Eric Foner: 'You can't understand anything about America without reading Du Bois'


GREAT BARRINGTON — W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the past, but could also see into the future, and that more fake history was likely to come.

In his book "Black Reconstruction in America," the African-American scholar, author and civil rights movement founder countered the long line of historians who would frame that post-Civil War era in a fundamentally racist paradigm, said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner history professor at Columbia University.

"It's an 80-year-old book," Foner said in a phone interview. "But it's amazing how many elements of modern scholarship he was able to cut through. Racism is what shaped so much writing and is an indictment of our profession — it is something to be ashamed of that generations of historians created fake history in order to uphold [racist underpinnings]."

Foner, who will deliver the 22nd Annual W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture at Bard College at Simon's Rock on Thursday, April 12, will talk about Du Bois' book and the significance of Reconstruction, which Du Bois said failed in its pivotal attempt at equality for African-Americans.

Foner's scholarship has examined slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his book "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."

Foner, whose parents were friends with Du Bois, considers Du Bois' work on Reconstruction "a landmark of U.S. historical scholarship," and said it is "far more than a piece of African-American history."

Born and raised in Great Barrington, the Harvard-trained NAACP-founder assailed mainstream ideas about societal structures and the African-American experience, and was a controversial figure, who at age 93 joined the American Communist Party in disillusionment with the state of civil rights.

He was blacklisted by the U.S. government long before that, however, and it was his ideas that did it. Attempts by locals to honor him over the years ignited hot political kerfuffles that still echo, but have more recently quieted, as his legacy is better understood locally.

Foner's lecture coincides with the ongoing and inaugural W.E.B. Du Bois 150th Festival, which the town began celebrating in January.

"Reconstruction," written in 1935, is long and not an easy-to-read book, Foner said. While he says it is a poetic work by a scholar with an elegant hand and a fierce, contrarian mind, it is 768 pages-long fortified by by many details that give it debunking power.

"He was fighting a battle against the existing scholarship, so maybe he includes too much."

Foner said the book's final chapter, "The Propaganda of History," indicts historians for Reconstruction analysis that was a "racist intellectual underpinning of the Jim Crow south" — what would be used to justify stripping free blacks of the right to vote, for example.

"It was a terrible mistake to do this," Foner said of historians.

Du Bois, Foner said, took aim at the idea that Reconstruction was simply a time of "misgovernment and corruption."

But Du Bois goes one further — he takes down a widespread belief system about the Civil War and how blacks were supposedly "freed."

They emancipated themselves, Du Bois says, in what was akin to a labor strike — one that kicked the economic legs out from under the Confederacy, Foner said.

"But without reading more deeply, the world seems to see it as Lincoln freed them," Foner said. "Even still. [Du Bois said] black people are actors in history — they're not just acted upon by other people. That may seem like a very simple idea, but it was quite a revelation when Du Bois made that argument."

Du Bois characterizes slaves as a group grotesquely alienated from their labor.

"He was influenced by [Karl] Marx. He likens the situation to a major labor movement and overhaul," Foner said, adding that in the book, Du Bois tackles the complex economics of a South, and later a North, changed by a population of freedmen. Politically, the Civil War was seen as a second American Revolution. But Foner said Du Bois shows how economically, the war was a failure.

"The crux of the debate in 'Reconstruction' was how would black people get land so they could do their own labor," Foner said.

Du Bois had a way of upending widespread thought-forms. He didn't look kindly on U.S. policy during the Cold War, for instance, and it is no wonder that, over the years, Du Bois was an intellectual flame many wanted to snuff.

"He was suppressed and erased from history for a while," Foner said. "We used to complain about the Russians erasing people from history. During the Cold War we were defending freedom around the world while suppressing it at home."

Foner said not only does Du Bois' work on Reconstruction have resonance today as "we are still grappling with how to achieve Reconstruction's goals," but that "you can't understand anything about America without reading [Du Bois'] major sociological work, 'Souls of Black Folk.'"

Foner said Du Bois' tests of the integrity of American democracy are another important contribution.

"Du Bois career is worth studying because of his accomplishments [and] and lessons in the vagaries of free speech in this country."

Heather Bellow can be reached at and on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871

If you go:

What: "Du Bois, 'Black Reconstruction,' and the Significance of Reconstruction in American History."

When 7 p.m. Thursday, April 12

Where: Daniel Arts Center's McConnell Theater, Bard College at Simon's Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington

Free and open to the public

Register online to attend at:


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