Masterplots II: African American Literature The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois Analysis

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Considering this first section of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois, a question emerges. How did Du Bois, who spent most of his life working within and believing in the basic principles of freedom and justice of the American system, become so vehemently opposed to that same system at the end of his life? The answer comes in part 2.

As he explains in part 2, Du Bois grew up believing that racial discrimination and prejudice could be overcome by ability and hard work. He spent the first quarter of his life achieving academic excellence at Fisk University, Harvard University, and the University of Berlin. Toward these ends, Du Bois notes: “In the days of my formal education, my interest became concentrated upon the race struggle. My attention from the first was focused on democracy and democratic development, and upon the problem of the admission of my people into the freedom of democracy.”

Upon completing his studies, Du Bois, determined to make a difference, sought to apply his newfound knowledge to understanding and eradicating the color line. His first attempt to share this knowledge and vision was as an assistant professor of Latin and history at Wilberforce University in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Du Bois completed his first book, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896). In it, Du Bois gives an impassioned description of how the United States, ignoring moral and political resistance, could participate in the sale and importation of slaves.

Du Bois’s next book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), was one of the first community studies done by a sociologist in the United States. Conducting original research, Du Bois documented the interaction between race and class. This study demonstrated the link between a racially oppressive system and many of the social ills associated with ghetto communities. The interaction between class and race would become a central theme interwoven throughout the countless books, articles, essays, and lectures that would occupy Du Bois’s lifetime.

From this period and for the next two decades, Du Bois led the charge against America’s racial caste system. Simultaneously, he insisted upon the rebirth of racial pride. Du Bois called for the creation of a “new Negro,” one who through training and excellence would silence racist critics. Du Bois challenged African Americans not to be complacent but to be unceasing in their complaint. One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was able to infuse these thoughts into a broad institutional base for action as the editor of the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis.

As editor of The Crisis, Du Bois for more than two decades launched a forceful attack against many of the most blatant aspects of racism. Under Du Bois, The Crisis also became the vehicle by which a whole generation of American black writers launched their careers. Such writers as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countée Cullen, Anne Spencer, Abram Harris, and Jessie Fauset saw their first works published in The Crisis. It was through this journal that Du Bois began directing his attention to worldwide issues, especially as they related to...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)