W. E. B. Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (dissertation) 1896
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (essay) 1899
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (essays) 1903
The Negro in the South, His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development; Being the William Levi Bull Lectures for the Year 1907 [with Booker T. Washington] (lectures) 1907
John Brown (biography) 1909
The Quest of the Silver Fleece (novel) 1911
The Star of Ethopia (drama) 1913
The Negro (history) 1915
Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (poems, essays, and sketches) 1920
The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (history) 1924
Dark Princess: A Romance (novel) 1928
Africa: Its Geography, People and Products (history) 1930
Africa: Its Place in Modern History (history) 1930
Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (history) 1935
Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race (history) 1939
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (autobiography) 1940
Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (essay) 1945
The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (criticism) 1947
In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (memoirs) 1952
The Ordeal of Mansart (novel) 1957
Mansart Builds a School (novel) 1959
Worlds of Color (novel) 1961
Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life From the Last Decade of Its First Century [edited by Herbert Aptheker] (autobiography) 1968
W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses [edited by Philip S. Foner] (speeches) 1970
The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from "The Crisis" [edited by Henry Lee Moon] (essays) 1972
W. E. B. Du Bois: The Crisis Writing [edited by Daniel Walden] (essays) 1972
The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960 [edited by Herbert Aptheker] (essays) 1973

∗These works were published as The Black Flame in 1976.

†The publication date of this work is uncertain.

Stanley Brodwin (essay date March 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, March, 1972, pp. 303-21.

[In the essay below, Brodwin examines theme and structure in The Souls of Black Folk and remarks on Du Bois's presentation of black consciousness.]

No student of black culture in American can escape the melancholy conclusion that, amid the wide range of human tragedy slavery and racism have inflicted on an entire race, black men of talent and genius have had to suffer in more complex ways than their less-gifted brothers. Apart from the general agony he shared with his brethren, the black artist...

(The entire section is 5779 words.)

Arlene A. Elder (essay date December 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Swamp Versus Plantation: Symbolic Structure in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Quest of the Silver Fleece," in Phylon, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 358-67.

[In the following essay, Elder discusses the themes of class, race, and morality in Du Bois's novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece.]

Although in the past commentators on the writing of W. E. B. DuBois have concentrated upon his historical and sociological works, some recent critics are intrigued by his fictional presentation of the black adventure in America. Most of this new critical interest centers upon his trilogy, The Black Flame (1957–1961), a historically based saga of the Mansart...

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Irving Howe (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois: Glory and Shame," in Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary, pp. 170-79. New York: Horizon Press, 1979.

[In the essay below, Howe contends that Du Bois's commitment to Communism and Stalinism at the end of his life "was soiled both morally and intellectually."]

If the name "Du Bois" means anything at all to most Americans, it is probably linked in their minds with those campus sects—the Du Bois clubs—that speak for Moscow-style Communism. Richard Nixon, with his special gift for parodying native follies, once suggested that the campus Communists were trying to capitalize on the phenotic kinship between...

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Walter C. Daniel (essay date June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois' First Efforts as a Playwright," in CLA Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, June, 1990, pp. 415-27.

[In the essay below, Daniel remarks on Du Bois's first drama, The Star of Ethiopia.]

By the time he arrived in New York City in 1910 to assume duties as director of research and publicity for the newly established NAACP, W. E. B. Du Bois was well on his way to becoming America's most prominent black scholar. Fifteen years earlier he had earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Harvard University and had studied in Germany with some of Europe's pioneer sociologists and distinguished German philosophers. He had conducted a study, The Philadelphia...

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William E. Cain (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois's Autobiography and the Politics of Literature," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 299-313.

[Cain is an educator. In the essay below, he focuses on Du Bois's decision to join the Communist Party and leave the United States for Ghana.]

During the course of his long career, W. E. B. Du Bois produced superb work in many genres. His Harvard dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896) was a pioneering, minutely detailed analysis of the growth and eventual elimination of the slave trade to the Unites States; his absorbing rendering of African culture and African-American history...

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Ronald A. T. Judy (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The New Black Aesthetic and W. E. B. Du Bois, or Hephaestus, Limping," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 249-82.

[In the following essay, Judy relates Du Bois's concept of black consciousness as expressed in The Souls of Black Folk to the New Black Aesthetic.]

Such is Beauty. Its variety is infinite, its possibility is endless. In normal life all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of it…. Who shall let this world be beautiful?… We black folk may help for we have within us as a race a new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of the new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959, 259 p.

First book-length biography of Du Bois. Broderick made use of Du Bois's private papers at the University of Massachusetts until Du Bois closed them to the public after his 1951 indictment as an unregistered agent of a foreign power.

Du Bois, Shirley Graham. His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1971, 384 p.

Biography and personal memoir by Du Bois's second wife.


(The entire section is 700 words.)