The amazing W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the primary architects of the Harlem Renaissance, is often celebrated as one of America’s greatest educators, historians, human rights leaders, prolific authors, and galvanizing change agents. What many may not realize is that during the first half of the 20th century he stood among that select group of “enlightened” men who championed the rights of women, and who argued that their full empowerment was crucial to the continuing development of democratic ideals and practices.
The degree to which Dr. Du Bois believed the unfettered role of women in American society was an absolutely essential one can be summed up in part by these words from his pen:
“...No state can be strong which excludes from its expressed wisdom, the knowledge possessed by mothers, wives and daughters.”
There are numerous reasons to spend time considering Du Bois’ insight on women’s equality at this specific juncture of history in the 21st century. One is the prospect of Hillary Clinton, or another prominent American woman political leader, running for the U.S. presidency in 2016 and becoming America’s first female commander-in-chief. Another is the battle to obtain equal education for girls and women in countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, Nepal, and dozens more.
There is of course no way to determine precisely how Du Bois would have confronted the unique challenges and opportunities women face in 2015. However, what follows is an extended excerpt from the Philosophical Library Series book titled The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois, in which this author examines his overall concerns in regard to women:
“… As a son, husband, and father, Du Bois engaged a perspective on women not endorsed by the majority of men of his era. He was a feminist who lobbied for the social, political, and sexual equality of women. Like that of his contemporary, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, his political agenda placed the urgency of securing civil rights for African Americans a notch above that of obtaining the same for women in general, but he never let if drift far from the sphere of his concerns.
“Most extreme among the abuses of women were those suffered by black women during American slavery. Against their will, they served in turn as instruments of sexual pleasure for their white masters and as breeding mares for the institution of slavery. Added to the shock of the routine violation of their bodies was the trauma of having to relinquish their children to unknown slave-holders. Du Bois considered this physical, mental, and spiritual abuse of black women--with its inevitable result being the destruction of the traditional African family--the highest crime committed by slave-holders and the one thing for which he said he could not forgive them.
“In his universe, the image of the black mother was that of a sacred being whose innate enchantment had been polluted and diluted by the ignorance, greed, and lust of white men. She now ‘sobbed her life away in song, longing for her lost palm trees and scented waters.’ Many of his writings were offered as atonement for the ignored tears of mothers, wives, and daughters.” (from The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois by Aberjhani)
Given the severe social, political, and economic limitations with which women had to contend during his lifetime, it is likely that Du Bois would have welcomed celebrations of Women’s History Month on a grand scale. Even if such celebrations cannot be presented as proof that women have arrived at a point of complete equality around the world, they do demonstrate how far they have come and how much more they may yet contribute to humanity.
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.