Everyone has heard of W. E. B. Du Bois, but not everyone knows his story. Growing up in Massachusetts, he faced discrimination and decided that he had to outdo the white kids. He studied at the historically Black Fisk University, then got his PhD at Harvard.
Like the other Black leaders and activists who figure prominently throughout Stamped, W. E. B. Du Bois first distinguished himself and learned to make sense of his own personal experiences with racism through education. This underlines Kendi and Reynolds’s point that learning about history is one of the best ways for young people to understand racism today.
But even with his fancy education, Du Bois mostly learned racist ideas. He thought that Black people were naturally unintelligent, but that he was an exception because he was biracial. He even blamed Black people for getting lynched—and so did other activists, like Booker T. Washington and even Frederick Douglass. The journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett proved them wrong by showing that most Black lynching victims weren’t even charged with a crime, not to mention convicted of one.
Since John Cotton and Richard Mather enshrined Harvard’s racist ideas in Harvard’s curriculum, it’s no great surprise that Du Bois learned the same ideas there centuries later. Unfortunately, then, while his education helped him understand history and racism in the U.S., it gave him the wrong kind of ideas about them—this again underlines the need for accurate, antiracist education today. Du Bois imbibed a mix of segregationist ideas—like the idea that Black people are naturally unintelligent—and assimilationist ideas—like the idea that Black people could improve themselves by “whitening” the race and the idea that lynching victims deserved their fate because of their bad behavior. These ideas let him view himself as better than other Black people—like all racist ideas, they were ultimately self-serving.
Meanwhile, Booker T. Washington was Black America’s other main leader. He told Black people to accept jobs like farming and physical labor, since he thought that would please white people. He was an assimilationist, just like Du Bois, but they weren’t friends. Du Bois was an intellectual, while Washington was a “man of the people.” In his popular book Up from Slavery, Washington thanked white people for “saving” Black people from slavery, which Du Bois couldn’t stand. In his own famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois explored Black people’s “double consciousness”—they see themselves as Black but also as American. He argued that the best Black people, or the “Talented Tenth,” would help win white people’s approval.
Many young people learn about the conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois kind of like the conflict between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. They learn to think that there were only two options, and that each figure totally disagreed with the other. But in reality,Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois’s positions were very similar, because they were both assimilationists: they both placed the burden on Black people to fit into a white-dominated society. They just placed this burden on different kinds of Black people: Washington on the masses and Du Bois on the elite. Even though he was something of an elitist, Du Bois was closer to antiracism because he thought the Black community should lead itself to assimilation (rather than following white people’s lead). However, in his early life and work, Du Bois wanted to change Black people, not eliminate racism.
But then, in 1906, an anthropologist named Franz Boas changed Du Bois’s mind. He taught Du Bois about African history and showed him that Black people actually aren’t naturally inferior to white people. Later that year, President Theodore Roosevelt angered his Black supporters by kicking a group of prominent Black soldiers out of the army. Booker T. Washington was one of Roosevelt’s biggest supporters, so Black people also turned against him—and toward Du Bois.
Du Bois’s main contribution to antiracism is cultural relativism, or the idea that different cultures are all equal and have to be evaluated through their own belief systems. Du Bois was evaluating Black cultures through white cultural values, so it’s no wonder that he learned to think of Black people as inferior. When he learned about Black history, he became an antiracist because he saw Black people’s potential. This again speaks to antiracist education’s great power to transform young people’s minds. In contrast, Booker T. Washington’s attempt to work with white leaders failed when he confronted the inevitable truth that they didn't have Black people's best interests in mind.