New Book on W.E.B Du Bois explores the contribution the scholar had on the origins and evolution of intersectionality
W.E.B. Du Bois is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era—and yet, most of his legacy has been confined to his scholarly work within racial studies. A new book from a CU Boulder professor, though, challenges that narrative, instead reframing Du Bois as a foundational figure in an important modern topic: intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the study of how social groupings like gender, race and class intersect and overlap, especially as they pertain to systems of oppression. This new book, Du Bois: A Critical Introduction, examines William Edward Burghardt (or W.E.B.) Du Bois’ life and legacy and argues that, while not fully formed and a bit disjointed, Du Bois’ work was undeniably foundational for this contemporary concept.
“When taken together and ample attention is given to his contributions to the critique of racism and sexism and capitalism and colonialism, Du Bois’ corpus registers as both an undeniable and unprecedented contribution to the origins and evolution of what scholars currently call intersectionality,” said Reiland Rabaka, the book’s author.
Rabaka is professor of African, African American and Caribbean Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the founding director of the Center for African & African American Studies at CU Boulder. He is also a research fellow in the College of Human Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Rabaka has published 16 books and more than 75 scholarly articles, book chapters, and essays, including most recently The Routledge Handbook of Pan-Africanism (Routledge, 2020).
We recently asked Rabaka a few questions about his new book:
Question: The summary for your book mentions that you look at Du Bois’ multidimensional legacy. How would you describe that legacy for the everyday reader?
Answer: W.E.B. Du Bois was born in 1868 and died in 1963. In essence, his life was bookended by the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. In the period between the aftermath of the Civil War known as the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) and the Civil Rights Movement years (1954-1968), Du Bois altered American history, politics and society by aligning himself with many of the most cutting-edge and controversial causes of his epoch.
Over time Du Bois shifted his political position from social reform to social revolution and desperately searched for bottom-up solutions to social and political problems. In this regard, his intellectual and political evolution holds many lessons we could learn from and use today in our efforts to make sense of our epoch: from the contentious centrality of race, gender and class in U.S. politics to popular revolutions across the Global South (i.e., formerly colonized or “Third World” countries) to recent worker uprisings in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Du Bois began his career a dedicated elitist but, after many missteps, evolved into a committed radical democratic socialist by his later years. He came to understand the carnage of world wars, race riots, lynchings, racial segregation, the disenfranchisement of women, colonialism and imperialism as serious indictments of the triumphalist narratives of spreading democracy that Europe and the United States have propagated for centuries. It was Du Bois’ search for solutions to the problems of racism, sexism, colonialism and capitalism that forced him to gradually move beyond reformism and embrace radicalism, and eventually revolution.
Ultimately, Du Bois’ legacy is his incredible evolution from bourgeois social scientist to revolutionary internationalist. His legacy is also bound up in what his trajectory teaches us about oppressed peoples’ awesome ability to transcend and try new things when deeply committed to transforming themselves and the world.
Q: Why do you think it's important to study Du Bois?
It is important to study Du Bois’ life and work because when it is objectively engaged and fully understood, it provides us with a framework for not only identifying problems but developing viable solutions to them."
A: It is important to study Du Bois’ life and work because when it is objectively engaged and fully understood, it provides us with a framework for not only identifying problems but developing viable solutions to them. Whether we turn to the resurgence of global racism and xenophobia, misogyny and gender injustice, the neocolonial conditions of the wretched of the earth and the Global South, the constantly changing character of capitalism and the misinterpretation of Marxism, or the seemingly never-ending imperialist wars, W.E.B. Du Bois’ discourse offers us both extraordinary insights and cautionary tales.
To access the lessons Du Bois’ legacy may teach us we must ask a set of crucial questions: Why is it imperative for us to know who Du Bois was and what he contributed to contemporary thought? Even more, and methodologically speaking, why is it important to not only know what but how, in his own innovative intellectual history-making manner, Du Bois contributed what he contributed to contemporary thought?
The real answers to these questions do not lay so much in who Du Bois was, but more in the intellectual and political legacy he left behind. Which is to say, the answers lie in the lasting contributions his discourse has historically made and is currently making to our critical comprehension of the ways the social inequalities and injustices of the 19th and 20th centuries have informed and morphed into the social inequalities and injustices of the 21st century.
Q: What got you personally interested in studying Du Bois? Was there something that instigated your interest?
A: I was in junior high school the first time I read, or rather attempted to read, the weighted words of W.E.B. Du Bois. The book was, of course, The Souls of Black Folk. I will never, ever, forget it. It was the cover of the book that drew me to it, that soulfully summoned me in a special, almost alchemic way.
I feel sort of embarrassed saying it, but The Souls of Black Folk is the first book with a Black person on the cover that my 12-year-old eyes had ever seen. Sure, my mother read me fiction and poetry by Black writers growing up, and she certainly encouraged me to read books by Black authors, but their pictures weren’t on the covers of their books.
Something happened to me when I saw Du Bois and, as I felt back then and still feel now, he saw me. I stared at him and studied that determined look on his face and the fire in his eyes, and he stared back at me, I imagined, with wild wonder. We went on like this for what seemed like a lifetime, and then at last I opened the book. Along with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Angela Davis: An Autobiography and Assata: An Autobiography, all of which I read the summer before I began high school, The Souls of Black Folk is a touchstone in my life and has traveled with me from adolescence to adulthood.
Growing up in a poor and extremely poverty-stricken family, and being the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was immediately taken by the candid discussion of racism and Black spirituality in The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois, it seemed to me, was writing about my life just as much as he was writing about his, and he did so in such an extremely eloquent and lyrical manner that I found myself in his words. I too lived behind “the Veil,” and pondered the world beyond it. I was all too familiar with that omnipresent question, which liberal and well-meaning White folk always seemed to ask more with their actions than their words: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Certainly, my life stands as a testament to the fact that Black people at the dawn of the 21st century are still approached more as problems than as persons—that is, human beings with rights to be respected and protected. From my point of view, The Souls of Black Folk is an early articulation of, and clear contribution to, the ideals and ethos of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
When and where I read Du Bois’ blistering criticisms of racial domination and discrimination in The Souls of Black Folk, I found myself thinking, even in junior high, that finally I had found someone who not only lived through the horror and harrowing experience of what it means to be Black in an utterly anti-Black world, but who unequivocally advocated anti-racist resistance in thought and action. He articulated, what appeared to me at 12 or 13 years of age, some special secret truth to which only he and I were privy.
I did not know it then, but what Du Bois shared with me in that initial encounter, in those tattered and repeatedly read pages of The Souls of Black Folk, would alter my intellectual and political life forever.