Slaves freed themselves. With this majestic assertion in 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois all but cemented Black Reconstruction as one of the most influential American history books of the twentieth century. At the time of its publication, it was widely denounced. Writing from the depths of the Great Depression, and amidst a burgeoning black communist internationalism, Black Reconstruction was Du Bois at his finest. By deftly applying classical Marxist analysis to a population so often overlooked by its orthodoxies, Du Bois’s general strike thesis emerged not only as a historical corrective, but as a stark critique of Western philosophy and modern academic inquiry itself. It brought together the study of class with the study of race and foreshadowed what we now call intersectionality. Yet, it also sat on the shelf for decades until, like so many great masterpieces, it was dusted off well after its creator’s death and celebrated only in Du Bois’s absence. As the great American poet/sometimes performance artist Kanye West reminds us: “people never get the flowers when they can still smell them.”
Du Bois’s insistence on black people as a revolutionary proletariat during the Civil War pointed to a glaring hole in both Marxist theories surrounding slavery and the more general study of African Americans by professional academics. Yet even as he bemoaned the neglect of black people within the intellectual annals of modernity, Du Bois paradoxically worked outward from a deep grounding in German Romanticism, classic liberalism, and traditional political theory. As a seminal figure in what Columbia University Professor Robert Gooding-Williams has since branded “Afro-Modern Political Thought,” Du Bois’s general strike thesis continues to cast a long shadow over contemporary historiography and black intellectuals alike. It also represents a place where Du Bois’s often-bemoaned elitism seems to fizzle away into oblivion. Eighty years later lessons still abound in Black Reconstruction. This is true not only for scholars working on postemancipation America, but for today’s diverse cohort of intellectual historians who are constantly at risk of ignoring the next Du Bois in their midst.
And DuBois won this debate, as today his thesis is expanded upon, but nearly never rejected. Unlike the bogus theories of the Dunning School, DuBois is influential nearly a century later.