Black History Month: What Would DuBois Do Today?
Among the aspects that fascinate me most about Black America's past is how our ancestors made history happen. Although much of what we call history clearly happened to them in the form of enslavement and corrosive colonialism, they nevertheless both survived and thrived- gifting to humanity some of its most life-enhancing inventions and philosophies.
In the process, our ancestors established enduring legacies that exemplify what it means to live the history of a given moment with inspired courage, transformative vision and informed purpose.
Turn to a page in the year 1900 and we see the great educator and human rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. It is unlikely that his "separate but equal" accommodations are anything close to comfortable, but they will serve their purpose.
He is on his way to London to meet with others of African descent who are not Americans. With them, he will help define and confirm the idea that descendants of Africans removed from the continent during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or under other circumstances, comprise an international community.
This meeting is called the Pan-African Conference. Those attending have chosen to live the history of the moment in such a way that the conference evolves into a series of Pan-African Congresses held periodically throughout the twentieth century. Travel accommodations improved as timed passed but the purpose of the journey remained the same: to endow history with events and meaning advantageous to all people rather than just a few.
The power of this idea is such that eventually it flowers into a many-petaled global movement that results in economic, educational, social, and political exchanges that help empower one generation after another. It inspires Du Bois to strive for the rest of his life to publish an 'Encyclopedia Africana.'
The concept proves so far ahead of its time that it is not realized until after his death, when scholars Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah publish 'Africana, the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.'
Now, turn, or scroll, or click, to a more recent page in history and you'll find the United Nations' General Assembly in New York City declaring the year 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent.
The resolution recognizes that Afro-descendants as a group on different continents in different countries tend to experience greater instances of poverty, decreased educational opportunities, imprisonment, and non-representation in government.
It therefore requests:
"...Strengthening national actions and regional and international cooperation for the benefit of people of African descent in relation to their full enjoyment of economic, cultural, social, civil and political rights... and the promotion of a greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage and culture."
What might someone such as Du Bois, those with whom he met in 1900, or the great historians Carter G. Woodson and J.A. Rogers have done with such a proclamation?
Maybe they would have organized book clubs to read the biographies of Blacks in other countries, held fundraisers, organized another conference, or put on plays, and establish agendas.
One thing for certain is this: they would live the history of this singular 2011 moment with vision and purpose. They would make it count. The question is, how will we?
Aberjhani is the author and editor of 10 works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Thomas Jefferson Award and the Choice Academic Title and Best History Book Awards. To find out more about his books, visit his author page and blog on Red Room.