ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Du Bois, in other words, charges science, religion and government with conspiring to
distort history in keeping with white supremacist doctrine. This doctrine has led to the
use of the world Negro to tie blackness to slavery, stupidity and inferiority
Books by and about W.E.B. Du Bois
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Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E. B. Du Bois (1971)
Leslie Alexander Lacy. The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois: Cheer the Lonesome Traveler (1970)
Edited and Introduced by Brian Johnson. New York Altamira Press (A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2005
David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Dubois: Biography of a Race
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W. E. B. Du Bois Arraignment and
Indictment of White Civilization
His Essays Analyzed
By Diorita C. Fletcher
W.E.B. Du Bois devoted a significant portion of his monumental work for an arraignment and indictment of white civilization. It was Du Bois contention that the historical development and perpetuation of white European and American culture were based on a series of blatant contradictions which all too often were denied or ignored by those who would have it that: Everything great, everything fine, everything really successful in human culture was white.1
In several essays, Du Bois specifically attacks the various methods used to make white civilization great. He emphasizes, in doing so, that history provides the key for understanding where the white man is coming from as well as where hes at right now. I have chosen to discuss in this article Du Bois ideas on white civilization as set forth in Souls of White Folk from Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil; The White Masters of the World from The World and Africa; and The White World from Dusk of Dawn. My interest in this topic stems from an observation that Du Bois almost always coupled his studies of Black American and African History with the condemnation of white civilization in such a manner as to suggest that to study the one was to expose the other.
Du Bois was unafraid to hold up for critical examination the most sacred tenets of the white world. For this reason he has been deliberately ignored by white American scholarship, which has refused to acknowledge the accuracy and brilliance of most of his work. Du Bois writings on white culture place in perspective the current Black and Third World rebellions against white racist oppression around the world. They also underscore the need for continued study of the nature of white society by those who have known white oppression. Du Bois implies that a knowledge of the oppressor and his tactics makes for a more successful revolt.
The white man bases his claim to the world on his superiority to all darker men. Where did this belief begin? What have been the consequences? Du Bois suggests:
The discovery of personal whiteness among the worlds people is a very modern thinga 19th and 20th century matter indeed.2
He refers to the fact that it was during the 19th and 20th centuries that the idea that white is right was transformed into the ideology that white is might, thus providing the theoretical grounds for a new white imperialism. The ideology itself ultimately finds its roots in the African slave trade which flourished between the Renaissance and the American Civil War.
Du Bois in The White Masters of the World states that the traffic in Black lives between Africa and America was the prime and effective cause of the contradictions in European civilization.3 It was during the slave trade that Europeans began to develop an insatiable lust for wealth, and to lose their respect for humanity as such. It was during the slave trade that Europeans began to rationalize their cruel and vicious acts against less powerful human beings. The slave trade, in short, enabled Europe and later America to lay the material foundations of what they would later deem a superior culture.
Du Bois effectively dethrones the doctrine of the superior race, i.e., the theory that a small white minority, by virtue of birth and natural gift, should be rulers of mankind. One by one he takes the various supports of this thesis, particularly as it applies to the American way of life, and dashes them to the ground.
Du Bois begins his critique with a look at the white mans religion, for which he has few words of praise. He writes:
A nations religion is its life, and as such white Christianity is a miserable failure. The number of white individuals who are practicing with even reasonable approximation the democracy and unselfishness of Jesus Christ is so small as to be fit subject for jest. 4
Du Bois cites other paradoxes of the white brand of Christianity. There is the contradiction of the Golden Rule by the white mans continued use of force to keep human beings in their designated places. There is the doctrine (still very much in vogue) of the White Mans Burden, which began with a desire to convert the heathen and resulted in the aim of Christianity as a vehicle for the real possession of white heritage and its appreciation by the humble-born. Finally, there was the Christian assumption of the absolute necessity of poverty for the majority of men in order to preserve civilization for the white minority.5 These are bust a few examples of the extraordinary self-deception of white religion.
White religion long ago became the religion of whiteness based upon: I am white, as the basis of practical morality; the denial of humanity to the non-white peoples of the world; and the distortion of history so as to glorify the white man as being above all other men.6
Du Bois naturally saw the distortion of history by whites as an especially heinous crime. To those who would willfully maneuver the facts he says:
Europe has never produced and never will in our day bring forth a single human soul who cannot be matched and overmatched in every line of human endeavor by Asia and Africa.7
Nonetheless, white and particularly American history has continually sought by emphasis and omission to make people believe that every great thought, deed, or dream that the world ever knew was a white mans. Those who have suffered greatly, if not most, because of this process are American Blacks. America has been extremely successful in using the misrepresentation of facts as a tool of Black oppression. Du Bois is careful to point this out:
A system at first conscious and then unconscious of lying about history and distorting it to the disadvantage of the Negroids became so widespread that the history of Africa ceased to be taught, the color of Memnon was forgotten, and every effort was made in archaeology, history and biography, in biology, psychology, and sociology to prove the all but universal assumption that the color line had a scientific basis.8
Du Bois, in other words, charges science, religion and government with conspiring to distort history in keeping with white supremacist doctrine. This doctrine has led to the use of the world Negro to tie blackness to slavery, stupidity and inferiority, while the word white is taken to denote only purity, superiority. Du Bois own feelings about this collusion of forces are found to be only pity:
above the hurt that crazes there surges in me a vast pitypity for a people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered and made miserable for such a cause, for such a phantasy.9
Additional evidence brought forth in Du Bois arraignment of white American civilization include: the failure of democracy, the selfishness of industry and commerce, and the double standards of white justice. Democracy in America consists of lip-service being paid to the idea of the rule of the people. Industry and commerce are widespread and more secure, yet characterized by bigger thieves, deeper injustice and more calloused selfishness. Murder, theft, prostitution and other crimes receive only spasmodic and intermittent attention unless the murdered is Black or brown; then, the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Du Bois maintains, as would most Blacks, that when this happens, it is clear that it is Blackness rather than crime which is being condemned.10
In his essays on white folk, Du Bois invokes two specific historical occurrences which reflect the paradoxes, lies and hypocrisy of white civilization. These are: first, the true reasons for World War I; and second, Americas treatment of Blacks. These examples are given here as proof of the indivisibility of white history and white politics.
Du Bois theory of the origins of World War I is certainly not a popular one in American and European historical circles. His thesis is simply that the Great War grew out of the struggle among European powers for colonial spoils. These spoils included not only specific products, such as tea, coffee, palm oil, rubber and ivory, but also the labor of dark men.
Europes justification of colonial expansion was based on the assumption of the natural inferiority of darker peoples to whites. Europe considered it her duty, at the time, to divide up the darker world and administer it for her own good. The idea that darker people were of imperfect descent, of frailer, cheaper stuff, led in policy to their use as beasts of burden. Raising cotton, gathering rubber, digging diamonds, fetching ivorythese were the ways in which whites could use dark people to the very limited extent of their shallow capacities for the benefit of white mankind.
Du Bois theory of World War I also explains that colonialism reflected the realization by modern white civilization that it could not control the white working classes much longer. As whites began to make loud claims to a fair share of the wealth, the white ruling classes found welcome relief in colonialism, which provided them with a chance for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit.
The first quarter of the 20th century saw the rise of a new imperialism which served to reveal Europes true identity to the world. With Europes collective determination to exploit the weakest to the utmost came the rage for ones own nation to own the earth or, at least, a large enough portion of it to insure as big profits as the next nation. It was paradoxical that the big powers should go to war over the ownership of the colonial people. The degradation of men was perfected by Europe during the course and the aftermath of World War I.11
Another significant event during and after the first World War was Americas concerted effort to establish herself as a natural peacemaker, a moral protagonist. And yet, Du Bois notes, America duplicated Europes worst sin with her conquering of tropical colonies and with her policy of sustained warfare against American Blacks. His words on this subject are self-explanatory:
in the name of Civilization, Justice, and Motherhoodwhat have we not seen, right here in America, of orgy, cruelty, barbarism and murder done to men and women of Negro descent.12
To this oppression, however, Du Bois credits the singular ability of the American Black man to perceive the truth about whites. The Black man, he says, is not a foreigner or a traveler in America, but a native who shares the language, land, and destiny of the white man. The Black man can say in convincing tones:
I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious. They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth. My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. I see them ever strippedugly, human.13
The Black man is both a witness to and a victim of the crime.
So, Du Bois completes his picture of white civilization. His perceptive eyes have scanned the records of history, religion and politics. His evidence of the crimes of white culture against darker humanity is overwhelming. But before he delivers a final verdict, Du Bois states in all fairness:
The greatness of Europe has lain in the width of the stage on which she has played her part, the strength of the foundations on which she has builded, and a natural, human ability no whit greater (if as great) than of other days and races. Because of the foundations which the mighty past have furnished her to build upon she has gone forward to greater and more splendid human triumph; but where she has ignored this past and forgotten and sneered at it, she has shown the cloven hoof of poor crucified humanityshe has played, like other empires gone, the world fool!14
Are white civilizations accomplishments enough to erase her crimes against mankind? To Du Bois, the answer is no. He concludes in his characteristically terse manner:
This is white and European civilization; and a system of culture it is idiotic, addlebrained, unreasoning, topsy-turvy, without precision; and its genius chiefly runs to marvelous contrivances for enslaving the many and enriching the few, and murdering both.
I now turn to the question of the importance and validity of Du Bois indictment of white civilization. Du Bois ideas on the subject, unfortunately for some, cannot be dismissed as the rhetorical rantings and ravings of a wild-eyed troublemaker. His opinions are those of a leading Black American intellectual and one of the great minds of the 20th century. Du Bois personally witnessed some of the most significant events in Black and white American history, not to mention his continued awareness and experience of the drama unfolding on the European stage.
From New England Du Bois went as a young man to the Deep South, where he became aware of lynchings and other brutal crimes perpetrated by whites against Blacks. During his student days at Fisk, he served as a teacher among newly-emancipated rural Blacks where he saw firsthand the desperateness of their condition. As the Great War spread across Europe, Du Bois could be found editing research on Blacks, organizing Pan-African Conferences, actively participating in the NAACP and establishing a reputation for his excellent work in Crisis magazine.
In other words, during his long, productive career, Du Bois had access to the historical facts, a method for analyzing them, and a clear perspective in general on the activities of the white world. One would do him great injustice to see his wholesale indictment of white civilization as simply an explosion of anti-white anger and criticism. One must look beneath the rhetoric for a serious questioning of the values, practices and orientation of the powerful white world, specifically as regards its continued exploitation of the rest of mankind for its own profit and well-being. Du Bois was concerned that a group, a nation, or a race commits murder and rape, steals and destroys, yet no individual is guilty, no one is to blame, no one can be punished.16
As for the dark world, Du Bois correctly predicted the courageous fight for freedom of Black, brown and yellow men from the oppression, humiliation and insult they have received from the white world. Long ago, Du Bois foresaw many Viet Nams. Long ago he stated:
A belief in humanity is a belief in colored men. If the uplift of mankind must be done by men, then the destinies of this world will rest ultimately in the hands of darker nations.17
1 The White Masters of the World, The World and Africa, W. E. B. Du Bois, International Publishers, 1965, p. 20.
2Ibid., p. 30.
3 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 43. (White Masters)
4 Souls of White Folk, Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil, Schocken Books, 1920, p. 36.
5 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 17. (White Masters)
6 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 31 (Souls)
7Ibid., p. 39.
8 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 20. (White Masters)
9 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 34. (Souls)
10Ibid., pp. 3435.
11Ibid., pp. 4245.
12Ibid., p. 33.
13Ibid., p. 29.
14Ibid., p. 40.
15 The White World, Dusk of Dawn, Schocken Books, 1940, p. 143.
16 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 42. (White Masters)
17 Du Bois, op. cit., p. 49 (Souls)
Copyright © Diorita C. Fletcher 1973
Diorita C. Fletcher, author of W. E. B. Du Bois Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (page 16), is a recent graduate of Radcliffe College, where she majored in Spanish and Afro-American studies, presently living in Washington, D. C.
Source: Black World May 1973 Vol. XXII No. 7 Chicago, IL 60605
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By W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois’ work is a seminal accomplishment. This is a wonderful survey of the important, vital role that Afrika and Afrikan peoples have played in world history. Du Bois gives the reader an intricate and thoroughgoing glimpse at how Afrika and all of her resources mineral, human, landhave shaped the destiny and laid the foundation for the modern world. A must read for the novice or specialist in Afrikan history and geopolitics. Further, the author shows how European economies have been bolstered at the expense of Afrikan people. In one chapter, “The Rape of Africa,” the reader is given a chance to see how the colonial powers partitioned the continent to satisfy their own hegemonic and dastardly needs. This is an important work that should, no doubt, be a cornerstone of any Black Studies, Political Science, or World History class.Amazon customer
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 28 April 2009