W.E.B. DuBois quote on studying history


What do we care about peoples that lived a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years ago? It does interest you, because no man lives to himself; every human life, willy-nilly, reaches out and influences your companions, your families, your neighbors, your community, and your children and children’s children. If the influence of one human life is so great, how much greater is the influence of that vast group of individuals which we call a nation, and how infinite the sway of that still larger aggregation of ideas, thoughts and feeling which we call a civilization. It we should sift out from our life today all that we Americans have inherited from that mighty past which we call the Ancient World, we would have little worth the keeping left. All our ideas of God, right, and duty, of government and science, of literature and art had their germ in the past and though we may rightly boast that we have watered, embellished and tricked off the tree of Civilization, yet we must never forget that we did not plant it and that its roots lie buried in the far distant past.

If then we are indebted to the past for so much of the present, is it not clear that we can only understand the present by continually recurring to and studying that past; when any one of the intricate phenomena of our daily life puzzles us; when there arise religious problems, political problems, race problems, we must always remember that while their solution lies in the present, their cause and their explanation lie in the past. Study the past then, if you would comprehend the present; read history if you would know how to vote intelligently, read history if do not know what sound money is, read history if you cannot grasp the Negro problem.

This then is the reason that I ask you who are interested in burning questions affecting your present and future status, pause a while and look back with me through the mists of the past, asking how fared it with other people who have come up as we have come out of the House of Bondage.”

– W.E.B. DuBois

Vintage black and white studio portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois with a short haircut and a mustache, wearing a dark suit with a vest and a white shirt with the collar turned up. He is looking slightly to the side with a composed expression. The photograph has a sepia tone and includes the embossed studio mark at the bottom.
W.E.B. DuBois, 1907

“W.E.B. DuBois quote on studying history” sources:

“The Beginnings of Slavery,” Voice of the Negro, vol. 2 (1905), p. 104 – HathiTrust Digital Library & Wikiquote / W.E.B. DuBois portrait taken in 1907 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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