W.E.B. DuBois built the world you live in today. Brick by brick, concept by concept, he tore down a world dedicated to colonialism, segregation, and exploitation. Who was he? Sadly, too many people will ask this question with flawless sincerity. The United States Congress essentially erased him from the public record because he stood for peace in an age of multiple wars. DuBois’s academic and intellectual accomplishments would fill this entire newspaper for years, if they received the coverage he earned. In brief, his career began before the Presidency of William McKinley and ended just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While the world celebrated Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, DuBois refined Frederick Douglass’ concept of universal human equality and developed the global political agenda of democratic self-rule. His most recognized insight was the exploration of ‘double consciousness’ — the idea that within a single person there was a self-image and an awareness of how other people saw you. The distinction between the internal and external perceptions of a person could utterly destroy an individual, especially when the difference between the two visions involved the idea of race.
However, another keen insight came from his work, “The Freedom to Learn,” in 1949. DuBois asserted that the right to learn was the most difficult achievement humanity had won in 5000 years of struggle. Consider that. More than the Jeffersonian rights to life, liberty, and property, the right to learn was most valuable. In the long process of human beings exploring different form of civilization as we moved from religion to enlightenment to science in pursuit of greater freedom, learning was never a right. For DuBois, this achievement was a product of the American commitment to public education in the late nineteenth century. Education was no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy or the devout. Everyone could learn. The content of the education could certainly be debated. Which lessons were most appropriate for which people? Still, the fundamental claim that everyone had a right to more information built the conceptual foundation for the schools, libraries, and colleges across the world. Indeed, it is the premise behind the widespread information sharing we do with websites like Wikipedia, Youtube, and Google.
Who carries the torch today for increased freedom, education, and a better world tomorrow? Salamishah Tillet and Aishah Simmons have led the way in giving greater voices to women around the world in their work “No! The Rape Documentary” and its related projects. Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, Marc Anthony Neal, Marc Lamont Hill, Dawn Elissa-Fisher, and Marcia Dawkins have all established the ways hip hop music transforms societies towards democracy. Mary Sies, Thomas Sugrue, Robin Bachin, John McCarthy, and Julian Chambliss have applied these lessons to understanding architecture, environmentalism, and metropolitan growth for more than twenty years. We are all inheritors of DuBois’ unparalleled intellectual legacy. From his work on The Philadelphia Negro to The Souls of Black Folk to The Crisis Magazine to Black Reconstruction (of Democracy) in America, DuBois was the voice that invented an America and a world that stood for justice and equality in ways inconceivable when his career began. If we want the best world in the twenty-first century, we must teach these lessons and engage this work in ways that have been too rare over the last forty years. DuBois is the touchstone for establishing the best human principles for the future. There are literally thousands of interpreters of his work throughout secondary and higher education. When all Americans rediscover and embrace these ideas, we will have taken another step towards achieving the beloved community.