Du Bois and American Amnesia

With February being declared and celebrated as the African-American Month in this country, it is only apt that we need to reflect upon the history a bit and evaluate for ourselves where we are up until now, and if this actually tantamount to celebration.

A couple of years ago, on my journey to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I did a small survey of the personalities, events and processes that are given due recognition and the tones attached to them. Specific to my interest was the reception to the most brilliant African-American by any yardstick: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.

Since a couple of weeks now, I have been again approaching few students to get an idea of what they know of Du Bois and how they came to know of it. The students I interacted with came from different races, they studied various subjects and are well-educated in American schools.

The findings are predictable: there is an official version of telling history. We know it when we have the flawed historical account of Columbus (that he was a great sailor who discovered America!) or of Helen Keller (that she was a blind girl who lived the American Dream of demonstrating how anyone can do anything if one sets her mind at it). In case of Du Bois, it is no different at all. So the acclaimed Museum or the educated youths have the official history: that Du Bois was a great African American leader (some also hesitatingly add, “Pan-African” leader who founded NAACP and edited The Crisis).

What the official version never gets into is the roots. In case of Columbus, the history books don’t tell us that he was a greedy, inhuman oppressor who took pleasure in leading the murder trials and silencing thousands of indigenous peoples who had discovered America long before he even chanced upon it. In case of Helen Keller, the history books don’t tell us about her life spent amidst trade unions, calling for socialist revolution and standing up for the working class, and actually challenging American Dream by saying that it’s not an individual’s talent, but the overarching socio-political structure that creates standards of living.

Likewise, what most scholars today do not mention, let alone describe, is Du Bois’ firm rejection of the American capitalism (including the Black Capitalism) and how very emphatically he has proposed alternatives to the same. Most young people are clearly not aware of his political standpoints. And the text book biographies, when I was going through, never mentioned Du Bois’ politics either.

As though to celebrate him as a Black success in America, the extractions applied relate to his undeniable founding of an organization that encouraged people of every color and races to join force. That sounded to the mainstream historians as one cause of celebration that might have dawned upon the man in his American dream. Indeed, one book taught at the graduate level in the universities declares that Du Bois was in fact recipient of privileged education because of absence of racism in his school! (It conveniently misses out the discriminations he faced in Fisk University.) The books also take much pleasure in describing in detail the differences he had with Booker T Washington. The texts are full of grander narrative of a biographical sketch which is at its best, little informative, and in its worst, plain misleadingly boring.

Du Bois’ lifelong quest to improve the lot of humankind through active resistance to war-discrimination-capitalistic greed, to educate majority of people of their own shared histories of oppression by minority rulers, to enlighten us of our abject ignorance of social complexities, to encourage the pursuit of scientific outlook at understanding historical inequalities have all been omitted.

Omitted from essential readings are his indictment under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (where due to lack of evidence, he was subsequently released)! Omitted are refusals of the US Govt to grant him his passport when he was abroad, and so omitted are how he and his wife renounced the citizenships and became citizens of Ghana. After all, to create a legend, to put him on postage stamp (30 years after his death) demands that certain pages of his life be publicly censored. Unfortunately, the leaves of his life that have been trampled over contain the essence of all that he stood for. For social justice everywhere. None of the students I talked to could even guess that Du Bois had anything to do with the Left. And for them, and also because today marks his birthday, I reproduce the letter he wrote to CPUSA justifying why he must choose his side. His dreams may have been unfinished. But the reminders sure buzz:

The letter appeared in “The Worker” on Nov. 26, 1961:

“On the first day of October, 1961, I am applying for admission to membership in the Communist Party of the United States. I have been long and slow in coming to this conclusion, but at last my mind is settled.

In college I heard the name Karl Marx, but read none of his works, nor heard them explained. At the University of Berlin, I heard much of those thinkers who had definitively answered the theories of Marx, but again, we did not study what Marx himself had said. Nevertheless, I attended the meetings of the Socialist Party and considered myself a Socialist.

On my return to America, I taught and studied for sixteen years. I explored the theory of Socialism and studied the organized social life of American Negroes; but still I neither read or heard much of Marxism. Then I came to New York as a official of the new NAACP and editor of the Crisis Magazine. The NAACP was capitalist oriented and expected support from rich philanthropists.

But it had a strong Socialist element in its leadership in persons like Mary Ovington, William English Walling and Charles Edward Russell. Following their advice, I joined the Socialist Party in 1911. I knew then nothing of practical socialist politics and in the campaign of 1912, I found myself unwilling to vote the Socialist ticket, but advised Negroes to vote for Wilson. This was contrary to Socialist Party rules and consequently I resigned from the Socialist Party.

For the next twenty years I tried to develop a political way of life for myself and my people. I attacked the Democrats and Republicans for monopoly and disenfranchisement of Negroes; I attacked the Socialists for trying to segregate Southern Negro members; I praised the racial attitudes of the Communists, but opposed their tactics in the case of the Scottsboro boys and their advocacy of a Negro state. At the same time I began to study Karl Marx and the Communists; I read Das Kapital and other Communist literature; I hailed the Russian Revolution of 1917, but was puzzled at the contradictory news from Russia.

Finally in 1926, I began a new effort; I visited Communist lands. I went to the Soviet Union in 1926, 1936, 1949, and 1959; I saw the nation develop. I visited East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. I spent ten weeks in China, traveling all over the land. Then this summer, I rested a month in Romania.

I was early convinced that Socialism was an excellent way of life, but I thought it might be reached by various methods. For Russia, I was convinced she had chosen the only path open to her at the time. I saw Scandinavia choosing a different method, half-way between Socialism and Capitalism. In the United States I saw Consumers Cooperation as a path from Capitalism to Socialism, while England, France, and Germany developed in the same direction in their own way. After the depression and the Second World War, I was disillusioned. The Progressive movement in the United States failed. The Cold War started. Capitalism called Communism a crime.

Today I have reached a firm conclusion:

Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all.

Communism–the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute–it has and will make mistakes, but today it marches triumphantly on in education and science, in home and food, with increased freedom of thought and deliverance from dogma. In the end Communism will triumph. I want to help bring that day.

The path of the American Communist Party is clear: It will provide the United States with a real Third Party and thus restore democracy to this land. It will call for:

1. Public ownership of natural resources and of all capital.
2. Public control of transportation and communications.
3. Abolition of poverty and limitation of personal income.
4. No exploitation of labor.
5. Social medicine, with hospitalization and care of the old.
6. Free education for all.
7. Training for jobs and jobs for all.
8. Discipline for growth and reform.
9. Freedom under law.
10. No dogmatic religion.

These aims are not crimes. They are practiced increasingly over the world. No nation can call itself free which does not allow its citizens to work for these ends.”


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