Du Bois challenges these historians to act less as “scientists” in search of something like objective truth and more as propagandists for a social and economic order of segregation, violence, and exploitation:
To paint the South as a martyr to the inevitable fate, to make the North the generous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in all development, we have in 50 years, by insults, insinuations and silence, so completely flawed and obliterated the history of the negro in America and his relation to its work and government that it is almost unknown.
Du Bois is, according to his own statement, “surprised” at the idea that the evil of history should be “forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.”
“We must forget,” he writes, “that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children … and just remember the things we consider honorable and inspiring.” The difficulty with this approach, he continues, “is that history loses its value and incentive and example; it paints perfect people and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.”
Du Bois, who studied at the University of Berlin with some of the most renowned researchers of his time and who was the first black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, believed that history should strive to be something resembling a science. . And if that were to be the case, “if the registration of human action would be laid down with the accuracy and fidelity in detail, which would allow its use as a yardstick and guide post for the future of nations,” then in his view, “to be set up some ethical standards in research and interpretation. “
Du Bois’ view was that when it came to reconstruction and the “American Negro,” American historians had come a long way from this ideal. Instead, they produced – for the benefit of both students and the general public – a story that constituted Reconstruction as a “shameful attempt to expose white people to ignorant Negro rule.” Instead of treating history as “a science or as an art that uses the results of science”, they had used it as a tool for “pleasure and amusement”, to inflate our national ego and give us a false but comfortable feeling of performance. ” This story, Du Bois wrote, existed only to “influence and educate the new generation in the way we want,” where “we” meant the existing power structure.
It is not difficult to see how this critique applies to current circumstances. Spurred on by a wave of youth protests that revealed (and then emphasized) the extent to which the Conservative movement had failed to imprint, in the next generation, its view of what America is, this effort to gag any discussion about the United States that Do not affirm a triumphant tale of national innocence is a clear and obvious attempt to make up for lost time.