set us a float to nowhere. They decided that the better part of wisdom was to retain our presence and then to exploit us for cheap labor to discipline us and keep us in line through dent of terror inflicted by senseless mobs, inflicted on an organizational basis by the White Camelia and the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations.
And so in that quote that you cited from Du Bois, he’s referring to the fact that after treating black people so atrociously, you have certain elite forces in North America and those who tale after them, who then wonder wonderfully how and why it is that these black people are living in hovels, how and why it is that so many of them were oftentimes on the brink of starvation, how and why it is so many of them wound up incarcerated, not only in the 19th century, but in the 21st century as well. And I think that reflects the fact that some of the questions and points that Du Bois was raising a decade ago are still of relevance and will continue to be of relevance, I’m afraid to say, until progressive forces, including black progressive forces are able and willing to grasp the nettle and turn this society on its ear and push it willingly or unwillingly towards a better future and a better tomorrow.
I want to look at his book, “Black Reconstruction in America,” which imploded the popular conception of reconstruction after the Civil War as being a time when briefly empowered blacks, lack the knowledge leadership skills, moral fortitude, to be responsible citizens and politicians, his understanding again seems prescient. As we see the banning of books and libraries and schools, that address issues of race and colonialism and effort, once again, to throw a veil over the past.
I’m going to quote Du Bois again, “War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise, nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimize the slavery controversy, which convolts the nation from the Minnesota Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by reconstruction with a phase of regret or discussed, but are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying truth. If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail, which will allow its use as a measuring rod in guidepost for the future of nations, there must be said some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.”
“If on the one hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement for inflating our national ego and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment that we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science and admit frankly, that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish. It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is lies agreed upon. And to point out the danger in such misinformation, it is indeed extremely doubtful. If any permanent belief comes to the world through such action. Nations real and stagger on their way, they make hideous mistakes, they commit frightful wrongs, they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this so far as the truth is ascertainable?” I think that’s such a brilliant insight. And I wondered if you could speak about that.
It’s obviously relevant to today such as these other quotes that you have cited. For example, we all are familiar, I’m sure, with the demagogic attacks and so-called critical race theory, which has led to legislation seeking to circumscribe the accurate and adequate teaching of history, not least the history of settler colonialism, the history of the uprooting of the indigenous, the history of the enslavement of Africans, the history of the dispossession of the population of Mexican origin in the West and Southwest. And you see this as well with regard to, for example, the gubernatorial election in the state of Virginia, just a few months ago, where the victorious Republican, Glenn Youngkin, made the novel by the late Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison “Beloved,” which deals with slavery, he made that a campaign issue because supposedly it upsets students to read about slavery in the lovely and oftentimes troubling words of one Toni Morrison.
Once again, as reflected in that quote about education a moment or two ago, Du Bois is stressing the question of trying to gain an accurate and adequate retelling of the past, which brings us to “Black Reconstruction,” his signature tone published in the 1930s, which overturns as you suggested the consensus with regard to that period, following the US Civil War, i.e 1865 to roughly 1877, which had been portrayed as an era of Negro misrule, but which he portrays as an era of democratic triumph and democratic advance before it was drowned in blood by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and opportunist opportunistic politicians in the party of Lincoln. Speaking of the Republican party, this too is relevant today because as you know, there are attempts to rewrite history as we speak. Oftentimes in graduate school and history, historians suggest that history is argument without it, but it turns out that if you want to put forward certain arguments, you get attacked.
So therefore you see, particularly in black and indigenous communities, you see an attempt to rewrite the history so that we can gain a better understanding of what’s going on today. You see this in the work of the indigenous historian, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, you see this in the film of Raoul Peck, “Exterminate All the Brutes”, a sweeping investigation, castigation of settler colonialism. You see this in the aptly titled book by the late Berkeley historian, Tyler Stovall, “Speaking of White Freedom.” You see this in the play of the paramount black intellectual Ishmael Reed, which is a spoof of the Broadway come Disney extravaganza “Hamilton.” You see this in fact, in “The 1619 Project” of Nikole Hannah Jones, now of Howard University, has been climbing the bestseller list. And of course you see it in some of my work as well, but what’s interesting is that just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, you’ve had certain mainstream intellectuals shortening about the end of history.
That is to say that there’s no alternative to neoliberalism, no alternative to capitalism. We see that when some intellectuals, particularly intellectuals of color, try to develop a new narrative, a new story of the history of the United States that will help to explain, for example, the rise of Donald J. Trump and why he was able to garner 74 million votes, despite all of his misdeeds, they compliment, I’m afraid to say, the end of history by talking about the end of historiography. Historiography, of course, being the history of the histories of trying to track how history evolves, just like Du Bois’s intervention with black reconstruction was an example of a historiographical intervention. But now there are no possibilities, we are told, for historiographical interventions. We have to accept the story of the founding fathers who walked on water. We have not seen the likes of them before or since.
And like a crafty lawyer who tells the judge, “My client didn’t do it. And he won’t do it again.” These crafty historians say that the founding of the United States was a great leap forward for humanity. And then you raise the troubling question, for example, of why does slavery increase after they seized the reins of power from London, where they’ll say, “Everybody was doing it.” So if everybody was doing it, maybe it wasn’t such a great leap for humanity. Maybe it had imperfections that we need to explore in plum so that we can, for example, understand why it is that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than just about any country on planet earth and certainly a disproportionate percentage being black and why a disproportionate percentage of those on death row happen to be black. But with this end of historiography nonsense of those kinds of avenues are blocked. And I dare say that’s to the detriment of understanding.
I just want to throw in that Du Bois’s work on reconstruction also expose the bankruptcy of the traditional white historians who were perched in the leading universities around the country, which is probably one of the reasons why they couldn’t stand him. That was professor Gerald Horne on W.E.B Du Bois. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.