W.E.B. DuBois's Insight on Race and the Global American CenturyHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, racism, global history, international relations, W.E.B. Dubois
ZACHARIAH MAMPILLY is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College and is an affiliate faculty member at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a co-author of Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change.
October 1961 was a momentous month for W. E. B. Du Bois. Since the early years of the twentieth century, Du Bois had been a towering figure among Black American intellectuals. A sociologist by training, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. During the Jim Crow era, he became known for an uncompromising stance, demanding equal rights for Black Americans through his journalism and advocacy work while also making seminal contributions to various academic debates. In the years between the two world wars, his attention turned increasingly to international affairs, and his politics veered sharply left; by 1961, Du Bois had applied for membership in the Communist Party. Now, at the age of 93, an ailing Du Bois was embarking on what would be his final journey. At the behest of Ghana’s pan-Africanist president, Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois moved to Ghana with the intention of beginning work on an “Encyclopedia Africana,” which would combat the prevailing perception of Africans and people of African heritage as devoid of civilization. What had once been a dream project for Du Bois, however, had become more of a last resort. Hounded by the U.S. government and marginalized by the academic and policy establishments that once welcomed him, Du Bois was fleeing his homeland. It was a figurative exile that turned literal when the U.S. State Department refused to renew his passport, rendering him functionally stateless. He spent the next two years in Ghana, where local and international activists and thinkers embraced him warmly, but he made little progress. He died in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington.
Today, Du Bois’s home in Accra is notionally a museum that, although scheduled for renovation next year, lies in a state of disrepair. Books, including many apparently owned by Du Bois, sit slowly decomposing in the heat. Photos of disparate Black and African leaders, including Du Bois’s intellectual rival Booker T. Washington and the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, hang haphazardly alongside illustrations of ancient Egyptian queens. Tourists, mostly interested in a crafts market behind the house, wander in and out, posing for selfies.
It’s hard to argue that Du Bois, perhaps the most celebrated Black intellectual of all time, is underrecognized. His work remains a standard on syllabi across disciplines; prizes from academic associations bear his name. Despite the acclaim, however, Du Bois remains underappreciated—especially when it comes to his thinking on international politics. For a time, Du Bois was a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs, publishing five essays during the interwar period on topics ranging from European colonialism in Africa to the United States’ role in the League of Nations. But Du Bois was an exception in this regard: during his lifetime, this magazine published very few Black voices—and its founding involved acquiring an existing journal that had occasionally trafficked in the racist pseudoscience that shaped the early years of international relations theory. Then, during World War II and amid the hysterical anticommunism of the early Cold War, Foreign Affairs joined the rest of the white American establishment in casting out Du Bois; partly as a result, his contributions to the field have received little attention from scholars in recent decades.
Du Bois is rightly still venerated for his work on civil rights. But the erasure of his contributions to debates on U.S. foreign policy and international order represents an enormous loss. By discarding him, the American foreign policy establishment robbed itself of one of the twentieth century’s most perceptive and prescient critics of capitalism and imperialism. His now forgotten texts on world politics prefigured many of the ideas that later shaped international relations theory. They brim with insights on the importance of race, the effect of domestic politics on foreign policy, the limits of liberal institutions, and the relationship between political economy and world order. Revisiting them today reveals how racism marred the dawn of the so-called American century and the liberal internationalism that drove it—and the role of establishment institutions (including this magazine) in that history. And because many of the ills that Du Bois diagnosed in the imperial and Cold War orders persist in today’s putatively liberal international order, rediscovering his work serves more than a purely historical purpose. A better order demands a more complete reckoning, and restoring Du Bois’s rightful place in the international relations canon would be a step toward that goal.