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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 4 - 1868 - 1963 by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 4 - 1868 - 1963.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 116 - 161.


Battle of the Black Brains


This is not a history book. But there are some names in this story that you’ve read in history books. Names you know. At least names you should know. It’s okay if you don’t know them, because that’s what this not history history book is for. But… I’m sure you know this one, because his name definitely comes up every February.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, or as he was known when he was younger, Willie Du Bois, or as he was known when he was older, W. E. B. Du Bois, because nicknames are awesome when you have four names. He and his brother were raised in Massachusetts, by a single mother who struggled to take care of them. Young Willie was hit with his first racial experience on an interracial playground when he was ten years old, in the same way many of us experience our first racial experiences. A girl refused a card from him. Okay, maybe this isn’t the first racial experience for a lot of us, but a lot of us have experienced, and will experience, this kind of rejection. Some of us will experience it romantically—she/he/they just aren’t that into you—and others of us, like Du Bois, will experience it as a direct result of our differences. In his case, his biggest difference was the color of his skin. That’s all he needed to begin competing with his White classmates, determined to convince them that he was not different. And if he was different, it was because he was better.

W. E. B. Du Bois didn’t know it at ten years old, but he was going to become the king of uplift suasion. The king of I can do anything they can do. The king of If I’m like you, will you love me? Making him, without a doubt, the Black king of assimilation.

At least for a while.

But we’ll get to all that.

For now, let’s get into how Du Bois as a teenager decided, like Phillis Wheatley a few generations before him, that he wanted to go to Harvard. All-White Harvard. But, of course, that wasn’t an option. So, the townspeople—good White folks—pooled their money and sent young Willie to Fisk University, in Nashville, the best Black school in the country and the top of the top when it came to teaching Black people uplift suasion. Du Bois gobbled up the lessons on how to win White people over. And after his time at Fisk, Du Bois was able to put what he’d learned about assimilationism into practice.

His dream had come true. He got into Harvard to earn a postgraduate degree.

But not only did he get in, he did so well there that he even spoke at his graduation.

W. E. B. Du Bois had graduated from the best Black school and the best White school, proving the capabilities of Black people. At least in his own mind. Like I said, he was obsessed with keeping up with White people. Running their race. But in his speech, he gave credit to Jefferson Davis—Jefferson Davis!—saying that the Confederate president represented some kind of rugged individualism, as opposed to the “submissive” nature of the slave. Yikes. Just as John Cotton and Richard Mather had planned several generations before, these ideas were coming out of Du Bois’s Ivy League classrooms, where he’d basically been fed the same narrative that Black people had been ruined by slavery. That they were irredeemable, in desperate need of fixing but unfortunately unfixable, which meant he was obviously exceptional, and… an exception. But the root of his exceptionalism, his excellence, came from his being biracial. It must have. According to one of Du Bois’s intellectual mentors, mulattoes were practically the same as any White man.

Du Bois even went so far as to blame Black people for being mistreated. Blamed them for fighting back, which meant he blamed them for being lynched. For instance, when White people challenged the Fifteenth Amendment—the right to vote—by attaching an educational qualification to what was supposed be a freedom for all, Du Bois, an educated man, found fault in the Black rage. And found justification in the White response to the Black rage. Because Black people were breaking the law by wanting White people to stop breaking the law. That they were wrong for wanting to live. And Du Bois wasn’t the only Black man who believed that Black men were bad. Booker T. Washington, the shining star of Tuskegee Institute—a college that cranked out Black brilliance—believed this, and even a dying Frederick Douglass did. As a matter of fact, it took a young antiracist Black woman to set these racist men straight.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an investigative journalist who did the necessary research to expose the inconsistencies in the data. In a pamphlet she published in 1892 called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, she found that from a sampling of 728 lynching reports, only a third of Black men lynched had actually “ever been charged with rape, to say nothing of those who were innocent of the charge.” White men were lying about Black-on-White rape and hiding their own assaults of Black women. But the accusation of rape could make it easier for southern White men to puff up and act maliciously, all in the name of defending the honor of White women. And Du Bois didn’t challenge it.

Do the crime, do the time.

Don’t do the crime… die.

I know. W. E. B. Du Bois doesn’t really sound that awesome. So, let’s talk about someone else.

Booker T. Washington. (Strike that thing I just said about him a few lines up. Actually, don’t strike it, because it’s true. But… there’s more.)

Booker T. Washington wanted Blacks to focus on what would now be called blue-collar work. While Du Bois was rubbing elbows in the halls of the White academy, Washington was in the fields. Well, not really. Though he was the head of Tuskegee, his push for civil rights was more of a backdoor approach. After Frederick Douglass’s death in 1895, Washington stepped into his place as the new leader of Black America, and though privately he supported empowerment, what he advised was that Black people publicly focus on lower pursuits, such as tending the fields. Labor. Common work. Because he knew that would be more acceptable to White people. Knew they would eat it up. Why wouldn’t they? A Black man saying, post-slavery, that Black people should be happy with the bottom, because at least the bottom is a dignified start. For White people, that sounded perfect, because it meant there was a greater chance Black people would stay out of positions of power, and therefore would never actually have any.

Oof. I guess Booker T. Washington really doesn’t sound that great, either.

Du Bois believed in being like White people to eliminate threat so that Black people could compete. Washington believed in eliminating thoughts of competition so that White people wouldn’t be threatened by Black sustainability. And there were Black people who believed both men, because, though we’re critiquing their assimilationist ideas in this moment, they were thought leaders of their time. The wildest part about these two men is that they didn’t get along. They were like the Biggie and Tupac of their day. Or maybe Michael Jackson and Prince. Hmm, maybe Malcolm and Martin. They believed in the destination, which was Black freedom, but, regarding the journey there, they couldn’t have disagreed more.

Du Bois, the hyper-intellectual golden child. Washington, the man of the people.

Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, which intellectualized who Black people really were. Washington wrote Up from Slavery, which outlined the diligence, faith, and fortitude it took (and takes) to survive in America, coupled with the idea of the “White savior.”

Stories featuring White people having antiracist epiphanies or moments of empathy resulting in the “saving” of Black people—White savior stories—were becoming a fixture in American media, and the problem with them wasn’t that there weren’t any “good” White people in real life, it’s that the stories gave the illusion that there were more than there really were. That White people, in general, were (once again) the “saviors” of Black people.

Because of that (partially), Up from Slavery was a hit. And Du Bois couldn’t take it. He couldn’t stomach the fact that Washington was in the spotlight, shining. Washington was even invited to the White House once Theodore Roosevelt got into office, while the always sophisticated Du Bois publicly critiqued Washington, calling him old-fashioned for being so accommodating to White people, for presenting the idea that Black people should find dignity through work, and that no education was complete without the learning of a trade. Meanwhile, his own book, The Souls of Black Folk, set out to establish the mere fact that Black people were complex human beings. It was in this work that Du Bois introduced the idea of double consciousness. A two-ness. A self that is Black and a self that is American. And from this he fashioned a sample set of Black people who sat at the converging point. Black people to be “positive” representatives of the race. Like, if Blackness—“good” Blackness—was a brand, Du Bois wanted these Black people to be the ambassadors of that brand. One in every ten, he believed, were worthy of the job. He called them the Talented Tenth.

Though Du Bois was against accommodating White people—at least, that’s what he criticized Washington for—he was still the same man fighting for White approval. He still believed that he could think and dress and speak racism away. No matter what he said about Washington’s antics and “accommodation,” W. E. B. Du Bois was, in fact, still the emperor of uplift suasion.

But Du Bois would get a wake-up call. A slap in the face, even. Not from Washington, but from a man named Franz Boas, who had immigrated to America from Germany in 1886 because of anti-Jewish persecution. Boas had become one of America’s most prominent anthropologists and had been drawing similarities between the way his people were mistreated in Germany and the way Black people were being mistreated in America—with each nation justifying the treatment by saying the persecuted group was naturally inferior. Same story, different book. But in 1906, when Du Bois asked Boas to come speak at Atlanta University (where he was teaching), he had no idea what he was in for. Boas affirmed that the idea that Black people are naturally inferior, or even that they’ve been made inferior from slavery, was false, and all one needed to do to prove this was dig through the history of Black people before they got to America. Black people had a history. And that history—an African history—wasn’t one of inferiority. Instead, it was one full of glorious empires, like those of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, full of intellects and innovators.

Du Bois’s head blew right off his shoulders. At least, that’s the way I imagine it. Either way, his mind and all the White mumbo jumbo he’d consumed had started to change.

But the intellectual high wouldn’t last, because by the end of that same year, Black people helped the Republicans regain the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, and as soon as they did, Roosevelt, the president who’d invited Booker T. Washington to his house—the most popular president among Black people ever—kicked a bunch of Black soldiers out of the army. Without any money. One hundred sixty-seven soldiers, to be exact. A dozen of them had been falsely accused of murdering a bartender and wounding a cop in Texas. These soldiers, of the 25th Infantry Regiment, were a point of pride for Black America. For them to be mistreated, as fighters for a country that had been fighting against them their entire lives, was a blow to the Black psyche. And just like that, Roosevelt was seen as a backstabber by Black people. And because Booker T. Washington was Roosevelt’s guy, his man, his “Black friend,” Washington also had to feel the wrath when the president hurt his people.

Due to the social blow Booker T. Washington took because of his familiar and “friendly” history with Roosevelt, Du Bois’s Talented Tenth rose in influence.


Jack Johnson vs. Tarzan

THE FIGHTING BETWEEN DU BOIS AND WASHINGTON was nothing compared with the actual boxing that gripped the entire nation. Black people used Black fighters as a way to symbolically beat on White America’s racism. White people used White fighters to prove superiority over Black people in the ring, and therefore in the world. No boxer broke the backs of White people, and puffed up the chests of Black people, like Jack Johnson.

He was the most famous Black man in America. And the most hated. Because he was the best. He’d beaten the brakes off every White boxer, and in December 1908, he finally got a shot at the heavyweight title. His opponent, Tommy Burns. The fight took place in Australia, and, well, let’s just say Jack left Tommy “down under.” I know, a bad joke. A dad joke. A bad dad joke. But still, a fact.

For racists, athletes and entertainers could be spun into narratives of the Black aggressor, the natural dancer, etc. Like, the reason Black people were good wasn’t because of practice and hard work but because they were born with it. (Note: Black assimilationists have also made this argument.) Which is racist. It gave White people a way to explain away their own failures. Their competitive losses. Also gave them justification to find ways to cheat, inside the arena or outside.

For Black people, however, sports and entertainment were, and still are, a way to step into the shoes of the big-timer. It was a way to use the athlete or the entertainer—Johnson being both—as an avatar. As a representative of the entire race. Like human teleportation machines, zapping Black people, especially poor Black people, from powerlessness to possibility. So, if Johnson arrived on the scene dressed in fancy clothes, hands adorned with diamonds, all Black people were psychologically dressed to the nines. At least for a while. If Johnson talked slick to White men, saying whatever he wanted, all Black people got away with a verbal jab or two (in their minds). And, most important, if Johnson knocked out a White man, guess what? All Black people knocked out a White man.

And White people couldn’t have that.

Immediately, White people started to cry out for a “Great White Hope” to beat Johnson. That “hope” was a retired heavyweight champion, James J. Jeffries. Retired. Their hope was someone who had already quit the sport. Really. I mean… come on.

No need to build suspense. You know what happened.

Jeffries lost, too, and though this was a big deal, especially for White people, it was everything else about Jack Johnson—not just his fighting—that set off alarms in the racist world.

  1. His ego. Jack Johnson was a champ who acted like a champ. Fur coats and diamonds. An early god of flash. And…
  2. The biggest spike in the heart of White America: Jack Johnson’s wife… was white. (Cue the dramatic organ or the gunshots or the thunder crack or the hissing cat or… )

Johnson had too much power. Power to defeat White men. Power to be with White women. And, just like with the Haitian Revolution, White people were afraid all Black men would feel just as powerful, and that was a no-go. So, they figured out a way to get rid of Jack Johnson. To stop him. They arrested him on trumped-up charges for trafficking a prostitute (or rather a White woman) across state lines. He ran, spent seven years out of the country before turning himself in and doing a year in jail.

But the end of Jack Johnson still wasn’t enough to make White men feel good about themselves, so a man named Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a book to reinforce the idea of White supremacy and to remind White men that Africans (Black people) were savages. It was called Tarzan of the Apes.

Here’s the basic plot of the book series:

  1. A White child named John Clayton is orphaned in central Africa.
  2. John is raised by apes.
  3. They change his name to Tarzan, which means “white skin.”
  4. Tarzan becomes the best hunter and warrior. Better than all the Africans.
  5. Eventually he teaches himself to read.
  6. In the sequels and subsequent stories, Tarzan protects a White woman named Jane from being ravished by Africans.
  7. Tarzan protects a White woman named Jane from being ravished by Africans.
  8. Tarzan protects a White woman named Jane from being ravished by Africans.
  9. Get it?

Tarzan was bigger than Jack Johnson ever was or would be. He became a cultural phenomenon, made into comic strips, movies, television shows, and even toys. I’m sure some of you have seen the movies or the old TV shows, in which Tarzan does that yodel, a call of White masculinity that we’ve all mimicked as children. At least I did.


Birth of a Nation (and a New Nuisance)

THE SAME YEAR THE FIRST TARZAN NOVEL WAS PUBLISHED, Black people got tricked again (AGAIN) by a political candidate. They helped to get the Democrat Woodrow Wilson elected.

Now seems like a good time to address the whole Republican/Democrat thing. At this point in history, the Democrats dominated the South. They were opposed to the expansion of civil rights and anything that had to do with far-reaching federal power, like railroads, settling the West with homesteaders and not slave owners, even state university systems. Today, we’d say they were against “Big Government.” Republicans at this time dominated the North. They were “for” civil rights (at least politically) and wanted expansion and railroads, and even a state university system.

I know. It feels like I got their descriptions mixed up. Like we’re living in backward land. Maybe we are.

Anyway, back to Woodrow Wilson. He was a Democrat. And during his first term, he let Black people know what he thought about them by enjoying the first-ever film screening in the White House, of Hollywood’s first blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The film was based on a book called The Clansman. Can you guess what this movie was about

Here’s the basic plot:

  1. A Black man (played by a White man in blackface) tries to rape a White woman.
  2. She jumps off a cliff and kills herself.
  3. Klansmen avenge her death.
  4. The end.

The beginning of a new outrage. I want to be clear here. Rape isn’t something to be taken lightly or to be turned back on the victim as a sharp blade of blame. But during this time, allegations of rape were often used as an excuse to lynch Black men, rooted in the stereotype of the savagery of the Black man and the preciousness of the White woman. Black people protested the movie. The intellects, like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, fought in their intellectual ways. Writing. But southern Black activists did much more. They protested with their feet.

It was time to go.

It’s important to note that this was during the Great War, also known as World War I, but the great war at home between Blacks and Whites had pushed Blacks to the brink. Black people started to leave the South in droves. Imagine the biggest parade you’ve ever seen, and then multiply it by a bazillion, but it didn’t look as uniform or as happy. This was a parade of progress. One of hope after severe exhaustion. Black people were tired of being lied to. Tired of being told life was better after emancipation, as if Jim Crow laws hadn’t made their lives miserable. As if politicians hadn’t taken advantage of them, milking them for votes to gain power, only to slap Black people back down. As if the media hadn’t continued to push racist narratives that would put Black people’s lives at risk, off page and off screen.


The Mission Is in the Name

BLACK PEOPLE FROM THE SOUTH WERE HEADED TO Chicago. To Detroit. To New York. Some even came from the Caribbean to escape colonialism. A Jamaican man, Marcus Garvey, was one of them. He’d come to America to raise money for a school in Jamaica, and the first thing he did once he arrived in New York in 1916 was visit the NAACP office.

The NAACP was started by two men who had written books about the antislavery activist John Brown. In 1859, Brown—a White man—raided the United States Armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with the intention of arming slaves and starting a revolution. He was caught and, of course, executed. Du Bois wrote Brown’s biography, and the year it was published, 1909, was also the year a man named Oswald Garrison Villard published his biography of John Brown. Villard was White and happened to be William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson. Who do you think sold more books? But instead of Du Bois cutting Villard down like he did Booker T. Washington, he decided to work with Villard to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their mission was in the name.

And when Marcus Garvey showed up, he was expecting that mission to be shown in the actual people working for the organization. See, Garvey was looking for Du Bois, but when he got to the office, he was confused about whether the NAACP was a Black organization or a White one. And that was simply because no one dark-skinned worked there. It was as if the only Black people who could succeed in America were biracial or lighter skinned. As if the Talented Tenth were the only Black people of value. Such an assimilationist way of thinking. An antiracist like Garvey saw all Black people as valuable. Saw Blackness as valuable, in culture and in color. So Garvey decided to set up shop in Harlem and start his own organization, called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Its purpose was to focus on African solidarity, the beauty of dark skin and African American culture, and global African selfdetermination. He basically created the exact opposite of the Talented Tenth.

Garvey wasn’t the only one who noticed the growing power of biracial Americans. Scholars were paying attention. Eugenicists—people who believed you could control the “quality” of human beings by keeping undesirable genetics out, meaning the genetics of Black people—were criticizing and berating the mixing of races, because Whiteness was seen as pure. There were new versions of the racial hierarchy, which weren’t that new because Black people still existed at the bottom, but the argument was that the more White (Nordic) blood people had, the better they would be, intellectually. Listen, I could give you more of their lines, but I’ve said this a million times by now. They were arguing what they’d been arguing—that Black people were born to be less-than, and that mixing with Whites gave them a leg up because they then weren’t “all the way” Black. This would tie in with the creation of IQ tests and standardized tests, all skewed to justify the dumb Black, and the ones that did well must’ve had some White in them. Yada yada yada.

Yet in the midst of the Great War, Black men were good enough to fight. Smart enough to be tactical. Motivated enough to run, roll, shoot, and save. Of course.

Du Bois went over to Paris after the war ended to document the stories of Black soldiers for the Crisis, the newspaper he’d started. The stories he was told, and that he documented, were ones of Black heroes. But when the White officers came back to the States to tell their versions of the stories, the Black heroes had become Black nothings. More important, Black soldiers had been treated relatively well in France. And the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, feared that being treated decently overseas would embolden Black soldiers. Make them too big for their britches. Make them expect fair treatment at home, the home for which they’d just risked their lives.

Let that sink in.

The home for which they bled for. Killed for. This was the final gust of wind (not really the final, but he was getting there) on Du Bois’s tiptoe tightrope walk of racism. His past critique of antiracists, spinning them into imaginary hate-mongers, had finally come back to bite him. He’d spent so many years trying to convince Black people to mold themselves into a version of White people. He’d spent so much time trying to learn, speak, dress, and impress racism away. He’d tried to provide White Americans with the scientific facts of racial disparities, believing reason could kill racism, as if reason had birthed it. He had even spent energy ridiculing leaders like Ida B. Wells-Barnett for passionately calling on Black people to fight. But every year, as the failures for freedom piled up, Du Bois’s urgings for Black people to protest and fight became stronger.

Du Bois, the king of assimilation, began calling out White men’s twisting of words. It was time for a New Negro, he preached. One that would no longer sit quietly, waiting to assimilate. And in 1919, when many of those soldiers came home from war, they came home as New Negroes.

Unfortunately, New Negroes were met by Old Whites. Violence. The normal racist ideas weren’t working on Black people, so racists had to go above and beyond. The summer of 1919 was the bloodiest summer since Reconstruction. So much so, it was named Red Summer. Du Bois responded to Red Summer with a collection of essays arguing many things about Black people being people, but one of the most revolutionary things he did in the collection was honor Black women. This was a huge deal, because Black women had either been completely left out of the race conversation or turned into objects to look at and take advantage of.

Even though Du Bois had done this, Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican who had taken issue with the NAACP, still despised him. Like I said, Garvey was a staunch antiracist; though Du Bois was making antiracist strides, he was still straddling the assimilationist line, and Garvey thought he was condescending to his own race. That he moved and acted like he was a better Black person. A special Black person. An exception. And, of course, there was the biggest beef of all, the conflict around the premise that lighter-skinned people were being given advantages and treated better—colorism. Garvey wasn’t completely wrong. Though Du Bois wanted Black people to be a people with the freedom to be different when it came to art and music and spirituality, he definitely looked at himself as the standard. So, if you weren’t him—light-skinned, hyper-educated—you weren’t quite good enough. He also reinforced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s idea that Black people had more soul than Whites (which meant they had less mind) and therefore were better at creative things. Garvey would’ve argued against that, but he didn’t get the chance to, because the US government charged him with mail fraud, and he was deported three years later.

With no one there to challenge him, Du Bois’s old crutch that he just couldn’t seem to divorce himself from, uplift suasion, was about to transform into a different kind of be my friend bait.


Can’t Sing and Dance and Write It Away

DU BOIS HAD NOW BECOME THE OLDER GUY HANGING around all the young artists up in Harlem. On March 21, 1924, he’d gone to a club to see a bunch of young poets and novelists who were supporters of his. This event is where he’d meet many of the young Black artists who would form what’s now known as the Harlem Renaissance, and Du Bois wanted to make sure they used their art to advance Black people by getting White people to respect them. It was a new form of uplift suasion—media suasion—which basically just means using media, in this case, art, to woo Whites.

But not everyone was kissing Du Bois’s assimilationist feet. There was a resistant group of artists that emerged in 1926 who called themselves the Niggerati. They believed they should be able to make whatever they wanted to express themselves as whole humans without worrying about White acceptance. One of the Niggerati’s most prominent poets was Langston Hughes, who declared that if a Black artist leaned toward Whiteness, his art wouldn’t truly be his own. That it was okay to be a Black artist without having to feel insecurity or shame. They wanted to function the same way as the blues women, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang about pain and sex and whatever else they wanted to.Even if the images of Blackness weren’t always positive. W. E. B. Du Bois and his supporters of uplift suasion and media suasion had a hard time accepting any narrative of Black people being less than perfect. Less than dignified. But the Niggerati were arguing that, if Black people couldn’t be shown as imperfect, they couldn’t be shown as human. And that was racist.

It would be up to Black artists to show themselves. To write and paint and dance and sculpt their humanity, whether White people liked it or not. Whether White people saw them as human or not. And they didn’t see them as human. Instead, Black people were symbols, animals, and ideas to be feared. As a matter of fact, in 1929, three years after the formation of the Niggerati, Claude G. Bowers, an editor for the New York Post, confirmed this in a book he wrote called The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln.

Lincoln? Lincoln?! Abraham Lincoln had been dead for more than sixty years. But Reconstruction, if spun correctly, could be used as a way to play upon the hatred of racist White people. This was a way Bowers could tap back into the old days. Drum up that old hateful feeling. Rev the engine of racism, which, by the way, was still just as alive and consistent (which is why antiracist artists like the Niggerati found it silly to play into White comfort). Bowers was angry about the fact that Herbert Hoover, a Republican, swept the election in 1928 (remember the switcheroo), snatching several southern states. The Tragic Era was meant to remind Democrats, southerners, and racists that innocent White people were tortured by Black Republicans during Reconstruction. It’s almost laughable. Almost. But it charged up racists and even sparked a re-release of the racist classic Birth of a Nation.

The argument of the savage, inferior Black person rides again. (It’s getting exhausting, right?) And this time, Du Bois, who’d been slowly inching toward antiracism, decided to respond to the Bowers book. Du Bois wrote and published what he thought was his best work, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. In it he debunked all of Bowers’s arguments and described how, if anything, Reconstruction was stifled by White racist elites who created more White privileges for poor White people as long as they stood, shoulder to shoulder, on the necks of Black people. Whiteness first. Always Whiteness first.

It was 1933. Du Bois’s life as an assimilationist had finally started to vaporize. He just wanted Black people to be self-sufficient. To be Black. And for that to be enough. Here he argued that the American educational system was failing the country because it wouldn’t tell the truth about race in America, because it was too concerned with protecting and defending the White race. Ultimately, he was arguing what he’d been arguing in various different ways, and what Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marcus Garvey, and many others before him had argued ad nauseam: that Black people were human.

Despite uplift suasion.

Despite media suasion.

Despite the fact that the NAACP was under new leadership, Walter White, who had decided to lean more into uplift suasion. White wanted to transform the NAACP into an organization of “refined” folks like himself, whose mission was to go before courts and politicians to persuade the White judges and legislators to end racial discrimination. But in 1933, Du Bois wanted nothing to do with this method.

He had finally turned away from assimilationism.

He had finally turned toward antiracism.

So, he took off from the NAACP, escaping the madness and bureaucracy, and headed down to Atlanta University to teach. He’d taken up a new school of thought. Inspired by Karl Marx, Du Bois broke ground on a new idea—antiracist socialism. He used this idea to move further into antiracism, even critiquing Black colleges for having White-centered curriculums or for having White teachers teaching Negro studies in Black schools.

The reason he’d turned such a sharp corner was, perhaps, because the country had entered into the Great Depression. No one had money. But it’s one thing to have no money. It’s another thing to have no money and no freedom. So Black people were experiencing a kind of double Depression. And even though the sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, had developed an initiative called the New Deal, a flurry of government relief programs and job programs to keep people afloat, Black people needed their own New Deal to keep them safe from the old deal, which was the racist deal, which was no deal at all.

(Note: This was the start of the shift, where the Democratic and Republican parties start transforming into the ones we have today.)

It’s not that the New Deal didn’t help Black people at all. It did. Just not enough, and not at the same rate as it helped White people. And while poor Black people were trying to build their own systems, and as elite Black people were uncomfortable and pushing back against Du Bois, he published an article that would rock everyone.

It was 1934. The piece was called “Segregation.” Du Bois sided with his former rival, Marcus Garvey, stating that there is a place, maybe even an importance, to a voluntary nondiscriminatory separation. Basically, Du Bois was arguing for Black safe spaces. Spaces that would resist and fight against the media storm of racist ideas that came year after year. From the stereotype that Black people were sexually immoral or hypersexual. Or that Black households were absent of fathers, and that this family dynamic made them inferior. Or that skin tone and hair texture were connected to beauty and intelligence. Du Bois, without the support of his partners at the NAACP, the assimilationists who were once in line with him, wanted to combat it all.


Home Is Where the Hatred Is


I know, this isn’t supposed to be a history book, but… come on.

After the United States entered World War II in 1942, Du Bois felt energized by Black America’s “Double V Campaign”: victory against racism at home and victory against fascism abroad. The Double V Campaign kicked the civil rights movement into high gear. And as World War II neared its end in April 1945, W. E. B. Du Bois joined representatives of fifty countries at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. He wanted the new United Nations Charter to become a buffer against racism. Then, later in the year, Du Bois attended the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England. Pan-Africanism is a movement that encourages solidarity among all people of African descent. Strength in numbers. Global power. That was the key. At the Fifth Congress, in 1945, Du Bois was fittingly introduced as the “Father of Pan-Africanism.”

In attendance were two hundred men and women, including Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, young revolutionaries who would go on to lead the African decolonization movements, which were meant to remove colonial leaders. These delegates did not make the politically racist request of past pan-African congresses of gradual
decolonization, as if Africans were not ready to rule Africans.

And what I mean when I mention “Africans ruling Africans” is Africans governing themselves. Imagine that. It must’ve felt like a bomb dropped on the heads of racist Europeans. Those weren’t the only bombs dropping.

The United States emerged from World War II, looked over at the ravaged European and east Asian worlds, and flexed its unmatched capital, industrial force, and military arms as the new global leader. The only problem was, America, the land of the free, home of the brave, still had a race problem. And that race problem was starting to affect its relationships around the world. American freedom wasn’t free. Hell, it wasn’t even real. But no matter what compromises President Harry Truman (who took over after Roosevelt died in 1945) tried to make, the South always fought back.

I almost don’t want to tell you what happened because I’ve told you what happened a lot already. But if you were to guess that White people started to perpetuate lies about Black people being inferior to keep the world of racism spinning, you’d be right.

On February 2, 1948, Truman urged Congress to implement a civil rights act, despite the lack of support among White Americans. You can imagine the outrage. Many left the Democratic Party. Others stayed and formed what they called the Dixiecrats, who, in order to fight back against Truman’s push for civil rights, ran a man named Strom Thurmond for president. It was a grossly segregationist platform. Fortunately, it didn’t work.

Black voters made sure Truman won, and once he did, his administration brought forth a few game-changing civil rights cases:

  1. Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948:
    The case was decided with the Supreme Court determining that the courts could not enforce Whites-only real estate contracts in northern cities to keep out migrants and stop housing desegregation. This brought on the open housing movement, which basically exposed White people stopping Black people from living where they wanted to live. The fear was the same old fear. That Black people would make the neighborhoods dangerous. That their White daughters would be in danger. That the property value would go down. Some Black people wanted to live in White neighborhoods for validation. Some Black people were just looking for better housing options. Some White people were so afraid, they literally packed up and left their homes. White flight.
  1. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954:
    I’m sure you’ve heard of this one. If you live in the South and go to a diverse school, this is why. This was the case that said racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The results: The schools began to mix. What’s really interesting about this case, though, something rarely discussed, is that it’s actually a pretty racist idea. I mean, what it basically suggests is that Black kids need a fair shot, and a fair shot is in White schools. I mean, why weren’t there any White kids integrating into Black schools? The assumption was that Black kids weren’t as intelligent because they weren’t around White kids, as if the mere presence of White kids would make Black kids better. Not. True. A good school is a good school, whether there are White people there or not. Oh, and of course people were pissed about this.

People were pissed about them both.

And pissed people do pissed things.

A year later, a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, for supposedly “hissing” at a White woman. They beat Till so ruthlessly that his face was unrecognizable during his open-casket funeral in his native Chicago. The gruesome pictures were shown around the enraged Black world, at the request of his mother. And though supremacists in power continued to blame Brown v. Board of Education for the problems, young Emmett’s death lit a fire under the civil rights movement, led by a young, charismatic preacher from Atlanta who idolized W. E. B. Du Bois—Martin Luther King Jr.

There was a youthful energy to the movement. A new wave. A new way of doing things. And Du Bois loved watching it grow more and more powerful. He was now ninety years old, and hopeful. He’d never stopped struggling, and Dr. King was cut from similar cloth. He and Du Bois had not let up, and neither had college students. Four Black freshmen at North Carolina A&T entered a Woolworth’s in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. They sat down at the “Whites only” counter, where they were denied service, and stayed there until the store closed. Within days, hundreds of students from area colleges and high schools were “sitting in.” News reports of these nonviolent sit-ins flashed on TV screens nationally, setting off a sit-in wave to desegregate southern businesses. By April, students were staging sit-ins in seventy-eight southern and border communities, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been established. These college kids were like new New Negroes. They weren’t waiting for White saviors, not in politicians like John F. Kennedy, who was running for office, or writers like Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird was basically the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights movement. Don’t mind if I… don’t.

Nope, no White saviors for them. But they also weren’t interested in being Black saviors. They weren’t necessarily “saving” themselves. They were just “being” themselves. But the thing about being Black is that just being can bring bloodshed.

And that’s what Dr. King, and the SNCC, and the civil rights movement as a whole were banking on.

The vicious violence in response to the nonviolent civil rights movement was embarrassing the country, all around the non-White world.

On April 3, 1963, King helped kick off a series of demonstrations in Birmingham, bringing on the wrath of the city’s ruggedly segregationist police chief, “Bull” Connor. Nine days later, on Good Friday, eight White anti-segregationist Alabama clergymen signed a public statement requesting that these “unwise and untimely” street demonstrations end.
Martin Luther King Jr., jailed that same day, read the statement from his cell. Angry, he started doing something he rarely did. He responded to critics, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” published that summer.

No one knows whether the sickly W. E. B. Du Bois read King’s jailhouse letter. But just as Du Bois had done in 1903, and later regretted, in his letter King erroneously conflated two opposing groups: the antiracists who hated racial discrimination and the Black separatists who hated White people (in groups like the Nation of Islam). King later distanced himself from both, speaking to a growing split within the civil rights movement. More and more battle-worn young activists were becoming frustrated with King’s nonviolence and were more often listening to Malcolm X’s sermons. Malcolm X was a minister in the Nation of Islam, a religious organization focused on the liberation of Black people through discipline, self-defense, community organizing, and a fortified understanding of who Black people were regardless of White people’s opinions. He preached that Blacks were the original people of the world, which pushed back against the Bible and the early theories of White Egypt. He also preached Black self-sufficiency—that Black people could care for themselves, their families, and their communities all by themselves. Sure, he was a polarizing force, but he was also an antiracist persuading away assimilationist ideas.

On May 3, 1963, the young folks that followed leaders like Malcolm watched on television as Bull Connor’s vicious bloodhounds ripped to pieces the children and teenagers of Black Birmingham, who had been following Dr. King; as Connor’s fire hoses broke limbs, blew clothes off, and slammed bodies into storefronts; and as his officers clubbed marchers with nightsticks.

The world watched, too.

On June 11, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation—or the world, rather—and summoned Congress to pass civil rights legislation. “Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free,” Kennedy said. “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it.”

With the eyes of the globe on him, Kennedy—who really didn’t have much of a choice—introduced civil rights legislation. But it didn’t stop the momentum of the long-awaited March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Though it had been organized by civil rights groups, the Kennedy administration controlled the event, ruling out civil disobedience. Kennedy aides approved the speakers and speeches—no Black women, no James Baldwin (an openly gay Black novelist who’d become a bold and brilliant political voice through his writings), and no Malcolm X. On August 28, approximately 250,000 activists and reporters from around the world marched to the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. And King closed the day with what’s probably the most iconic speech of all time—“I Have a Dream.” But there was bad news. W. E. B. Du Bois had died in his sleep the previous day.

Indeed, a younger Du Bois had called for such a gathering, hoping it would persuade millions of White people to love the lowly souls of Black folk. And, yes, the older Du Bois had chosen another path—the antiracist path less traveled—toward forcing millions to accept the equal souls of Black folk. It was the path of civil disobedience that the young marchers in the SNCC and CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality, also responsible for much of the nonviolence training for the movement) had desired for the March on Washington, a path a young woman from Birmingham’s Dynamite Hill was already traveling and would never leave. But Roy Wilkins, one of Dr. King’s right-hand men, and the bearer of the bad news, did not dwell on the different paths. Looking out at the lively March on Washington, he just asked for a moment of silence to honor the ninety-five-year-old movement of a man.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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