United We Stand?: A Reflection Upon the Needs of the Negro Addressed by W.E.B. DuBois in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

W.E.B.DuBois“Work, culture, liberty, — all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people,the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races,but rather in larger conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.” [1]

Du Bois states that in order to truly be free, the Negro needs the right to higher education and the vote.  In order to be successful in this endeavor, we, humankind, must stand united. It is this lack of unification at the turn of the 19th century that slowed down the civil rights movement. It is this unity that made the civil rights movement of the 1960s a success.

Of late, I have been fascinated with the events and stories that take place around the turn of the 19th century. While reading Du Bois, I could not help but think about the television show Murdoch Mysteries. This show chronicles the cases of DetectiveMurdoch and the Toronto Constabulary during the 1890s. Using early forensic techniques, Murdoch uses logic and hard evidence to put criminals in jail – a radical concept for the time.

Episode 3 of Season 1 entitled, “The Knockdown”, follows the murder of Amos Robinson, an African-American boxer.  After winning a match against a white boxer, Robinson is found shot at close range in his hotel room. The evidence points towards Robinson’s wife, Fanny, but Murdoch is not satisfied with the loose ends. It should be noted here that a powerful first encounter between Murdoch and Fanny reminds us of the status of racial affairs at this time.

SPOILER ALERT! Upon further examination of the evidence, Murdoch discovers the murderer as Robinson’s manager. He explains the strategy they used for boxing that was playing up Robinson’s race and role as the “big black man” capitalizing on racial stereotypes and public fear.

While this show and episode should be recognized as entertainment and not historical fact, nevertheless it made me reflect upon a lot of things. How many times have individuals played up race or gender to make a profit?

Last August, SUNY Oneonta hosted a daylong teach-in entitled Beyond the List to fight against prejudices. A lecture entitled Race & Media: Profiling discussed the issue of playing on stereotypes in the media. It was shocking to realize that even today, the images of African Americans as violent, angry, thieves continue and those who play on these stereotypes profit. It is wrong for individuals to continue to profit from stereotypes. It is wrong for the individual perpetuating the image but more importantly for the audience who perpetuates the market.

Individuals who profit from stereotypes only fuel the fire of prejudice. These individuals educate others that prejudice is ok and that these stereotypes have merit. How can we truly be free without unification of thought and action?

I invite all individuals to think carefully about how they educate others through their words and actions on a daily basis regarding class, race, and gender stereotypes. Do you perpetuate stereotypes unconsciously? What words are you using? What actions are you taking? Are you helping or fighting the cause?

United we stand, divided we fall.


W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Dover Publications, INC.: New York, 1994), 7.

One thought on “United We Stand?: A Reflection Upon the Needs of the Negro Addressed by W.E.B. DuBois in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

  1. The passage from Souls of Black Folk is multi-layered. On one level, you are right that it was a call for “human brotherhood.” At the same time, it was an argument for the white “race” to respect the black “race” as an equal. The way he did so was problematic, however, because Du Bois reified the prevailing scientific and cultural framework of race in an attempt to counter whites’ depictions of blacks as “savage,” “primitive,” and “uncivilized.” He wanted whites to see the great value, beauty, and achievements of Africans and African Americans, but in order to do so he adopted a framework which divided the world into monolithic and transhistorical “races.” In a sense, this statement was both a call for unity and diversity.

    Murdoch Mysteries was clearly drawing inspiration from the real-life story of Heavyweight World Champion Jack Johnson. Check out Ken Burns’s film on Johnson called Unforgivable Blackness: http://www.pbs.org/unforgivableblackness/about/.

    I must challenge your statement that “unity” was what made the civil rights movement of the 1960s a success. The relative success, or lack thereof, of the CRM is highly debatable. Although legal segregation was dismantled (painstakingly over many years), massive inequalities persisted (and continue to persist) between many blacks and whites in the United States. Also, there was very little unity to speak of in the CRM. The various organizations (e.g., SCLC, NAACP, CORE, SNCC) often had difficulty collaborating, with some exceptions of course, and relatively few whites joined the movement in significant ways (again with important exceptions). In retrospect it may seem like everyone in the nation joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” to defeat a few evil segregationists. The reality was much messier and divided.

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