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Any history of W. E. B. Du Bois must also be, to some extent, a history of the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century. Du Bois was involved in nearly every social movement of significance during this period: Reconstruction and ongoing efforts thereafter to develop civil rights in America, campaigns for U.S. involvement in World War I, the Harlem Renaissance, American communism (and even Stalinist philosophy), the McCarthyism of the Cold War era, anti-colonial movements and more. Throughout the many domestic and world crises of his ninety-five years of life, Du Bois maintained an attitude of ”noble critique,” an unabashed readiness to see both the good and the ill in the world around him. For this, he became one of the most influential writers of his time, alternately damned and praised by a long succession of friends and enemies.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Stable Childhood in Sleepy Great Barrington
Born in 1868, William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois had a childhood less marked by outright racism than those of many African Americans of his generation. Coming of age in the small town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he was a member of a stable community in which his family had long resided. Born with what he described as ”a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, thank God! no ‘Anglo-Saxon,”’ Du Bois lived, with his mother, Mary Burghardt Du Bois, a somewhat meager existence (his father, Alfred Du Bois, had left his mother around the time W. E. B. was born). But, to his good fortune, the town recognized Du Bois as a youth of exceptional intelligence and ability, and when his mother died soon after his high school graduation some residents gave Du Bois a scholarship on condition that he attend Fisk University. Fisk was a southern school founded expressly for the children of emancipated slaves, and Du Bois rebelled against the implicit racism of this apparent generosity; he had always dreamed of attending Harvard University. The townspeople offering the scholarship were insistent, however, and in 1885 Du Bois traveled to Fisk in Nashville, Tennessee—his first journey to the southern United States.
A Young Black Northerner in the Post-Reconstruction South
Du Bois arrived, with little preparation, to witness the drama that had ensued with the end of ”Reconstruction” in the South. Reconstruction (1863-77) had been a period during which southern society was restructured, in the wake of the Civil War (1861-65) and the freeing of the slaves (1863), with a particular emphasis on ensuring democracy and at least a measure of racial equality. During the post-Reconstruction period, however, white supremacists regained power throughout the South, deliberately disenfranchising both black and poor voters and introducing ”Jim Crow” laws that imposed segregation in public facilities and transportation. Du Bois later wrote in the last of his three memoirs, his posthumously published Autobiography (1968), ”No one but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism.”
Yet Du Bois was also, as he described it, ”deliriously happy” at Fisk, where he met other young intellectuals of his own race. There he excelled at studies and during summers taught the young blacks who lived in destitute rural areas of Tennessee. After graduating with honors from Fisk in only three years, Du Bois entered Harvard in 1888—to receive a second bachelor’s degree and eventually his doctorate. Although many fellow students greeted him with animosity—demonstrating that the liberal North wasn’t nearly as free from racism as some liked to think—Du Bois found at Harvard professors who would provide lifelong inspiration: Josiah Royce, George Santayana, Albert Bushnell Hart, and William James, who became a mentor and also a friend.
Scholarly Prowess Meets Institutional Racism
Needing only to complete a dissertation to receive his doctorate in history, Du Bois enrolled at the University of Berlin in Germany. There, in Europe (considered a racial paradise of sorts by many African Americans, both then and on through the mid-twentieth century) he studied philosophy, sociology, and history for two years. Upon return to the United States in 1894, however, he promptly rediscovered what he described as ”’nigger’-hating America,” where the chances of a black history instructor finding a teaching position were slim.
In 1895, Du Bois completed his dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. The work became the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series, and Du Bois became the first black American to receive his doctorate from Harvard. Two years later, in 1897, he began what would become a thirteen-year tenure as a professor of sociology and economics at Atlanta University. In 1899 Du Bois published the sociological study The Philadelphia Negro, the product of interviews with five thousand black persons living in the ”dirt, drunkenness, poverty, and crime” of Philadelphia. The work, commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, pioneered the scholarly study of black Americans. Yet the university itself would not give Du Bois a position on its faculty. Du Bois found this to be typical; despite his advanced degrees and important published works, time and again he was denied teaching positions at historically white institutions on the basis of the color of his skin.
“Accommodationism” versus Civil Rights Consciousness
In his time, Du Bois came to be one of the most outspoken public intellectuals in the United States. Equally, he came to be one of the African-American community’s strongest voices. At the advent of the twentieth century, however, the best-known champion of black Americans was still Booker T. Washington, then the principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a powerful advocate of long-term, incremental change. In the preface to his W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis, Francis L. Broderick describes Washington’s ”accommodationist” tactics as ”speaking soft words to white men and careful words to colored men.” Washing ton laid the blame for blacks’ social position on their inferior economic positions—and their ”unreadiness” to contribute to an economy more advanced than that which had previously relied on their labor as slaves.
As a spokesman for his race, Washington was pre pared to let black Americans be disenfranchised until they contributed to the economy by learning trades in agriculture and industry. Du Bois, however, could not abide by this stance. Broderick writes of Du Bois, ”Long restive under Washington’s acquiescence in second-class citizen ship, Du Bois ordered the Negro to be a man and demanded that white America recognize him as such.” Though Du Bois often claimed to see himself as basically in agreement with Washington, the two men were diametrically opposed in their views toward education in particular, and each found supporters—what ensued was a historic conflict over ”racial uplift,” the process whereby black Americans were to pull themselves up out of the mud into which slavery and ongoing prejudice had stamped them. In 1903 Du Bois published his best-known work, a collection of essays entitled The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’s critique of Up from Slavery, Washington’s autobiography, was one of the essays in Souls, and with the work’s publication Du Bois became inextricably involved in the fight for equality for blacks.
In 1905 Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement, the first black protest movement of the twentieth century. Twenty-nine black men met on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and set out a plan for dismantling segregation and discrimination, and for generally opposing the politics of racism to which they felt Washington fell prey. Du Bois helped institute a more lasting movement still, in 1909, when he became the only black founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP had, in fact, been founded by a group of white writers and social workers as a response to the 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois. These riots, sparked by the lynching of two blacks, resulted in the deaths of four more people and the injury of over seventy more. Du Bois, who for many years was the organization’s only prominent black member, also founded and edited Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP. Under his editorial hand, it was the most important magazine directed at a black audience of its time, and served in part to initiate what would grow over time to be a massive civil rights movement.
From Editing Crisis to Living through Crises
In Crisis, Du Bois wrote editorials condemning lynching and disenfranchisement, and his discussion of arts and letters there is still considered to have been a catalyst for the Harlem Renaissance (a New York-centered, African-American literary and artistic movement—the first of its kind in the United States). Du Bois determined from the very beginning to make the Crisis not only a national black magazine, but also his magazine. Since the NAACP had originally underwritten the magazine as a house organ for its own publicity and not a vehicle for the opinions of its editor, confusion and friction attended its early years. In fact, debate between Oswald Garrison Villard, the chair man of the NAACP, and Du Bois over the magazine threatened to destroy the organization itself. Eventually Du Bois’s uncompromising energy won out; Villard resigned his position, and his successor, Joel Spingarn, gave Du Bois control over the magazine so long as he reported organization business and refrained in his editorials from ”petty irritations, insulting personalities, and vulgar recriminations.” The magazine’s generally accepted high quality, however, stood as testament to Du Bois’s integrity as an editor, and was fully self-supporting after its first two years—an impressive feat for what was essentially a protest magazine.
But in 1914, Du Bois lost credibility with many when he urged black support for American involvement in World War I, in the editorial ”Close Ranks”; later, he would discover widespread racism in the U.S. armed forces in Europe and speak out on that issue. At this time, though, many black Americans turned away from Du Bois’s leadership. As an intellectual and member of the middle class, he seemed at a great distance from many African Americans; some thought him simply anti-populist. For instance, Du Bois was bewildered at the widespread popular appeal accorded to Marcus Garvey, Jamaican leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and “back-to-Africa” movement. His conflict with Garvey, whom he eventually called ”the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world,” indicated his alienation from a large part of the black population in America.
Such conflict was a hallmark of Du Bois’s long, out spoken career. Du Bois lived through several eras of great change—from Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction to World War I and World War II—and maintained throughout his long life a vigorous critique of racism and other forms of oppression. After several more years as a professor at Atlanta University (1934—1944), where he founded the long-influential journal Phylon, he returned to the NAACP, now as Director of Special Research. But there his positions on politics, inflected by Marxism and the brand of communism espoused by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, brought him into conflict with the organization’s more conservative executive director, Walter White. Du Bois was forced to resign after only four years, to which he responded by turning to more radical politics. In the ensuing years, Du Bois was no friend of the U.S. government, which was dominated by the paranoia of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the perceived need to respond to the threat of global communism, a reaction also known as the Red Scare. Writing of one particularly trying experience—his indictment and trial as a subversive—in 1951, during the infamous McCarthy era, Du Bois revealed his attitude toward the numerous crises of his long life: ”It was a bitter experience and I bowed before the storm. But I did not break.”
Anti-imperialism, Communism, and Death in Ghana
Despite having been found innocent of any crime or treason, Du Bois lost his passport for several years. This was part of the U.S. government’s policy of preventing influential black and politically radical citizens from traveling abroad. Nonetheless, Du Bois continued to fight for basic freedoms and equality for all people, remaining involved with both the international peace movement that had led to his indictment and the Pan-African movement that had begun to link anti-colonial struggles around Africa and the world. Blacklisted by the NAACP, prevented from traveling by the U.S. government, and struggling still under the weight of injustice and inequality in America, Du Bois found great common ground with the communist movement, paying tribute in In Battle for Peace (1952) to ”the communists of the world for their help in my defense.”
Indeed, ”the communists of the world” became Du Bois’s ardent supporters and, with progressives in America, his constituency. The organs of the more conservative black press closed to him, he wrote widely for such left-wing periodicals as the National Guardian. Between 1958 and 1959, his passport, after court action, was finally released by the government, and he traveled extensively throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. He received an honorary degree from Prague University and had audiences with the leaders of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In 1961, at the age of ninety-three, he officially joined the Communist Party of the United States.
Later, during the same year, he accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Nkrumah to visit Ghana and became a resident of that African nation. Shortly before his death in 1963, he renounced his American citizenship altogether, dying in Accra as a citizen of Ghana. Du Bois died the day before the March on Washington (a key moment in the civil rights movement, with over three hundred thousand protesters marching on the capitol) and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ”I Have a Dream” speech. Though the America he had hoped and worked for did not come into being during his lifetime—and still has not—strides were being made. The March, like Du Bois’s struggles throughout his life, is credited with having helped extend a true franchise to African Americans: the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the National Voting Rights Act (1965) began the long, still-ongoing process of consolidating the gains for which the civil rights movement had fought.
Works in Literary Context
Though Du Bois published both fiction and nonfiction during his long career, he is most enduringly known for the sociological and autobiographical essays contained in The Souls of Black Folk. There as elsewhere, his writing picks up on the tradition of independent thought exemplified in earlier American letters by Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, and is often both lyrical and stirring. Likewise, Du Bois’s way of thinking and writing recalls the thorough, careful honesty of his mentor William James and the social conscience of his predecessor and sometime adversary Booker T. Washington. Du Bois has influenced each generation of writers to succeed him, from the black authors of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and early 1930s, to mid-century authors of protest novels such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to present-day writers such as Sherman Alexie (whose Reservation Blues ends each chapter with a line of music—the way The Souls of Black Folk begins each chapter).
Civil Rights Consciousness
The Souls of Black Folk was not well received when it first came out, however. Prior to this, Du Bois’s work had been of a self-consciously academic—even conservative—nature. This, though, was both rigorously academic and deeply activist. Houston A. Baker, Jr. explains in Black Literature in America that white Americans were not ”ready to respond favorably to Du Bois’s scrupulously accurate portrayal of the hypocrisy, hostility, and brutality of white America toward black America.” Many blacks were also shocked by the book, for in it Du Bois announced his opposition to the conciliatory policy of Booker T. Washington and his followers, who argued for the gradual development of the Negro race through vocational training.
Du Bois himself declared: ”So far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose him. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men.” These words were, in many ways, the beginning of civil rights consciousness on a large scale in America. That is, prior to Du Bois, any number of people had argued for some measure of equality, but his was one of the most forceful, compelling, and well-respected voices to make the case for true civil rights, for genuine equality for all. In many ways, the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s traced its roots back to Du Bois’s call to consciousness and action in this early piece.
Works in Critical Context
The Souls of Black Folk
Though its initial appearance prompted resentment in many readers, in retrospect, scholars have pointed to The Souls of Black Folk as a prophetic work. Harold W. Cruse and Carolyn Gipson note in the New York Review of Books that ”nowhere else was Du Bois’s description of the Negro’s experience in American Society to be given more succinct expression. . . . Souls is probably his greatest achievement as a writer.” Poet Langston Hughes has underscored the power of Du Bois’s writing in recalling, ”My earliest memories of written words are those of Du Bois and the Bible.” Likewise, literary critics Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Terri Oliver have argued that Du Bois ”provides a social gospel based on history, sociology, and personal experience.” Although, as literary critic Arnold Rampersand puts it, he was ”unable to fashion an autobiography to match Washington’s, young Du Bois nevertheless infused a powerful autobiographical spirit and presence into his essays.” Over the course of time, however, he would also produce two more complete autobiographies: Dusk of Dawn (1940), and the posthumously published The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1968).
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois
Edward Blum has suggested that Du Bois’s autobiographical efforts ought not be read as simple expressions of self, nor as simple expressions of a particularly white narrative tradition. Rather, he writes, ”By presenting a black mythology of self, Du Bois participated in and built on a long tradition of African-American autobiographizing.” In a similar vein, Vanessa Dickerson argues that though ”Du Bois’s regard for Europe’s cultural capital would never wane,” he nonetheless came in his autobiographical writing to ”the recognition of how England and Europe were implicated in the problem of the color line.” These autobiographies were, in the end, not only about communicating the experiences of a lifetime, but also about developing a picture of the world that could make sense of racism, progress, world wars, capitalism, oppression, scholarship, activism and the personal experience of journeying through it all.
- Blum, Edward J. W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
- Dickerson, Vanessa D. Dark Victorians. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
- Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Terri Hume Oliver, eds. The Souls of Black Folk: W. E. B. Du Bois. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1999.
- McKay, Nellie. ”W. E. B. Du Bois: The Black Women in His Writings—Selected Fictional and Autobiographical Portraits” in Critical Essays on W. E. B. Du Bois, William L. Andrews, ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
- Dickson, Jr., Bruce D. ”W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and References 64 (2): 299-309.
- E. B. Du Bois. Retrieved October 5, 2008, from http://www.naacp.org.
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