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Grow Evolve Endure
W.E.B DuBois

Grow, Evolve, Endure

A century and a half after the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, a pillar of
Afro-American studies at UMass Amherst ponders what the renowned scholar might have to tell us now.

When it comes to W.E.B Du Bois, UMass Amherst has pride of place in a number of areas. Our Department of Afro-American Studies—whose faculty has boasted both Du Bois’s widow, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and his stepson, David Graham Du Bois—bears the name W.E.B. Du Bois. So does our main library, which houses the papers of Dr. Du Bois in Special Collections and University Archives. A range of materials from the papers provided the basis for several volumes published by the UMass Press. The W.E.B. Du Bois Center, also located in the library, sponsors activities and opportunities to extend Dr. Du Bois’s legacy. Our campus is a magnet for Du Bois scholars worldwide, and the university is the steward of the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Du Bois, we find ourselves in a period of social and political upheaval. What can we learn from a man who lived through the rise of Jim Crow, legal disenfranchisement, the lynching of thousands of black Americans, two world wars, the Great Depression, the onset of the nuclear age, and the beginnings of anticolonial movements in the West Indies, Africa, and Asia? From this long and fruitful life, I offer two examples.

The first of these I learned from St. Clair Drake, my favorite undergraduate professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. In 1963, as part of a lecture series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Drake reflected on Dr. Du Bois’s life and work. Du Bois had just passed away. It was clear to all of Drake’s students and colleagues that Du Bois’s death had had a great impact on him. Drake had known Du Bois well and worked with him in Ghana in support of the Pan-African visions of Kwame Nkrumah. Drake, the consummate social scientist and teacher, summarized the meaning and trajectory of Du Bois’s life in a memorable phrase: “a life lived experimentally and self-documented.” That insight defended Du Bois against the charge of having espoused inconsistent and contradictory views throughout his life.

Drake acknowledged that Du Bois had changed his mind on such weighty matters as the relevance of a “talented tenth” and on his assessments of such adversaries as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Carter G. Woodson. Drake pointed out that Du Bois himself acknowledged that he had changed his views, explained his reasons for so doing, and moved on. A capacity to admit and analyze one’s mistakes, misunderstandings, and shortcomings can still serve all of us well, both inside the academy and in the larger world. “A life lived experimentally and self-documented” is a useful gift in today’s world.

The second example from Dr. Du Bois stems from his belief that the struggle for justice is a long, complicated one, requiring sustained effort over a lifetime and beyond. Dr. Du Bois’s unfailing optimism that this struggle would be won enabled him to persevere for 95 years without succumbing to cynicism, despair, or disappointment.

His “Last Message to the World”—written in 1957, but only released upon his death in 1963—contains this triumphant vision: “Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.”  

Drake acknowledged that Du Bois had changed his mind on such weighty matters as the relevance of a “talented tenth” and on his assessments of such adversaries as Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and Carter G. Woodson. Drake pointed out that Du Bois himself acknowledged that he had changed his views, explained his reasons for so doing, and moved on. A capacity to admit and analyze one’s mistakes, misunderstandings, and shortcomings can still serve all of us well, both inside the academy and in the larger world. “A life lived experimentally and self-documented” is a useful gift in today’s world.

The second example from Dr. Du Bois stems from his belief that the struggle for justice is a long, complicated one, requiring sustained effort over a lifetime and beyond. Dr. Du Bois’s unfailing optimism that this struggle would be won enabled him to persevere for 95 years without succumbing to cynicism, despair, or disappointment.

His “Last Message to the World”—written in 1957, but only released upon his death in 1963—contains this triumphant vision: “Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.”  

Du Bois as photographed  by Carl Van Vechten, 1946.

Du Bois as photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1946. 

Beinecke Library ©Van Vechten Trust

WISDOM FROM W.E.B. DU BOIS

ON EDUCATION: Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental. (1949) • We know in America how to discourage, choke, and murder ability when it so far forgets itself as to choose a dark skin. (1920) • Let us train ourselves to see beauty in black. (1920)

ON POLITICS: No man today has a right to describe himself as liberal or radical who refuses to face the problem of black folk and colored people. (1930) • The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defense, else what shall save us from a second slavery? (1903) • The United States is not a democracy; it is ruled by wealth. (1959) • The cause of war is preparation for war. (1920)

ON HUMAN BEHAVIOR: The fact that people are well-meaning has never in human history hindered them from doing evil. (1958) • If there is anybody in this land who thoroughly believes that the meek shall inherit the earth, they have not often let their presence be known.

ON WOMEN: The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion. (1920) • To no modern race does its women mean so much as to the Negro, nor come so near to the fulfillment of its meaning. (1920) 

John Bracey

Professor John H. Bracey Jr. has taught in UMass Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies since 1972. He twice served as department chair and codirects the department’s graduate certificate in African diaspora studies. In 1956, while still a teenager, Professor Bracey heard Dr. Du Bois speak in the chapel on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his college years in the 1960s, Bracey was active in the civil rights, black liberation, and other radical movements in Chicago. He maintains those interests and commitments both on campus and in the wider world.