In the 1920s, W. E. B. Du Bois befriended many of the young artists who participated in the movement now known as the Harlem Renaissance. He encouraged them to become assimilationists—or focus on impressing white people with their art. But he clashed with a group of antiracist artists who called themselves the “Niggerati.” Led by Langston Hughes, the “Niggerati” thought that Black artists should work for themselves, not for white people. This meant depicting Black life honestly, in all its complexity, rather than trying to manage white people’s expectations.
Du Bois thought that Black people should create art for a white audience, while Langston Hughes and the other antiracist Harlem Renaissance artists thought that they should create art for other Black people. This is essentially the difference between assimilationism and antiracism: assimilationists focus on winning white people’s favor, while antiracists focus on building political power among themselves in order to demand change. This debate lives on today, as artists of color wonder whether they should depict their communities favorably (for white people) or authentically (for themselves).
Three years later, the editor Claude G. Bowers wrote a book rehashing old racist ideas and criticizing Reconstruction, the era after the American Civil War when Black people won more civil rights. In response, Du Bois wrote an accurate history book about Reconstruction and criticized the U.S. education system. He was finally becoming an antiracist, and he was making the same argument as so many other Black activists: “that Black people were human.”
Du Bois found that the racism kept coming, no matter how hard he tried to win white people’s favor. So he started to fight back with facts. Like Kendi and Reynolds, he saw how a clear understanding of history could help Black people better fight racist oppression. This is an important moment in his path to antiracism because it shows that the underlying principle behind his activism changed. Rather than trying to show how Black people could be as good as white people, he started from the assumption “that Black people were human” and deserved the same education and civil rights as white people, then showed how racist policies held them back. In other words, he stopped blaming Black people for racial inequities (like an assimilationist) and started blaming racism for them (like a true antiracist).
When the NAACP’s new leaders pushed even harder for uplift suasion, Du Bois finally decided to quit. He started teaching at Atlanta University and advocating antiracist socialism. He saw how the Great Depression affected Black people particularly hard, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social relief programs didn’t include them. He even came to agree with Marcus Garvey, who proposed that Black people should form their own safe spaces to protect themselves from racist policies and ideas.
Ultimately, like Garrison and Lincoln who preceded him, and like many Black activists who followed him, Du Bois also grew and changed over time. He was an influential public figure, so his switch to antiracism and break with the NAACP—which he co-founded—clearly affected the broader conversation in Black and activist communities. In other words, by becoming an antiracist, he automatically started spreading antiracist ideas. Simply put, he started to value equality above inclusion, because he saw that white Americans frequently used inclusion as an excuse for inequality.