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GREAT LIVES: Cooper & Du Bois were the social justice warriors of their time

GREAT LIVES: Cooper & Du Bois were the social justice warriors of their time

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PHOTO: W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

AT THE TURN of the 20th century, William Edward

Burghardt Du Bois (1868–1963) was one of the most renowned social justice intellectuals in the U.S. He helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), edited its popular journal, The Crisis, and established the first School of Sociology at Atlanta University.

Toward an empirically grounded critical race theory, the DuBoisian school examined the extensive institutional and interpersonal racism facing African Americans. Du Bois was a staunch supporter of liberal education for blacks at a time when whites favored the vocational education advocated by Booker T. Washington.

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858–1964) was as fully engaged in public debates surrounding racial uplift as was Du Bois. An educator herself, Cooper led the M Street High School for blacks in Washington, D.C., where she insisted on providing students with the best college preparatory curriculum available.

She eventually left M Street to lead Frelinghuysen University, a free public university offering classes in the evenings to accommodate work schedules.

Du Bois and Cooper valued higher learning as a result of their own accomplishments. Cooper excelled even against the formal limits to women’s curricular opportunities and insisted passionately that she should be allowed to pursue a liberal arts bachelors’ degree at Oberlin College. Both earned their doctorates: DuBois from Harvard, Cooper from the Sorbonne.

Du Bois and Cooper documented the experiences of African Americans in a white world with a clarity of vision and subjective, impassioned voice such that, if the (white) reader today is not at once shocked and defensive, they are drawn in, compelled to empathy, and led to greater self-awareness and reflection.

A black man in the racist U.S. of Dubois’ time had to live in two worlds, navigating a divided sense of self, what he termed “double consciousness.” Such awareness of one’s black self in the white-dominated world is a skill, never coveted, but necessary to survive.

Whites have no such need; thereby, according to Du Bois, they lack consciousness of their own race. The privileges coming from whiteness go unnoticed, unspoken, and unchallenged.

Cooper, for her part, wrote forcefully (often with irony and sarcastic wit) of the double and triple marginalization of black women who are poor. In “A Voice from the South,” a collection of essays and speeches, she describes how one must simultaneously confront both the “woman question” and the “race problem” in social arenas that minimize one’s contribution and standpoint.

Black women were pushed aside in conversations about race or gender justice. Implicated in both debates, they were never fully heard in either.

Nevertheless, overall, both Cooper and Du Bois committed their writings to educating white liberal leaders through evidence-based argument that could shape policies in favor of social uplift for black Americans and lead to a society based on equilibrium rather than domination.

At UMW, my students explore the rhetoric and the observational insights of these early civil rights leaders. Most students had not heard of either, and perhaps neither had many of us. But the words of Cooper and Du Bois ring eerily true, and students insist they might as well have been writing today.

Students are living the continuing urgency for race and gender justice. Inequalities of treatment and outcomes in the labor market, in housing, in health care, in education (etc.) continue, just as Du Bois and Cooper wrote about 75, 100, 120 years ago. The simple fact is that we still need movements for #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName. This is our shared and painful legacy.

Many legal and social improvements in gender and race equity notwithstanding, Du Bois and Cooper’s insights hold true. Not as much ahead of their time as of their own time, these trailblazing social commentators remain bitterly relevant in 2021.

Would that it were not so.

Dr. Kristin Marsh is professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, where she has taught for over 20 years. She will speak on Du Bois and Cooper as part of UMW’s Crawley Great Lives Series at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23. The lecture can be accessed online at umw.edu/greatlives.

Dr. Kristin Marsh is professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, where she has taught for over 20 years. She will speak on Du Bois and Cooper as part of UMW’s Crawley Great Lives Series at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23. The lecture can be accessed online at umw.edu/greatlives.

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