Du Bois, W. E. B (1868-1963)

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Du Bois, W. E. B (1868-1963)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois is remembered as one of twentieth-century America's foremost black leaders, intellectuals, and spokesmen. Multi-talented, in a long life he wrote as a sociologist, historian, poet, short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, and editor—and in all of these roles he was a crusading champion of racial justice. Though his ideological outlook changed many times during his life, through phases of Darwinism, elitism, socialism, Pan-Africanism, voluntary self-segregation, and ultimately official communism, Du Bois consistently reiterated the view that the major problem of the twentieth century was "the problem of the color-line." As historian Eric Sundquist has noted, Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, 1868, the same year as the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, and spent his life attempting to make the principles, promises, and protections of this landmark political article a reality for black Americans.

Despite the complex mixture of a racial background he summarized as "a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but thank God! no 'Anglo-Saxon,"' the young Du Bois soon learned that his black ancestry assumed the greatest significance in the minds of his white school companions, the fact of his darker skin placing a "vast veil" between their social worlds. An exceptional student, Du Bois won a scholarship to enter Fisk University in 1885. The Nashville black college gave him the experience of extreme Southern racism and a new racial identity fostered by exposure to the region's strong sense of African American culture and community. Moved by the religious faith and "sorrow songs" he came across during his stay in Tennessee, Du Bois later used these distinctive cultural expressions to recover, highlight, and discuss the meaning of the black historical experience in The Souls of Black Folk —which in turn inspired an increased popular interest in black vernacular art forms. Graduating from Fisk in 1888, Du Bois took a second undergraduate degree at Harvard in 1890. In 1895 he became the first African American to gain a doctoral degree from Harvard, and publishing his thesis in 1896, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870, Du Bois launched successful academic and publishing careers.

Accepting an invitation from the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study examining the condition of the black population in Philadelphia, Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study in 1899—this seminal critical survey cemented his academic reputation, and was cited as an influential model by sociologist Gunnar Myrdal some 45 years later. Between 1897 and 1910, Du Bois taught history and economics at Atlanta University. Here he had one of his most productive spells as a writer, and began to advance a political program that insisted on higher education as the foundation for black racial progress. This emphasis upon the ideals of the academy, together with his political activity in first, the Niagara Movement, then later as one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), placed Du Bois in opposition to the more vocationally oriented and seemingly accommodationist approach of Booker T. Washington. Editing and directing the publication of a multi-volume study of African Americans under segregation known as the Atlanta University Studies series, and a journal The Horizon from 1907-1910, Du Bois was gaining prominence as the self-appointed spokesman of what he called the black community's "Talented Tenth"—"developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races." Du Bois enhanced this position as race leader in his role as the editor of The Crisis from 1910 to 1934, the official organ of the NAACP that grew to have over 100,000 subscribers by the end of World War I. In this magazine, Du Bois featured the indignities and atrocities of racism in the United States, including regular reports and investigations into lynching, yet his appeal remained for the most part limited to the privileged literate Northern black middle classes and their white supporters.

As a scholar, propagandist, and organizer of the Pan-Africanist movement, Du Bois sought the means of uniting and making sense of the apparent disparate experiences of diaspora blacks. Unlike another of his African American political rivals of the 1920s, Marcus Garvey, Du Bois did not advocate a return to Africa as the route to black American political liberation. Instead, for Du Bois, Africa was more a source of common identity for blacks, and in the continent's battle against European colonial domination, he found parallels with African Americans struggling for civil rights. Following his decision to leave the NAACP and resign his post at The Crisis, Du Bois no longer commanded a popular audience. In this period, however, he returned to Atlanta as Professor of Sociology and produced some of his most significant work, writing a history of Black Reconstruction (1935), Dusk of Dawn (1940), an autobiography, and founding Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (1940). Although he briefly returned for a second period with the NAACP during World War II, Du Bois' politics of self-segregation and a Marxist interpretation of history soon put him at odds again with the organization's leadership and he was dismissed at the age of 80 in 1948. Du Bois' life ended in intellectual exile from the United States, joining the Communist Party in 1961 and moving to Ghana where he died in 1963, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. led the long planned Civil Rights March on Washington.

Perhaps The Souls of Black Folk is Du Bois' most valuable literary legacy. Its recovery of the neglected black voices from the days of slavery, potent idea of "double-consciousness," and critique of modernity, continues to influence generations of black novelists (including Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Alice Walker), historians, and scholars of culture and civilization in equal numbers.

—Stephen C. Kenny

Further Reading:

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois. New York, International Publishers, 1968.

——. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, Bantam, 1989.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993.

Marable, Manning. W.E.B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston, G.K. Hall, 1986.

Sundquist, Eric J., editor. The Oxford W.E.B. DuBois Reader. New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.

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