Revisiting DuBois’ landmark book, ‘The World and Africa’
Shirley Graham DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah, an unidentified person, and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in Ghana, after Ghana's independence in 1957.

The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History by W.E.B. DuBois argues that Africa’s great contributions to world civilization have been erased and ignored. DuBois argues that this is because of the transatlantic slave trade, which enslaved millions of Africans.

The slave trade, he argues, served in many ways as the foundation for the emergence of the world capitalist system, as slave labor was used to toil on the sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations of the American (South America, North America, and Caribbean) colonies. These crops and the wealth they created then fueled the Industrial Revolution and enriched Western Europe and the future United States of America.

The collective memory of the greatness of the rich history of Africa had to be erased in order to perpetuate the myth that African people or people of African descent were inferior in order to justify the transatlantic slave trade, the industrial capitalist system, and the imperialist colonization of Africa by Western Europe.

This book is very important; it serves as a corrective for the habits of Western European and North American scholars to ignore or downplay the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of Africa. However, if the people of Africa free themselves from Western neocolonialism, colonialism, and imperialist domination and extraction of their resources—i.e. if Africans completely take control over their resources and use them for their own development—it would be a major blow to imperialism’s system of exploitation, oppression, poverty, war, and racialism/racism.

Here are some interesting points DuBois makes:

After the transatlantic slave trade became unmanageable and untenable due to the resistance and revolts of Africans on the continent of Africa, on the slave ships, and in the colonies in the Western Hemisphere, the Western European colonial slave-holding countries then switched to direct colonization of the African continent in order to exploit the rich natural resources of Africa and the labor of Africans. Colonization also allowed Europeans to use the colonies as a market for their finished products.

Labor was degraded through the process of the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans. Labor was seen as the work of supposedly inferior people while superior people lived at their expense. It was common sense in the colonizing countries that the darker peoples of the world in Africa, Asia, and Latin America should work and be exploited by the Western European “white” world; this was viewed as a just social order.

The concept of race was developed to justify the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of Africa and Asia, i.e. the world capitalistic system. The governments and mainstream academics of Western European countries and the U.S. said race had scientific backing, that whiteness was defined as “civilized” and “advanced,” and that non-white people were primitive and inferior.

DuBois understands World War I as being, at its core, a conflict among the imperialist powers for control over spheres of influence in Asia and colonies in Africa. Germany demanded to get more colonies and the right to extract wealth just like Britain and France.

In one passage from the book, DuBois connects the exploitation of workers in Europe with the exploitation of colonized people in Africa and Asia and the racism involved in the imperialist system. DuBois points out that Nazism went hand-in-hand with the ideological constructs already constructed by the major imperial powers:

“The concept of the European ‘gentleman’ was evolved: A man well-bred and of meticulous grooming, of knightly sportsmanship and invincible courage even in the face of death; but one who did not hesitate to use machine guns against assagais [wooden spears] and to cheat ‘n******’; an ideal of sportsmanship which reflected the Golden Rule and yet contradicted it—not only in business and in industry within white countries, but all over Asia and Africa—by indulging in lying, murder, theft, rape, deception, and degradation, of the same sort and kind which has left the world aghast at the accounts of what the Nazis did in Poland and Russia.

“There were no Nazi atrocity-concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of childhood—which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race born to rule the world.

“Together with the idea of a Superior Race there grew up in Europe and America an astonishing ideal of wealth and luxury: the man of ‘independent’ income who did not have to ‘work for a living,’ who could indulge his whims and fantasies, who was free from all compulsion either ethic or hunger, became the hero of novels, of drama and of fairy tale.

“This wealth was built in Africa especially, upon diamonds and gold, copper and tin, ivory and mahogany, palm oil and cocoa, seeds extracted and grown, beaten out of the blood-stained bodies of the natives, transported to Europe, processed by wage slaves who were not receiving, and as Ricardo assured them they could never receive enough to become educated and healthy human beings, and then distributed among prostitutes and gamblers as well as among well-bred followers of art, literature, and drama.” (pp. 75 -76)

DuBois applies Marxist methodology to analyze the connection between Western Europe/the U.S. and the colonies. The wealth enjoyed by the Western European ruling classes was accumulated through exploitation and oppression, land theft, murder, brutality, and the domination of Africans and exploited workers in Europe and America alike.

They disguised their system based on exploitation and oppression with the trappings of elections and democracy at home and tales of benevolence in managing the colonized. Their societal narratives turned Western colonialist gangsters and thieves into heroes. The European and European-American capitalist ruling class professed to be Christian while doing the opposite of Christian teachings:

“Cities were built, ugly and horrible, with regions for the culture of crime, disease, and suffering, but characterized in popular myth and blindness by wide and beautiful avenues where the rich and fortunate lived, laughed, and drank tea. National heroes were created by lopping off their sins and canonizing their virtues, so that Gladstone had no connection with slavery, Chinese Gordon did not get drunk, William Pitt was a great patriot and not an international thief. Education was so arranged that the young learned not necessarily the truth, but that aspect and interpretation of the truth which the rulers of the world wished them to know and follow.

“In other words, we had progress by poverty in the face of accumulating wealth, and that poverty was not simply the poverty of the slaves of Africa and the peons of Asia, but the poverty of the mass of workers in England, France, Germany, and the United States. Art in building, painting, and literature, became cynical and decadent. Literature became realistic and therefore pessimistic. Religion became organized in social clubs where well-bred people met in luxurious churches and gave alms to the poor. On Sunday they listened to sermon—“Blessed are the meek;” “Do unto others even as you would that others do unto you;” “If thine enemy smite thee, turn the other cheek;” “It is more blessed to give than to receive;”—listened and acted as though they had read, as in very truth they ought to have read—“Might is right;” “Do others before they do you;” “Kill your enemies or be killed;” “Make profits by any methods and at any cost so long as you can escape lenient law.” This is a fair picture of the decadence of that Europe which led human civilization during the nineteenth century and looked unmoved on the writhing of Asia and of Africa.” (pp. 76 -77)

DuBois then goes into the long and rich history of Africa that has been ignored by Western scholars to justify the exploitation and oppression of African (Black) peoples. When African people were enslaved by the Western imperialist powers, the world was told by the West that Africa had no history, no culture, and no civilization. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, DuBois argues. Africa has a vast history that stretches much further back in time than that of Western Europe.

Humanity began in Africa, he reminds readers. The civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia alone lasted for over 3,000 years, and each is much older than Greece, the first well-known civilization in Europe. Also, there are thousands of ethnicities, cultures, and civilizations to be found throughout the African continent. African history and culture shouldn’t be ignored by anyone serious about understanding the world, DuBois says; it should be respected and studied.

In the chapter on Egypt, he discusses how some racist European scholars calling themselves “Egyptologists” sought to argue that Egyptian society did not consist of dark-skinned African people. It was all an attempt to detach darker-skinned people from the kind of technical achievements that were obvious in Egyptian history. DuBois argues that actually, Egypt consisted of dark-skinned African people, lighter-skinned Africans, and other colors in between. Egypt is known for being one of the first world civilizations, and DuBois shows that the people there came in many colors, including the darkest colors, despite what the “Egyptologists” claimed.

In the chapter on Ethiopia, DuBois connects its history with that of Egypt. The two civilizations are tied together, he writes, as many people from Egypt originally migrated from Ethiopia. DuBois shows that Greece, rather than being the leader in social evolution as claimed by the scholars of “Western Civilization,” actually looked to Ethiopia and Egypt for inspiration. Ethiopia was seen as a great place for Greeks to go to and visit, and some select few among the elite traveled there, just as Americans might have traveled to England or France in the past looking for models. Ethiopians were also black/dark-skinned. The name Ethiopia that we use today, in Greek, translated to “land of the burnt faces.”

In the chapter on Sudan, DuBois discusses how the Islamic empires expanded through North and West Africa up to Spain. In the Islamic world in West Africa, there were universities, such as that found at Timbuktu. The empire of Mali was an African Islamic empire. DuBois makes the argument that the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment in Europe had to be influenced by Africans but that this spillover is largely ignored because of the ideology of racism.

Towards the end of the book, DuBois included a speech he had previously given calling for Africa to unite under what he described as the “beautiful robes of Pan-African Socialism.” He called on African countries to increase trade with the Soviet Union and China instead of the capitalist West. He told Africans to arise, saying—paraphrasing Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto—they had nothing to lose but their chains and a world to win.

DuBois discusses his efforts to organize several Pan-African Congresses aimed at raising awareness of the struggle for Pan-Africanism and the fight against European colonialism and imperialism in Africa. Those conferences are an episode of history worth closer study; DuBois organized them with just a few other people in the early 1900s—a half-century before the major anti-colonial struggles on the African continent broke out into the open. DuBois met with other Pan-Africanists in those early days, such as George Padmore. In the later Pan-African Congresses, he met the future president of Ghana and renowned leader of the Revolutionary Pan-African struggle, Kwame Nkrumah, and the leader of the Kenyan liberation struggle against British colonialism, Jomo Kenyatta.

In the book, DuBois tells the story of Nkrumah and the anti-colonial revolution in Ghana to oust the British. Nkrumah, after becoming Ghana’s leader, sought to industrialize Africa and called for the continent to become socialist and unite against colonialism, neocolonialism, and Western capitalism and imperialism. He was removed from power in a coup backed by the U.S. while visiting Vietnam.

DuBois also writes about Patrice Lumumba and tells of how the young brilliant man who was hungry for knowledge became the president of the Congo. Lumumba was killed in a coup that was backed by the U.S. and Belgium, largely because he wanted the resources of the Congo and Africa to be used for the development of the Congo and Africa and not Belgium, the U.S., or the West.

The World and Africa should not be forgotten by anyone fighting for truth, justice, and freedom in the world. It should be studied by all.

W.E.B. DuBois’ The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History is available from International Publishers.

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Stu Becker
Stu Becker

Stu Becker is an activist and organizer in Dallas, Texas. He is a high school social studies teacher, and a member and organizer in the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.