Study Guide

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois

by W. E. B. Du Bois

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois is the inspiring story of a foremost African American intellectual and civil rights leader of the twentieth century. He discusses his individual struggles and accomplishments, as well as his major ideas dedicated to promoting racial equality for Africans and African Americans. Moving from the reconstruction era after the U.S. Civil War, through World Wars I and II, to the height of the Cold War and the atomic age, Du Bois’ personal reflections provide a critical, panoramic sweep of American social history. Du Bois did not simply observe the American scene; he altered it as a leader of African Americans in the American Civil Rights movement.

The chronological structure of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois begins with five chapters on his travels to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. After these travels, Du Bois announces the crowning ideological decision of his life: his conversion to communism. The remainder of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois answers the question: How did Du Bois arrive at this crucial decision in the last years of his life? Du Bois chronicles his life patterns of childhood, education, work for civil rights, travel, friendships, and writings. This information is written in such a way that it explains his decision to adopt communism as his political worldview.

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is Du Bois’ account of his trial and subsequent acquittal in 1950 and 1951 for alleged failure to register as an agent of a foreign government, a sobering story of public corruption. His fundamental faith in American institutions, already strained by racism, was destroyed. He moved to Ghana and threw his tremendous energies into that nation as it shed its colonial experience.

The autobiography is subtitled as a soliloquy, but this categorization reflects the political realities of 1960 more than the specific literary form of speaking to oneself. At the time, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union made communism an abhorrent choice to many Americans. The autobiography finally appeared in English in 1968, at a publishing house known for its communist writings. The autobiography is the least read of Du Bois’ autobiographies, although it is an engaging exposition in which Du Bois shows his continuing growth and faith in human nature during his tenth decade.

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in Russian as Vospominaniia in 1962, tells the impressive and inspiring story of an individual’s struggles, defeats, and accomplishments, as well as his major ideas developed during ninety years of a life dedicated to promoting racial equality and the sociological study of African American realities in the United States. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois presents a view of American life distilled through the perceptive, analytical eyes of one who may have been the foremost African American intellectual. Progressing from the Reconstruction era at the end of the American Civil War, through World Wars I and II, to the height of the Cold War and the atomic age, Du Bois’s personal reflections provide a critical, panoramic sweep of American social history. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois is simultaneously a history of a personal and a social struggle, seen from the perspective of a central participant.

Du Bois is not simply an observer of the American scene. He contributes instrumentally to American history in his role as a leading architect of African American thought during the growth of the American Civil Rights movement in the twentieth century. Thus, The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois is an important documentary piece of American history. From the inception of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, Du Bois was, as editor of its journal, The Crisis, its conscience and spokesperson. Du Bois opposed the influential policies of Booker T. Washington, creating a vital dialogue within the African American community. Much of Du Bois’s vision of racial equality and African American achievement remains unfulfilled, and thus his autobiography is necessarily as much a blueprint for continued action as it is a historical narrative.

The chronological structure of the autobiography is purposefully transposed. Du Bois begins not with his childhood but with five brief chapters on his travels, starting in 1958, to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. After seeing the accomplishments of socialist organization firsthand, Du Bois reaches the crowning ideological decision of his life: his conversion to communism. The remainder of the autobiography is fundamentally an embroidery on the question: How and why did Du Bois arrive at this crucial decision in the last years of his life? This chronological device focuses the entire work on Du Bois’s inexorable move toward communist ideals in a way that starting simply with his birth and youthful years in Massachusetts could not accomplish.

Du Bois’s chronicle of his childhood and early education is surprising precisely for its small-town conventionality and relative lack of racial conflict. Du Bois, it is crucial to remember, was born a Northerner, in rural Massachusetts. Despite Du Bois’s African American heritage and the close temporal proximity of his birth to the end of the Civil War, Du Bois neither came from a slave family nor had direct childhood experience with the aftermath of slavery that characterized the southern United States. Du Bois excelled in a predominantly white school and had white playmates. The strict norms of the time and region minimized opportunities for contacts with the opposite sex, black or white, and thus Du Bois not only grew up ignorant of sexual biology but also escaped the sanctions so ruthlessly imposed in southern states, where whites’ exaggerated fears of miscegenation ran rampant.

The autobiography is replete with instances that illustrate Du Bois’s hard work, thrift, diligent study, and persistent planning. Were it not for the fact that Du Bois’s story ends with his expatriation, the narrative reads often like an African American version of a Horatio Alger story. Du Bois, ultimately, avoids the trap that captures the self-made man, asking instead: “Was I the masterful captain or the pawn of laughing sprites?” Du Bois does not trust his life to luck; he “just went doggedly to work” and let the consequences fall where they might.

Du Bois learns concretely about racial bigotry during his college years at Fisk University in Tennessee, prior to his return to...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)