Think of it this way, W. E. B. Du Bois, born in February 1868, that’s 3 years after the end of the American Civil War, two years after Melville’s volume of Civil War poetry, Battle Pieces, died in August 1963, at 95, the year John F. Kennedy is assassinated, the year Medgar Evers is assassinated, and the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers possibly the most famous speech in American history at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (“I Have a Dream”).
He straddles the more essential American Century, not demarcated by round numbers and whited school textbooks. Du Bois’s life and work is the American history we absolutely relegate to a minor strand as befits the country’s relationship with African-Americans.
We confront the enormity of Du Bois’s life, spanning from the post-Civil War return of Jim Crow to his death in 1963 the day before MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
We look at how Du Bois turned from sociologist to activist, and how his research in the South during the end of Reconstruction was the impetus that led to the founding of the NAACP. Then we move to the major turn in Du Bois’s thought–the second half of his life that gets less attention in the history books: socialism.
In our last segment, we’ll look at the work Du Bois did in anti-nuclear proliferation and advocacy for the Soviet Union and against the unfolding Cold War in the 1950’s, which attracted the attention of the powers-that-be in America. This eventually led to his de facto exile, with publishers blacklisting him and his passport being revoked. Finally we’ll turn to the lighter side of Du Bois – his fiction – and how he still speaks to our times from a half-century ago, in his advocacy for universal healthcare and his disaffection for the so-called right to vote between two corporate-captured political parties.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of English and American Studies at Purdue. His books include W. E. B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (Pluto Press, 2016), a political biography of W.E.B. Du Bois entitled Un-American: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Temple University Press, 2015), Afro-Orientalism (Minnesota, 2004) a study of interethnic anti-racist alliance between Asian and African Americans, and Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics 1935-1946 (University of Illinois, 1999). He is faculty adviser to Students for Justice in Palestine at Purdue.
The Life of W. E. B. Du Bois and Black Lives Matter by Bill Mullen
Audio of “Socialism and the American Negro” by Du Bois (1960 speech sponsored by the Wisconsin Socialist Club): Part One and Part Two
We Charge Genocide (1951)
W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Darkwater’: Two Stories (produced by WFHB’s Books Unbound)
Tracks from Randy Weston’s 1963 Highlife
“Cabana Bamboo Highlife”
“Blues to Africa”
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