Temple Grad Explains How W. E. B. Du Bois Evolved Africana Studies
By: Nick Santangelo
If you only focus on The Souls of Black Folks, you’ll do yourself and W. E. B. Du Bois a disservice. That was the message University of Colorado Ethnic Studies Chair Reiland Rabaka continually returned to during his presentation for Africology and African American Studies students in Anderson Hall Monday afternoon.
“If you start and stop with The Souls of Black Folk, please bear in mind that Du Bois was only 35 years old when he published The Souls of Black Folk. He lived to be 95,” said Dr. Rabaka, a Temple University alumnus. So the question becomes in Africology, what did he do for the last 65 years of his life?”
Du Bois is a celebrated author, sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist, so to pigeonhole him just into the work he did for his most famous book is shortsighted. Dr. Rabaka’s presentation focused on Du Bois’ intersectionality and his ever-evolving historical sociology and political economy. How did Du Bois’ work move Africana studies, radical politics and progressive social movements forward?
Rabaka asked the class if they knew why Du Bois—who studied German, Greek, Latin, classical literature, philosophy, ethics, chemistry, physics and more—didn’t focus on the subject of Africana studies. He then explained that this wasn’t yet a subject of study in the late 19th century. Through his work, Du Bois himself helped to create the field. He did, in fact, study Africanism. It was just that no one called it Africana studies yet.
“Like many major Africologists, Du Bois doesn’t situate his work in a specific discipline,” explained Dr. Rabaka. “His work is very focused on African American studies.”
To be interdisciplinary means to focus on two or more branches of knowledge. To be intersectional, a scholar must explore how identity and socio-political categories like race, gender, class and sexuality are interconnected. The American Negro Academy defined these terms after its founding in 1897. Du Bois didn’t need to wait for these formal definitions.
“Du Bois was already interdisciplinary and intersectional before the academy had terms for them,” Dr. Rabaka told the students. “So that’s very important to understanding how far ahead of his time he was.”
To truly understand this great scholar and the evolution of his work over a lifetime of achievements, Dr. Rabaka stressed how necessary it is to start from the beginning. That might seem obvious, but many scholars and students either start with his time in Germany studying at the University of Berlin or with The Souls of Black Folks. For Dr. Rabaka, understanding this man means first understanding the women who came before him and inspired him.
it takes a village to raise a child
Du Bois’ mother passed away when he was only 16, and his father was never a big part of his life. So it was that he ended up developing a deep bond with the early feminists and freedom fighters of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In fact, they grew so close that Dr. Rabaka called them his “surrogate mothers.” As Du Bois would end up becoming, these women were far ahead of their time. Dr. Rabaka credits them with being “instrumental” in getting women the right to vote through 1920’s passage of the 19th Amendment. Further, they inspired many of the male civil rights leaders who followed to fight for black people’s equality.
“He didn’t do it by himself, and we can think about that saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” said Dr. Rabaka.
Frederick Douglass was another member of that village. Douglass wrote five autobiographies, inspiring Du Bois to pen five autobiographical works himself. And in addition to fighting for black rights, Douglass also championed the other rights the NACW fought for. “Frederick Douglass was one of the most vocal women’s rights men in this country,” explained Dr. Rabaka. The professor added that Douglass referred to himself as “a radical women’s rights man.”
Inspired by this, Du Bois advocated for the rights of all suffering peoples. “He believed that we should have sympathy with any struggling people worldwide,” continued the professor. The Temple grad also credited Du Bois with being “one of the key people who popularized Pan-Africanism.” This intellectual movement is based on the idea that all people of African descent should be encouraged and strengthened to feel a connection with one another.
“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line: the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” wrote Du Bois in an essay that was published posthumously.
He also refused to accept the notion that the world had ever moved past the era of colonialism.
“Du Bois was not a post-colonialist,” explained Dr. Rabaka. “Why? Because there is no post-colonialism going on right now. Because the same colonial powers that were in Africa are still in Africa right now—they just changed the game. We’re really dealing with neo-colonialism, so there’s still a need to fight colonialism, and Du Bois was instrumental there.”
In 1961, Du Bois left America for Africa, taking up residence in Ghana and converting to communism. But Dr. Rabaka took care to point out that he later left communism behind, finding it to be as discriminatory toward people of color as capitalism was. A student asked Dr. Rabaka about these late developments in Du Bois’ life and what road he was headed down before passing away at 95 in 1963.
“Du Bois stayed open,” said Dr. Rabaka. “And what about the fact that he says that while colonialism has failed our people in Africa, capitalism has failed our people in America? What are some alternate systems that we can develop?”
Dr. Rabaka stressed, as many scholars have, that Du Bois was not recognized enough for his contributions during his own time. Even now he isn’t celebrated as widely as he should be.
He was interested in inspiring us to continue the work.
Here was a man who co-founded the NAACP, was the first black PhD graduate of Harvard University, made contributions to the arts and humanities, championed civil rights, inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was a published author for over 80 years. Despite all this, Du Bois knew the work had only just begun. Still, his contributions to it were enormous.
“He was interested in inspiring us to continue the work,” said Dr. Rabaka. “It’s not finished. It never will be finished.”
Asked about the multitude of disciplines Du Bois studied and furthered, Dr. Rabaka looked back on how he was able to bring a black perspective to virtually any topic in his own academic work at Temple.
“One of the things that [College of Liberal Arts professors] taught me here was to be a world citizen,” he responded. “We were told we could write our dissertation on anything we wanted as long as we did it from a black perspective. For me, what it means to be African, there’s no way to disassociate my Africanism from the broader lens of society. [Temple] taught me how to think differently.”