Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne

Aug 31, 2020

W.E.B. Du Bois

A Life in American History


Why is the scholarship and advocacy work of W.E.B. Du Bois so relevant for 21st century politics? Does his unique combination of both serve as a possible template for today’s freedom movements?

Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly (assistant professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College and 2020-2021 Visiting Scholar with the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago) new book in called W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History (ABC-CLIO, 2019). In it, she argues that the application of Du Bois’s ideology, epistemology, and theory to practical action elucidates a road map for struggle against myriad forms of exploitation – and enduring features of his praxis provide lessons for our contemporary understanding and our ability to potential challenging of imperialism and racism.

Dr. Burden-Stelly works at the intersection of Critical Theory, Africana Studies, political theory, and political economy – and her analysis of Du Bois’s political and methodological contributions reflect these deep and broad scholarly traditions. She has revised Dr. Gerald Horne’s 2009 book substantively by refocusing on how Du Bois is part of and helps frame black radical history. He should be understood as a “veritable entrepôt of African-American, Pan-African, and radical Black History.” In order to create a book more accessible to those who do not specialize in Du Bois, political thought, or black history, Dr. Burden-Stelly has crafted helpful side-bars that help contextualize Du Bois’s political legacy, included and edited superb excerpts, and created a comprehensive chronology.

The most remarkable chapter of the book is “Why W.E.B. Du Bois Matters” in which she presents Du Bois as one of the “greatest activist-scholars in modern history” who took advantage of the best political-intellectual tools of his times – in a life that spanned almost 100 years and included 8 decades of political engagement. Du Bois’s “persistent engagement with the most pressing issues during his lifetime offers a template for scholar-activism that is still instructive today; his combination of ideological acumen and liberatory striving remains relevant to contemporary freedom movements.”

The podcast begins with some highlights of the intellectual biography including Dr. Burden-Stelly’s framing of Du Bois as a militant liberal and a militant anti-sexist (personally and professionally) who was able to simultaneously interrogate race, gender, and class. Engaging Du Bois’s work on Reconstruction allows Dr. Burden-Stelly to reveal the extent to which Du Bois should be understood as part of the Black Marxist tradition given that he analyzed the Civil War and beyond as “phases of capitalist exploitation, U.S. imperialism, global white supremacy, and Black labor insurgency.” Likewise, Du Bois shaped modern Pan Africanism such that Burden-Stelly considers him a father of modern Pan Africanism. Throughout all his scholar-activism, Du Bois nurtured deep and nuanced relationship that allowed him to both forge personal bonds and create institutions of enduring importance.

The podcast concludes with Dr. Burden-Stelly connecting Du Bois to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement focusing on political mobilization as a tool of liberation and analyzing the code that is being used to delegitimatize new liberatory projects.

Dr. Burden-Stelly is a veteran of the New Books Network and you can hear her earlier interview with me and her co-authors as we discussed Black Political Thought: From David Walker to the Present in June 2020.

Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (July 2020). Email her comments at or tweet to @SusanLiebell.

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Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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