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Editorial: Here's Why W.E.B. Du Bois Matters

While many of Du Bois’ contemporaries theorized about race, he applied sociological principles to identify meaningful solutions to racism.
Image: Black American writer Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.
Dr. W.E.B. Du BoisC. M. Battey / Getty Images

In case you missed it, during Black History Month the U.S. Department of Education received not so positive attention after the department's Twitter account misspelled the name of the African-American educator, pioneer and organizer, W.E.B Du Bois.

If this current administration’s lack of understanding of and commitment to supporting the needs of African American children and communities has remained unclear to date, both the initial tweet and the subsequent mistakes (read unnecessary spelling errors that should have been corrected by spellcheck) calls things into further question.

While one could ruminate on the implications of the federal agency responsible for supporting the system of public education in the United States failing to correct their work in ways that could result in students failing classes or being labeled notwithstanding, I think it important to underscore the importance of Du Bois and what his legacy means for us at this point in history.

While many of Du Bois’ contemporaries theorized about race, Du Bois applied sociological principles to identify meaningful solutions to the problems associated with racism.

W.E.B. Du Bois graduated from Fisk University, an illustrious HBCU, and completed graduate work at Harvard University and the University of Berlin. He was one of the first Black students to obtain a graduate degree and he became a professor at Atlanta University.

Dr. W.E.B. Du BoisC. M. Battey / Getty Images

He extended principles learned in the classroom to improve the lives of African Americans. Du Bois’ extension of pedagogy to apply to contemporary race relations highlights the importance of moving from theory to praxis or or to otherwise ensure that that which we preach we also practice. While not a historian by training, Du Bois encourages us to honor the many ways African descendants shape global history.

All caring and concerned adults can play a critical role in educating, uplifting, and inspiring the next generation of changemakers. Du Bois’ work underscores the importance of being both thoughtful about and intentional in your approach to understanding how individuals from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences engage with and influence one another.

The first step begins with understanding and uplifting the historical accomplishments of Black Americans throughout history—accurately and beyond Black History Month. W.E.B. Du Bois is a critical figure in history whose correctly spelled name and accomplishments must be included in every public school text.

Related: Frederick Douglass Was the Most Photographed American of the 19th Century

As an outspoken activist, Du Bois helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited the Crisis Magazine, and the published seminal studies like “the Philadelphia negro,” the first case study of a Black community, and authored texts like “The Souls of Black Folk.” which charged that winning the respect of white people could be accomplished through hard work and respectability.

Over the course of his lifetime Du Bois’ championed the development of Black literature and art—frequently encouraging and supporting readers to find beauty in Blackness, as evidenced throughout the magazine Phylon, Atlanta University’s review of race and culture, which DuBois founded after departing the NAACP.

DuBois was a spokesperson for full and equal rights in every aspect of a person’s life and dedicated his career to the fulfillment of this goal.

Second, all educators, should find opportunities to teach Black History beyond February.

In spite of the nation's public school students being the most diverse in the history of our country there are still places in the United States where students can go their entire schooling without interacting with African American students.

When (all) students learn about the positive contributions African Americans have made to global society in all fields, industries and disciplines it gives them a deeper appreciation for African American people. When students learn about Black History they can share what they learn at home and otherwise help to destroy negative stereotypes that can make it difficult for Black students to demonstrate genius or otherwise feel safe, engaged and supported in school and in life.

Author, sociologist, historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois poses for a portrait at home at 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn Heights in 1959 in New York City.David Attie / Getty Images

Finally, we must recognize the agency and activism of Black icons as trailblazers and changemakers —past and present. As a fellow sociologist Marcus Hunter, a professor at UCLA, notes in Black Citymakers, it’s critical for all to understand how Black people use agency to shape and improve the spaces they move through—often without receiving proper credit for the energy expended or advancements made (see: the history of African Americans being denied awards at the Grammys in spite of the catalogue of rock and roll and most other music genres being inspired and dominated by African Americans for additional reading).

Du Bois was a spokesperson for full and equal rights in every aspect of a person’s life and dedicated his career to the fulfillment of this goal. Beyond scholarship, which ideologically opposes suggestions of biological white superiority, Du Bois’ support of women’s right’s, pan-Africanism, and liberation are principles that remain important as we grapple with what a Trump administration will continue to mean for the future of our communities and country.

Du Bois died on August 27, 1963, one day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Let’s ensure, this and every subsequent month following Black History Month, that his life and legacy do not die.

David J. Johns is a professor at American University, a public speaker and political strategist. David recently served as the first Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Follow David on Twitter at MrDavidJohns.