February 23rd, 2018 marks the 150th birthday of W.E.B Dubois, one of America’s foremost African-American scholars and luminaries. This anniversary has given me cause for reflection; I wanted to take a look back at his life and work to see what we can still learn from Dubois today. His life’s work centered on improving the lives of African-Americans who were heavily discriminated against and dehumanized by America’s dominating white culture. In Dubois’ day, it was widely believed by whites that black people were sub-human and had no soul, which is why he chose the title of his seminal work “The Souls of Black Folk” to be a direct contradiction of that belief.
After reflecting on his body of work I believe that there is still much which we can learn from Dubois 150 years later. Although many of the legalized forms of discrimination from his time are gone, African-Americans still have not attained full equality or equity with their white counterparts. African-Americans comprise 32% of the jailed population while being only 15% of the total population; they are also imprisoned longer for similar crimes than white people. African-American unemployment sits at close to 11% while the national average is 4.8%. Less than 10% of blacks over 25 have a bachelor’s degree compared to almost 15% for whites.
I look at statistics like this and see the underlying legacy of past discrimination and current systemic discrimination that African-Americans still have to overcome 150 years after Dubois’ birth. However, others would say that they are caused by a deficiency in “black culture” and that there is no legacy of racism in America anymore (a point that is easily disproven when any scrutiny whatsoever is applied). Dubois once said that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line…” unfortunately it seems that it will also be the problem of the twenty-first century.
My main take away from Dubois, however, is not just recognizing and fighting against the very difficult challenges that have been faced by African-Americans over the centuries since we were first brought here in bondage, but rather….optimism. Dubois was ever the optimist urging us to “Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life” and envisioning “What a world this will be when human possibilities are freed, when we discover each other, when the stranger is no longer the potential criminal and the certain inferior”. Even though the America of his day must have seemed like society would never accept or respect the humanity of African-Americans, he still believed it would. I have that same optimism today, that we will overcome the legacy of the past, we will teach our children to fight the same fight we have been fighting for 400 years, the fight for equality, and the fight for justice.