Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
It is virtually impossible to pick up a text dealing with sociology, race and race relations, anthropology, stratification, or American or African history and not come across the name and ideas of Du Bois. His observations, analysis, and insight remain just as robust, just as provocative, and just as fresh as when they were first conceived.
How is one to judge this autobiography? Certainly, standard literary criteria would be insufficient. This is more than literature, more than a personal testimony; it is the testimonial of a movement, a process. As such, this testimony may be compared to those of Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. As with their testimonies, one notes that humans die but that ideas endure.
Some critics of The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois have questioned whether or not it appropriately reflects Du Bois’s intellect. These critics, noting that the book was published posthumously, observe that Du Bois was unable to edit the final manuscript; thus, it is unknown if the end product is how Du Bois would have wanted it.
Whether the book is flawed or not, reading Du Bois’s autobiography is like having a conversation with an old friend, mentor, and teacher. Sometimes the thoughts come out crude and rough, other times they are polished and finished. These thoughts, whether in condemnation or praise, whether reflecting joy or pain, wisdom or folly, nevertheless are full of hope for a future free of racial bigotry and oppression.