W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1896 monograph entitled The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation which he produced as Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

To close his work, Du Bois presented a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” In this little section, Du Bois reminded his readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve Union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Du Bois warned Americans that it was their habit to deny or dismiss the presence of real social ills in their country. He observed that Americans were loathe to admit that their nation had deep flaws and sins, and the result of this denial was that they continually delayed the honest addressing of those flaws to later generations. The failure of the founders to adequately and decisively solve the question of the slave trade, and by extension the institution of slavery, at the Constitutional Convention exacerbated the problem. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founding generation plunged into the tragedy of the Civil War because of the failure of 1787. The lesson for Americans of his own day was, therefore, to avoid the kind of failure the founders perpetrated at the birth of the nation. Don’t believe the lying words, “America is a pristine nation, pure and innocent of social ills.” Americans must identify injustices in its society and rather than put off those injustices for another day, they must deal with them when they ought to be dealt with, that is, in the present moment.

Here is an excerpt of Du Bois’ admonition to those who would accept the myth of America as an innocent nation, that they would cease believing in myths and take responsibility for pursuing justice in the here and now.

With the faith of the nation broken at the very outset, the system of slavery untouched, and twenty years’ respite given to the slave-trade to feed and foster it, there began, with 1787, that system of bargaining, truckling, and compromising with a moral, political, and economic monstrosity, which makes the history of our dealing with slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century so discreditable to a great people. Each generation sought to shift its load upon the next, and the burden rolled on, until a generation came which was both too weak and too strong to bear it longer. One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common-sense in facing the complicated phenomena of political life must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it. Such an attitude is dangerous; we have and shall have, as other peoples have had, critical, momentous, and pressing questions to answer. The riddle of the Sphinx may be postponed, it may be evasively answered now; sometime it must be fully answered.

It behooves the United States, therefore, in the interest both of scientific truth and of future social reform, carefully to study such chapters of her history as that of the suppression of the slave-trade. The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised? And although this chapter of history can give us no definite answer suited to the ever-varying aspects of political life, yet it would seem to warn any nation from allowing, through carelessness and moral cowardice, and social evil to grow. No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done.

One response to “W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Lesson for Americans”

  1. Phillip Luke Sinitiere

    Great post, John.

    Du Bois’s commentary and incisive historical analysis never cease to amaze. As I read Du Bois’s thoughts that closed his first book in 1896, I immediately thought of another place that Du Bois counseled the need for historical reflection coupled with moral or social action: the final paragraph and final sentences of his final book, published posthumously in 1968, five years after his death. In the Autobiography, Du Bois wrote: “Let then the Dreams of the Dead rebuke the Blind who think that what is will be forever and teach them that what was worth living for must live again and that which merited death must stay dead. Teach us, Forever Dead, there is no Dream but Deed, there is no Deed but Memory.”

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