• Vânia Penha-Lopes

W. E. B. DU BOIS (1868-1963)



The eminent W. E. B. Du Bois is one of my intellectual idols. In 1895, he was the first Black man get a doctoral degree in sociology from Harvard University, at a time when the majority of fellow Blacks were systematically forbidden from getting an education at all. Du Bois achieved that major accomplishment after having studied at Fisk University and the University of Berlin--the former, a historically Black university; the latter, by his own recollection, a place for study, free from the harsh racial segregation that characterized the United States at the turn of the century. As we know, at the time, Blacks were labeled "Negroes" or "colored," so it is fitting that he would be one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.


Today marks the 57th anniversary of Du Bois' death, in Accra, Ghana, where the pan-Africanist had moved after many years of a scholarly and activist career defining, denouncing, and combating racism. Among his many writings, I highlight a personal favorite of mine: "Of the Passing of the Firstborn," one of the essays in The Souls of Black Folks (1903), a must-read for anyone who is interested in race relations. That thin volume (not an easy read) is an exercise in brilliance, most famous for its opening sentence: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour-line."


In the aforementioned essay, Du Bois recalls how the segregationist laws in Atlanta, Georgia led to the untimely death of his baby boy: ill at the time, he was too White-looking to be treated by Negro doctors, and too much of a Negro (because his parents were Negroes) to be treated by White doctors, despite his blue eyes, White skin, and blond hair. Du Bois, who had eloquently criticized the lack of anti-lynching laws, ended up witnessing death by sheer racist negligence. When it comes to destroying lives, racism is most imaginative in its choice of weapons.

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