Du Bois criticizes these historians for acting less as “scientists” in search of something like objective truth and more as propagandists of a social and economic order of segregation, violence and exploitation:
To paint the South as a martyr of an inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke of all development, we have in fifty years, by libel, insinuation and silence, so completely distorted and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to his work and government he is almost unknown.
Du Bois, by his own admission, is “amazed” by the idea that the evil of history should be “forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.”
“We must forget,” he wrote, “that George Washington owned slaves, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children…and simply remember the things that we consider honorable and inspiring.” The difficulty with this approach, he continues, “is that the story loses its value, its motivation and its example; she paints perfect men and noble nations, but she does not tell the truth.
Du Bois, who studied at the University of Berlin with some of the most acclaimed scholars of his day and who was the first black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, believed that history should aspire to be something like a science. And if such were to be the case, “if the account of human action is to be established with such precision and fidelity in detail which will enable its use as a measuring rod and benchmark for the future of nations”, so in his view, “there must be ethical standards in research and interpretation”.
Du Bois opined that, when it came to Reconstruction and the “American Negro,” American historians fell far short of this ideal. Instead, they produced – for the consumption of students and the general public – a story that casts Reconstruction as a “shameful attempt to subject whites to ignorant black domination”. Rather than treating history as “a science or as an art using 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 nice sense of accomplishment.” This history, Du Bois wrote, only existed to “influence and educate the new generation in the direction we desire,” where “we” meant the existing power structure.
It is not difficult to see how this criticism applies to current circumstances. Spurred on by a wave of youth protests that exposed (and then underscored) how the conservative movement had failed to instill in the next generation its vision of what America is, this effort to gag any discussion of the United States that fails to affirm a triumphant narrative of national innocence is a clear and obvious attempt to make up for lost time.