W. E. B. Du Bois 1868–1963
(Full name William Edward Burghardt Du Bois) American essayist, journalist, historian, novelist, biographer, poet, playwright, nonfiction writer, speech writer, critic, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Du Bois's career. See also W. E. B. Du Bois Criticism (Volume 2).
Du Bois was a major force in twentieth-century society who helped define African-American social and political causes in the United States. Alternately considered a leader and an outcast, Du Bois espoused controversial opinions about race and politics and was regarded by many as a prophet. He is widely remembered for his conflict with Booker T. Washington over the role of blacks in American society—an issue that he treated at length in the essays collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). A writer of important works in many genres, Du Bois is particularly known for his pioneering role in the study of black history. According to Herbert Aptheker, however, Du Bois was above all a "history maker," and his works and ideas continue to attract attention and generate controversy.
Du Bois had an almost idyllic childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Class and race distinctions were negligible in the small town of 5,000, where Du Bois's family was part of a community of fifty blacks. When his mother died soon after his high school graduation, some residents of the town gave Du Bois a scholarship on condition that he attend Fisk University, a southern school founded for the children of emancipated slaves. Du Bois accepted the scholarship and in 1885 traveled to Fisk in Nashville, Tennessee—his first journey to the southern United States. "No one but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism," Du Bois wrote in The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1968). Yet he was "deliriously happy" at Fisk, where he met students of his own race, excelled at his studies, and during summers taught young blacks who lived in destitute rural areas of Tennessee. After graduating with honors from Fisk, Du Bois entered Harvard in 1888. There he met several professors who would provide lifelong inspiration, particularly William James, who became a mentor and friend. After receiving a bachelor's degree, Du Bois studied for two years at the University of Berlin. In 1896 he received his doctorate from Harvard—the first black American to do so—and published his dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. Du Bois's efforts at finding a teaching position, however, proved frustrating. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, commissioned Du Bois to do a sociological study of the city's black population but did not offer him a faculty position. Du Bois eventually found a position at Atlanta University, where he taught from 1897 to 1910 and 1934 to 1944. In 1905 Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement, the first black protest movement of the twentieth century. Du Bois helped institute a more lasting movement in 1909 when he became the only black founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From 1910 to 1934 Du Bois served as the organization's director of publicity and research, and as editor of Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, which became one of the most prominent journals directed at a black audience. Du Bois contributed editorials condemning lynching and disenfranchisement, and his discussion of arts and letters in Crisis has been credited as a catalyst for the Harlem Renaissance literary movement. Du Bois's popularity as a leader of black America began to decline in 1918 with the publication of the editorial "Close Ranks," which urged support for American involvement in World War I, and his conflict with Marcus Garvey, the popular Jamaican leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and "back-to-Africa" movement. Du Bois's position in the NAACP also became tenuous and strained. He was removed from the organization twice for ideological differences, once after opposing the NAACP's idea of integration, and later for supporting Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for president in 1948 while the NAACP's executive secretary unofficially campaigned for Harry Truman. In 1951 Du Bois was indicted as an unregistered "agent of a foreign principal" because of his involvement in the "subversive" Peace Information Center, an organization that sought to inform Americans about international events and to abolish the atomic bomb. Although Du Bois was acquitted, his passport remained in the custody of the United States government. Awarded the Intermational Lenin Prize in 1958, Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961, shortly before renouncing his American citizenship. He died at the age of ninety-five in Accra, Ghana.
Du Bois's works spread across a wide range of genres and subjects including history, sociology, fiction, biography, and autobiography. His most celebrated work, The Souls of Black Folk, is a collection of fourteen essays that comment on the state of blacks in America. According to Arnold Rampersad, The Souls of Black Folk became "perhaps the most influential work on blacks in America since Uncle Tom's Cabin." In the essay "On Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," Du Bois praised Washington for preaching "Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training," but condemned his apologies to those in power, maintaining that Washington "does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions and opposes the higher training of our brighter minds." Other essays were largely autobiographical and discussed the "twoness" of being both American and black—"two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is a systematic, sociological study of Philadelphia's black population. Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, the study includes data gathered from approximately 5,000 interviews and pioneered the scholarly study of black Americans. Du Bois's historical works include The Gift of Black Folk (1924), which examines the contributions blacks have made to civilization; Black Reconstruction (1935), a revisionist interpretation that employs a Marxist perspective and focuses on the role blacks played in Reconstruction; and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939), in which Du Bois outlined the history of blacks in Africa and America. In addition to his nonfiction, Du Bois also published five novels during his career. The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) centers on a young black man who, after gaining some education, travels North, where he becomes involved in politics and then returns to the South to further the struggle of blacks for education and a better life. Dark Princess, published in 1928, concerns a young black man who, embittered by racism, leaves America for Europe, where he becomes involved in politics and a plot against colonialism. The Black Flame (1976) trilogy includes The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961). The trilogy centers on the life of a black man who strives to serve his race as a teacher. Though not gifted intellectually, the protagonist is honorable and through his story, Du Bois dramatizes the major events of black history in America and the culture of the American South. Capitalism is depicted in a negative fashion in the novels whereas socialism is portrayed in a positive light.
Much of the commentary on Du Bois has centered on his controversial political views, particularly his turn toward Communism and support for Stalinism. His fiction, for example, has been largely ignored. Nevertheless, many of Du Bois's works are considered ground-breaking. The Philadelphia Negro, for example, was the first systematic study of an urban black population, while The Souls of Black Folk, scholars contend, remains one of the most profound and succinct delineations of the dilemma of black Americans. "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," declared Du Bois to the Pan-African Congress in 1900, and his famous statement, which became the introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, has been hailed as prophetic. Despite the controversy that surrounded his ideas and actions throughout his lifetime, Du Bois continued to fight for equality between races. Arnold Rampersad wrote: "Far more powerfully than any other American intellectual, [Du Bois] explicated the mysteries of race in a nation which, proud of its racial pluralism, has just begun to show remorse for crimes inspired by racism."