Erasing the Problem of the Color Line: A Collaborative Vision for the Future

In his groundbreaking work The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois asserted that “the world problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line—the question of the relation of the advanced races of men who happen to be white to the great majority of the undeveloped or half-developed nations of mankind who happen to be yellow, brown or black . . . .” For Du Bois, this relation was characterized in terms of white domination and exploitation that denied more than half of the world’s population the rights of full citizenship and status as human beings, informing what he referred to as the double consciousness of being African American. In attempting to describe this phenomenon, Du Bois wrote, “One ever feels his ‘twoness’—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In 1885, Du Bois’s own dogged strength led him to pursue a college education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. His journey from the small community of Great Barrington in western Massachusetts to the Jim Crow south opened Du Bois’s eyes to the racial terror, marginalization, and disenfranchisement inflicted on southern blacks, serving as a catalyst for his lifelong commitment to racial and social justice. After graduating from Fisk, Du Bois went on to earn a second bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Harvard, studied at the University of Berlin on a post-master’s fellowship, and was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard. Throughout his career in academia, Du Bois championed the transformative power of a liberal education as essential to the ideal of educating for democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that colleges and universities have a duty to play a leadership role in redressing inequities by leading change as teachers, researchers, activists, and public intellectuals.

Du Bois was at the forefront, critiquing entrenched notions of a racial hierarchy in scholarly journals, through his leadership in cofounding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in writing for popular culture and literary magazines, whose reach extended beyond the inner circle of the intellectual elite. On more than one occasion, Du Bois employed utopian fiction in the form of short stories to reaffirm the absurdity of white supremacy. Thus, both “The Comet” and “A.D. 2150, 1950” offer glimpses into a world in which a belief in the hierarchy of human value has been jettisoned. In the latter, a first-person narrative about an African American man who awakens from the dead after two hundred years, the color line has vanished within a fully integrated, pacifist, post-racial community. Though the resurrection of Du Bois’s character lasts for only a day, he dies again with “a certain quiet content.”

Unfortunately, Du Bois’s vision has yet to be realized, and the problem of the color line has persisted well into the twenty-first century. AAC&U’s partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise is an urgent call to action, taking up a Du Boisian charge to make explicit the connections between the work of higher education in promoting racial and social justice and the lives of those in surrounding communities and across the country. We could not be more proud or excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with a foundation that has demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to challenging societal norms and to overcoming structural barriers grounded in both hidden biases and overt acts of racism. The Kellogg Foundation’s support for children, families, and communities as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society is in perfect alignment with AAC&U’s mission of promoting liberal education and inclusive excellence in service to a thriving democracy, in which the full promise of American higher education can truly be fulfilled for all.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and AAC&U each have long-standing histories of nationwide collaboration to address complex issues of race and difference. Under its America Healing initiative, the Kellogg Foundation has fostered extensive networks and alliances reaching more than two hundred million people that encompass civil rights organizations representing an expansive range of identity groups. AAC&U’s leadership in promoting racial and social justice includes working with President Clinton’s Initiative on Race to create a Campus Week of Dialogue at six hundred colleges across the country and partnering with the Department of Education in 2012 to enhance civic learning at all institutions of higher education as a means of strengthening democracy.

The articles in this issue of Liberal Education represent a sense of hope and optimism about the future. They also signal a vow to accept responsibility for shaping a better world through the facilitation of an honest sharing of personal and collective narratives that will offer a framework for curricular development, community engagement, and the creation of action plans to meet the demands of the equity imperative in the academy and beyond. We are profoundly grateful to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their support and look forward to the meaningful journey upon which we are embarking together.

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