W.E.B. Du Bois: Cosmopolitanism & a Pragmatic View of the Future

Du Bois was one of the most iconic American activists. He was a champion of civil rights and of transnational cosmopolitanism through his involvement with the Pan-African Congress and the NAACP.

Apr 20, 2022By David Sinor, BA Political Philosophy
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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Massachusetts shortly after the American Civil War. Du Bois went on to become a dominant American figure. He co-founded the NAACP and was a foremost authority and creator of the discipline of Sociology. Du Bois was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His work was an inspiration for the guidelines that established the United Nations. He gave multiple addresses to the League of Nations; was a Chair of the Pan-African Congress; and authored the seminal work The Souls of Black Folks, a cornerstone in early African-American Literature.


W.E.B. Du Bois: Activists and Trailblazer

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Into Bondage by Aaron Douglas, 1936, via National Gallery of Art


Any of these achievements individually would have given a person a rightful spot in the history books; however, they all belong to one person – W.E.B. Du Bois. He was a trailblazer by every definition of the word. Du Bois was a complex individual with varying and evolving beliefs during the course of his life. While growing up, he showed exceptional skills in school. By receiving scholarships and support from his local community and church, he was able to attend the historically black college (HBCU) Fisk University. Fisk University is located in the heavily segregated South of Nashville, Tennessee. This confrontation with segregation influenced most of the beliefs he held in regards to African American acceptance of segregation. These beliefs propelled him into one of his most notorious ideological conflicts with another historic figure: Booker T. Washington.


Booker T. Washington: Philosophical Differences 

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Portrait of Booker T. Washington by Peter P. Jones, cca. 1910, via the Library of Congress


Booker T. Washington was one of the foremost African-American leaders of the late 19th century. He presented many arguments and considerations to the larger masses, though not everyone within the community agreed with his rhetoric. Washington often made arguments that involved the notions of self-sufficiency and Black economic freedom for African-Americans. Washington believed that his people should achieve Black upward mobility to “dignify and glorify common labor.” During the peak of lynchings of African-Americans in the south of the US, Washington also argued that if Black people were allowed to be left alone to their farming and general education, they would not fight back against the Jim Crow system. In his Atlanta compromise speech, Washington stated that “in all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”


This philosophical idea of what Black upward mobility looked like in reconstruction and into the 20th century was not what all African-American leaders believed to be the correct course of action. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most outspoken critics of this ideal. Du Bois, who was the first Black Ph.D. holder from Harvard University, believed that the disparities that resided between white and Black Americans were not due to inherent differences. The reason for these differences lies in prejudice in acceptance into higher education and occupations with larger potential of income. Du Bois published his arguments in the same publication that contained the ideas of Booker T Washington, and talked about The Talented Tenth. The idea was that the most educated ten percent within the African-American community would provide the forefront of Black upward mobility. The talented tenth would guide the community toward higher income jobs and more acceptance within greater American society. Many leaders disagreed with this argument, stating that it was too centered on education and that Black upward mobility could occur from all education levels within the Black community.

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These arguments differed greatly and are a clear sign that the ideas behind Black upward mobility in the early 20th century have never been single-minded. Instead, the ideas behind Black emancipation are rooted in varied philosophies and practices that could help advance the community towards a better and more prosperous future.


NAACP: Co-Founder

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Marcus Garvey and Garvey Militia by James Van Der Zee, 1924, via National Gallery of Art


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is one of the most well known civil rights organizations in American history. Du Bois, a co-founder of the organization, wanted a group which would take like-minded individuals who were striving for equal rights between races and channel those ideas to tasks like ending segregation and the Jim Crow system. The NAACP was founded in 1909, and that same year the original chairmen were selected. Du Bois resided on this committee as the Director of Publicity and Research, and – shockingly – was the only African-American on the board. Using his position, he linked the NAACP with his already successful publication The Crisis, a journal that is still active and publishing to this day.


The original charter and goals of the NAACP read:


“To promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice among citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law.”


This ambitious charter was the cornerstone of the organization through the years and helped them impact society in their fight against segregation. The NAACP has brought the ideas of Du Bois into the new century and continues to bring about change through his philosophy. Today, there are scholarships from the NAACP as well as the now separate organization The Legal Fund which help fund Civil Rights Lawsuits.


Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

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A Pastoral Visit by Richard Brooke, 1881, via National Gallery of Art


Du Bois’ most famous work and one of the most influential writings from African-Americans in the early 20th century is The Souls of Black Folk. One of the reasons for its influence is that it contains an idea about the self-perception of Black people known as “double consciousness”. Double consciousness is a description of African-Americans’ perception of themselves within the broader American society.


“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his own two-ness, an american, a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in on dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” – W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


Dy Bois’ deeply impactful understanding of Black lived experience led to an international exploration of second class citizens’ perception within societies writ large. His understanding of the impact from prejudice and societal structures helped redefine the field of sociology and how we understand group division within cultures, and more specifically, within transnational cultures.


The Pan-African Conference: A letter to the World

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African Hospitality by John Raphael Smith, 1791, via National Gallery of Art


The Pan-African movement came from a collective denunciation and criticism of the European colonization and exploitation of the African continent. The First Pan-African Conference was held in London with dignitaries from many African Countries and involved African leaders from nearly every culture of the African diaspora. Giving the closing remarks on this meeting, under international pressure and scrutiny, was a 32 year old Du Bois.


His heartfelt speech and tone called for an end to the colonialism that plagued the African Continent and a change in the perception of African People. This conglomeration of people and leaders helped influence Black Internationalism and movements all around the world for the next 100 years, and still influences the foundation of organizations looking for progress in civil rights globally in the 21st century.


“Let the world take no backward step in that slow but sure progress which has successively refused to let the spirit of class, of caste, of privilege, or of birth, debar from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness a striving human soul. Let no color or race be a feature of distinction between white and black men, regardless of worth or ability.” – Du Bois, Color Line Speech at Pan-African Conference, July 29, 1900.


The United Nations

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Allegory of Peace by Domenico Tibaldi, c. 1560, via National Gallery of Art


After the end of World War II in 1945 The United Nations was founded with the purpose of giving a floor for dialogue between all nations and to ensure that human rights were agreed upon by all people. Du Bois took immediate action and began bringing together African-Americans and their international allies, many of whom he had met at both the Pan-African Conference of 1900 and later at meetings of the Pan-African Congress, urging them to write a petition to the United Nations. This petition took over a year to complete.


When finally completed, the petition was a 96-page document with 6 chapters in it. It covered subjects ranging from slavery and the Jim Crow system, to education, employment opportunities, and even healthcare. These categories remain those wherein many of the disparities between the races are still marked, even now, 140 years since slavery was abolished in the United States. Sadly, the main antagonist to this reform that was gaining traction through the U.N. was the United States.


Under the Truman administration, the State Department fought tooth and nail to ensure that no such declaration would impact the United States. In the end, in 1948, after nearly a year of Du Bois’ petition being debated, the United Nations announced The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Du Bois’ impact is still a major cornerstone of the U.N. and benefits and protects peoples everywhere.


Cosmopolitanism: Meaning and Necessity

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The Judgement Day by Aaron Douglas, 1939, via National Gallery of Art


Cosmopolitanism is a philosophical principle that states that all people are of one greater society, that of humankind. It defends principles such as treating all people with dignity and applying justice in a manner that benefits all peoples regardless of caste or position. This is a form of justice and understanding that was progressed by The Harlem Renaissance and many different international movements. It was picked up and carried on by many civil rights movements; it is the ideal outcome of true equality among the international community.


In recent years, the term “cosmopolitan” has taken on a new meaning: that of someone who is privileged enough to travel around the world, and may uphold the term “elitist”. This is not the cosmopolitanism that Du Bois had in mind. Even The Harvard Business Review posted an article in the defense of cosmopolitanism in 2016 – in the sense that Du Bois championed. The article uses points that are strikingly similar to the arguments Du Bois defended in the early 20th century.


W.E.B Du Bois: Pragmatism and the Future of Humanity

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World Peace by Joseph Kiselewski, 1946, via National Gallery of Art


Du Bois’ tireless dedication and pragmatism helped establish numerous organizations and ideologies that still lead humanity into the future. His impact on such things as the Pan-African Conference and United Nations has had an effect on innumerable lives in every corner of the world. He inspired new leaders into making even further strides in civil rights. With a contemporary rise in Nationalism in the United States and Europe, the work and philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois are more relevant than ever.


Necessary cosmopolitanism and a collective pragmatic and continuous fight for civil rights is everyone’s responsibility. To bring about Du Bois’ ideals and message, we must work together and critically examine our perceptions, something Du Bois did consistently his entire life, changing the world around him for the better.

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By David SinorBA Political PhilosophyDavid is a contributing writer, originally from Florida. After receiving his degree in Political Philosophy he spent 5 years in Hawaii serving in the Navy. Aboard his submarine, he ran his ship’s library in his free time. He is currently pursuing a postgrad degree at Arizona State University. He has had a life-long love of philosophy that he takes with him into all his endeavors.