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The radical humanism of WEB Du Bois

by Brendan O’Neil

‘Decolonise the curriculum’ is a movement that wants university courses to focus less on dead white European males and more on writers of colour. Its argument is that black students need texts that speak directly to them. They need books by authors who look like them. They need books about experiences and ideas they can more readily relate to than they can the stuff written about in ‘high white culture’. Black students must be able to recognise themselves in what they study, we’re told, or else they’ll feel cheated and demeaned.

W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907
W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907 / Wikipedia CCO

I was surprised to find that one of the leading decolonise movements, at the University of Edinburgh, was arguing for WEB Du Bois’ 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, to be included on the English curriculum. The activists said it was unreasonable to expect black students to engage with so many white authors. They also need to engage with people like Du Bois, in whose work they might ‘recognise themselves’. I was surprised, not because I think The Souls of Black Folk shouldn’t be on more university courses – absolutely it should. No, it’s because The Souls of Black Folk runs so fantastically counter to the entire ideology of ‘decolonise’. It made me wonder if these activists have even read it. Du Bois’ book contains some of the finest arguments you will ever read against the idea that high culture is a white thing that others cannot connect with.

continue reading the article on the website Spiked!, August 27, 2023

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