Watch Cornel West’s Free Online Course on W.E.B. Du Bois, the Great 20th Century Public Intellectual

A giant of 20th cen­tu­ry schol­ar­ship, W.E.B. Du Bois’ career spanned six decades, two World Wars, and sev­er­al waves of civ­il rights and decolo­nial move­ments; he saw the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry with more clar­i­ty than per­haps any­one of his gen­er­a­tion through the lens of “dou­ble con­scious­ness”;  he wrote pre­scient­ly about geopol­i­tics, polit­i­cal econ­o­my, insti­tu­tion­al racism, impe­ri­al­ism, and the cul­ture and his­to­ry of both black and white Amer­i­cans; we find in near­ly all of his work pierc­ing obser­va­tions that seem to look direct­ly at our present con­di­tions, while ana­lyz­ing the con­di­tions of his time with rad­i­cal rig­or.

“An activist and a jour­nal­ist, a his­to­ri­an and a soci­ol­o­gist, a nov­el­ist, a crit­ic, and a philoso­pher,” notes the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, Du Bois “exam­ined the race prob­lem in its many aspects more pro­found­ly, exten­sive­ly, and sub­tly” than “any­one, at any time.” And there is no one more flu­ent in the ver­nac­u­lars, lit­er­a­tures, and philoso­phies Du Bois mas­tered than Cor­nel West, who lays out for us what this means:

Du Bois, like Pla­to, like Shake­speare, like Toni Mor­ri­son, like Thomas Pyn­chon, like Vir­ginia Woolf…. What do they do? They push you against a wall: heart, mind, soul. Struc­tures and insti­tu­tions, vicious forms of sub­or­di­na­tion, but also joy­ful and hero­ic forms of cri­tique and resis­tance.

West begins his course on Du Bois—delivered in the sum­mer of 2017 at Dart­mouth—with this descrip­tion (things get going in the first lec­ture at 3:15 after the course intro), which ges­tures toward the com­par­a­tive, “call and response,” dis­cus­sion to come. All nine lec­tures from “The His­tor­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of W.E.B. Du Bois” (plus an addi­tion­al pub­lic talk West deliv­ered at the uni­ver­si­ty) are avail­able at Dart­mouth’s Depart­ment of Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing site, as well as this YouTube playlist.

The course fol­lows the move­ment of Du Bois’ com­plex his­tor­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and pio­neer­ing use of schol­ar­ly autobiography—(what West calls the “cul­ti­va­tion” of a “crit­i­cal self”)—through a num­ber of themes, from “Du Bois and the Cat­a­stroph­ic 20th Cen­tu­ry” to, in the final lec­ture, “Rev­o­lu­tion, Race, and Amer­i­can Empire.” It begins with 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois first wrote of dou­ble con­scious­ness and penned the famous line, “The prob­lem of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is the prob­lem of the col­or-line.”

West puts close read­ings of that sem­i­nal work next to “sub­se­quent essays in [Du Bois’] mag­is­te­r­i­al cor­pus, espe­cial­ly his clas­sic auto­bi­og­ra­phy Dusk of Dawn (1940),” the course descrip­tion reads. The lat­ter text is not only a Bil­dung, a “spir­i­tu­al auto­bi­og­ra­phy,” Du Bois called it, but also a crit­i­cal analy­sis of sci­ence and empire, white­ness, pro­pa­gan­da, world war, rev­o­lu­tion, and a con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of race that sees the idea’s arbi­trary illog­ic, in the “con­tin­u­ous change in the proofs and argu­ments advanced.” These ideas became for­ma­tive for anti-colo­nial, anti-impe­r­i­al, and Pan-African move­ments.

Du Bois first formed his “rad­i­cal cos­mopoli­tanism,” as Gunter Lenz writes in The Jour­nal of Transna­tion­al Amer­i­can Stud­ies, dur­ing his stud­ies in Ger­many, where he arrived in 1892 and found him­self, he wrote, “on the out­side of the Amer­i­can world, look­ing in.” He returned to Ger­many over the decades and, in a 1936 vis­it, was one of the few pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als who pre­dict­ed a “world war on Jews” and “all non-Nordic races.” But Du Bois not only con­front­ed the geno­ci­dal wars and helped lead the lib­er­a­to­ry move­ments of the 20th cen­tu­ry; he also, with uncan­ny per­spi­cac­i­ty, both antic­i­pat­ed and shaped the strug­gles of the 21st. Access West­’s full lec­ture course here.

West­’s course, “The His­tor­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Free Online His­to­ry Cours­es

Take Free Online Cours­es on African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry from Yale and Stan­ford: From Eman­ci­pa­tion, to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and Beyond

W.E.B. Du Bois Cre­ates Rev­o­lu­tion­ary, Artis­tic Data Visu­al­iza­tions Show­ing the Eco­nom­ic Plight of African-Amer­i­cans (1900)

W.E.B. Du Bois Dev­as­tates Apol­o­gists for Con­fed­er­ate Mon­u­ments and Robert E. Lee (1931)

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • makedoanmend says:

    Thanks for post­ing this up and adding it to the edu­ca­tion col­lec­tion. I’ll def­i­nite­ly give it a go.

    It’s inter­est­ing that Du Bois choose turn of the cen­tu­ry Ger­many as a place to explore con­cepts like race, lib­er­ty and free­dom. From what I can gath­er explo­ration of the con­cepts was pret­ty live­ly in Berlin and oth­er large Euro­pean cities. Of course a Euro­pean War and a world eco­nom­ic crash sig­nif­i­cant­ly affect­ed the dia­logue and gave rise to a dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive in West­ern Europe to vary­ing degrees.

    It’s easy to draw par­al­lels today as eco­nom­ic decline for work­ing peo­ple (espe­cial­ly from the mid­dle class­es) become more promi­nent. I won­der what Du Bois would proph­e­size today, and what would he make of the new (just like the old) forms of racism/classicism forms evovling?

    His­to­ry, like time, does­n’t repeat but it can damn sure rhyme.

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