On October 16, 2023, Commonwealth Honors College hosted its annual Plenary Lecture. The lecture is centered around “Ideas that Change the World,” a class all Honors students are required to take. This year’s speaker was Traci Parker, associate professor of African American History at the University of California Davis.

Dean Mari Castañeda gave an introduction to the lecture, and described all of Parker's professional and academic accomplishments.

“We are grateful to have this opportunity to hear from an expert on Du Bois, and his ideas that changed the world.” she added. 

Then Parker took the stage and started her presentation. For this lecture,  she was examining Souls of Black Folk, a book by W.E.B Du Bois that most students have to read. Parker’s lecture was not just about Du Bois as a scholar and an activist, but was also about labor and consumption and what it looks like in a post-COVID 19 world. 

Using the examples of businesses like Target and Bud Light being boycotted for their LGBTQ+ collections and collaborations, Parker explained how consumers can leverage their power of consumption. First she asked the audience to show their hands if they believed that boycotts and economic protests are effective strategies for creating change — to which many raised their hands. Then Parker asked how many people withheld their money, or used their money, to show support or dismay of a business or a product for a social justice cause, where the majority raised their hand again.  

“Du Bois too would come to see the same thing, it takes him a little bit of time,” Parker said. 

Traci Parker speaks at the 2023 Plenary Lecture at the University of Massachusetts
Traci Parker speaks at the 2023 Plenary Lecture, Photo: Theo Nims

At the time of Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois was committed to the idea that the right to suffrage, political enfranchisement, and the pursuit of higher education were key elements that were needed in any struggle to liberate African-Americans. However, in a few years, he shifted gears and thought about economic cooperatives as a way to liberation as well. 

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois circa 1907
Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1907, Photo: UMass Amherst Libraries

"We unwittingly stand at the crossroads...should we go the way of capitalism and try to become individually rich as capitalists, or should we go the way of cooperatives and economic cooperation where we and our whole community could be richer together?” Du Bois said in a 1907 speech.

“He had published his comprehensive study [of] economic cooperation among Americans, and in it he concludes that cooperative economics was a promising solution to racial economic inequality, and it could be a road to collective prosperity for African-Americans,” said Parker, adding that Du Bois was influenced by the European ideas of cooperatives but also by the “color line,” where racial segregation was much more hardened in 1906-1907. 

Du Bois realized that without electoral power, Black people had to turn to themselves to uplift their community and act inwards to meet their own needs, hence the cooperative idea. However, Parker highlighted how Du Bois had “little faith in the Black masses”.

“He warns that the cooperative has to be consumer-oriented, the leadership had to be in a democratic control, and the leadership would teach the principles and methods of cooperation to the masses [of] Black workers,” she remarked. 

In 1918, Du Bois participated in the creation of the Negro Cooperative Guild. It was a grassroots organization that consisted of representatives from six states that studied models of cooperative ownership and sought to implement cooperative businesses throughout the country.

The business model that the group devised was simple: Black people would buy and sell necessities to each other, they'd keep the profits within the community, and they would invest them back into businesses and other infrastructure in the community, like schools and churches.

During this same time the Great Migration was happening, with African-Americans relocating to the North in search of better lifestyle and job opportunities, but they were still only getting unskilled work. 

“No matter how skilled [or educated they were,] racial discrimination [prevented] them from getting the type of jobs that would match their experience and education,” said Parker.

Even in Black enclaves and thriving Black communities, like the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance, people were still shopping at white-owned businesses that wouldn't hire any African-Americans for skilled work.

Meanwhile in Chicago, Joseph Bibb crafted a new protest strategy — challenging employment discrimination on the south side of Chicago in Bronzeville with a boycott strategy that was economic, visual, and confrontational.

This went against everything that's embedded in Du Bois, Parker explained. “He’s a very respectable middle class man, and is an advocate for persuasion and using court cases,” she continued — indicating that Du Bois was not an advocate for direct confrontation.

On the south side of Chicago though, white merchants in the area monopolized 90% of Black retail trade, but failed to hire black workers in their establishments outside of custodial positions. Bibb decided to boycott these white-owned stores and put up picket lines, damaging their revenues. This boycott eventually opened up over 300 jobs to Black people in Chicago when the merchants caved to the protesters’ demands. 

This launched the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work movement, creating thousands of white collar and skilled positions at five and dime stores between 1929 and 1930.

“Du Bois is observing all of this and he becomes quite [intrigued] with the Don't Buy Where You Can't Work movement. He began to see the importance of boycotts, he saw that they got results and that they were relatively easy to put into action and moreover, they were an expression of consumer power,” said Parker. 

Traci Parker speaks at the 2023 Plenary Lecture at the University of Massachusetts
Photo: Kimberly Manyanga

“This idea that was so visual and confrontational went against who he used to be not that long ago, but he believed that it held promise and he started writing more and more about this movement in Crisis, the NAACP newsletter news magazine,” Parker added.

“In this article, he calls for a boycott against retail trade but also public accommodations like telephone companies and street cars, he believes at this point that everybody should be confronted if they practice racial discrimination in a workplace,” she said. 

“Negro Americans are a nation larger than Belgium…no group of such size can be economically helpless however because of the prevalent philosophy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote.

In the 1930s, the labor union started to pick up again and interracial unions were formed, but Du Bois didn't believe in them. “[He] articulates a vision of Black consumption as a means for creating a separate Black economy and was reminiscent of …1907 [and] the use of a producer-consumer cooperation to build these economic cooperatives,” Parker said. 

By 1940, in his quasi autobiography Dusk of Dawn,  Du Bois is still extremely hopeful about using the power of Black consumers not only for economic uplift but also for economic education “What Du Bois understands during this period is not only the power of the consumer, he's even advocating for a separate Black-centered economy that’s centered around the consumer, not the producer,” Parker explained.

She continued: “His plan may not have come to fruition; he was certainly right about Black consumer power and the organized power of Black consumers would demonstrate strongly in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.”

At this point, labor movements were dismantled since they were seen as communist and therefore anti-American — but African-Americans had a new found sense of how consumption might be their route to notonly make gains in the workplace, but also demand that “White people see them as human beings deserving [of] full citizenship,” said Parker.

Parker referenced the Montgomery Bus Boycott as the first major one, it took 381 days and took 65% of the bus’ revenues, in addition to affecting the functioning of the city as a whole. She alluded to the fact that white women were most likely helping their Black staff as well, since they needed their housework done. 

At the time, a bus driver position was considered very skilled, so following the boycott, Black people were hired as drivers as well. Du Bois was carefully watching this and was surprised by the outcome. He started to see obvious parallels between Gandhi and the liberation of India and King's success in Alabama and even wrote him a letter. 

However, the nonviolent passive resistance that King employed,  Du Bois' mind was devoid of an economic agenda and that disappointed him. In late 1959, he decided that “King was not Gandhi. Gandhi submitted but he followed a positive economic program to offset his negative refusal to use violence.” 

Lastly, Parker brought the discussion to today. She described how consumers are wielding their consumer power with the decisions they make on purchasing, like during the Black Lives Matter movement and how numerous companies like Amazon and Target started selling BLM-themed clothes that were sourced from Black small businesses and this was seen on both sides (people boycotted as well.)

“[We] saw an increase of business as much as 200% but as the movement continued it lost momentum and business eventually came back to normal.”  

She said this for two reasons, one being that businesses have a sense of our consumer power and the second that they have a sense of how these boycotts can sustain real long term damage. 

“As I conclude I want to ask two things, keep a watchful eye actually whether by 2026 these businesses have actually done what they've committed themselves to do. And if they haven't and you disagree with it, you do something about it.”

Traci Parker speaks at the 2023 Plenary Lecture at the University of Massachusetts
Photo: Theo Nims

“The second thing I ask you to do is think about your role as a consumer as you buy every day, think about what your role is as a consumer [and] what power it should have. Has it lost the power that it once had because corporations have an understanding of this? How might you better be a consumer citizen of the American democracy” she concluded.

Article posted in Academics for Prospective students and Current students