W. E. B. Du Bois was 39 years old when “The Song of the Smoke” was published in the February 1907 issue of Horizon, a magazine which he himself edited. The poem is understood as “an affirmation of black pride,” but Du Bois’s ultimate acceptance of the need to call for black pride was the culmination of a difficult process. He was born into a community of free blacks in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, and after his mother’s death, he was given a scholarship by the primarily white town. Although he had deeply desired to go to Harvard, it was the town’s stipulation that this scholarship was to be used at Fisk University, founded for the children of emancipated slaves. While Du Bois had long believed that education and a sense of purpose were all that blacks needed to gain a place as Americans after having been freed from slavery in 1865, his education at Fisk was twofold. Here he could feel what it was to engage with educated minds, with no race considerations to affect the exchange. He also was made acutely aware of “the color line” in the South, and realized it would take far more than the higher education of African Americans to overcome this barrier.
In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. His reputation as a distinguished scholar commenced with the acceptance of his dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade in the United States of America, 1638–1870,” as the inaugural work in the Harvard Historical Studies series. Du Bois soon acknowledged, however, that his subsequent scholarly work in the new field of social science was not having the impact that he expected. Thus he turned to other forms of writing, including poetry, to present his theories and beliefs regarding “the problem of the color line,” which he considered the major problem of the twentieth century. He further took responsibility for bringing this message to the public by editing the magazines Moon, Horizon, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publication Crisis, all of which introduced the work of many new black writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Du Bois was one of the first African Americans to foster the idea of race-consciousness and of the African American as hero. His life’s work focused on the rebuttal of the claim that the African race engendered only slaves and savages unable to make contributions to civilization and American culture. “The Song of the Smoke” clearly stands as an affirmation for African Americans, but it is also a proclamation to America as a whole of the historical and economic significance of African Americans.