W. E. B. Du Bois Du Bois, W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Du Bois, W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) 1868–1963

Du Bois was a black American essayist, novelist, biographer, poet, sociologist, and editor. He was one of the first black intellectuals to advocate a militant solution to racial problems, and in his best known work, The Souls of Black Folk, repudiated the accommodationist views of Booker T. Washington. In 1909 Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization from which he was asked to resign his membership in 1934. He was also a founder of the black literary journal Phylon and edited the NAACP journal Crisis for more than twenty years. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2.)

William H. Ferris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Both Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Waddell Chesnutt] have artistically uncovered to our gaze the inner life of the Negro, but Du Bois has done this and something more. He has not only graphically pictured the Negro as he is, but he has brooded and reflected upon and critically surveyed the peculiar environment of the Negro, and with his soul on fire with a righteous indignation, has written with the fervid eloquence of a Carlyle. If one desires to see how it feels to be a Negro and a man at the same time, if one desires to see how a sensitive and refined Negro mentally and spiritually reacts against social, civil, and political ostracism, if one desires to see a Negro passing judgment upon his civil and political status, and critically dissecting American race prejudice as with a scalping knife, he must go to Du Bois. (pp. 88-9)

Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk came to me as a bolt from the blue. It was the rebellion of a fearless soul, the protest of a noble nature against the blighting American caste prejudice. It proclaimed in thunder tones and in words of magic beauty the worth and sacredness of human personality even when clothed in a black skin.

Du Bois is a literary artist who can clothe his thought in such forms of poetic beauty that we are captivated by the opulent splendor and richness of his diction, while our souls are being stirred by his burning eloquence. His style is not only graphic and...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Herbert Aptheker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dr. Du Bois was more a history-maker than an historian. The two were intertwined, however; what interested Du Bois as a maker of History helped determine what he wrote, and what he wrote helped make history. (p. 249)

As historian, dedicated to the most rigorous standards of integrity, he remained, nevertheless, agitator-prophet; present was another fundamental ingredient in the man, namely, the poet. (pp. 249-50)

Du Bois' extraordinary career manifests a remarkable continuity. From his 1890 Harvard Commencement address to his posthumously-published Autobiography, the essential theme is the beauty, rationality, and need of service and of equality, and the ugliness, irrationality, and threat of greed and elitism. Because of the especially oppressed condition of the colored peoples of the earth—and particularly of the African and African-derived peoples—Du Bois believed in their capacity for compassion and comradeship, or, as he put it in the 1890 speech, "for the cool, purposeful Ich Dien of the African." (p. 250)

For Du Bois, history-writing was writing; one who produces a book should try, thereby, to produce literature. He drove himself hard on this. All authors, I think, are anxious to see their work in print; crusading authors probably feel this anxiety more than others…. Yet, Du Bois wrote and re-wrote his massive Black Reconstruction three times; and after that, revised and revised and cut and cut…. (p. 251)

Du Bois was explicit in his belief that while living behind the Veil might carry the danger of provincialism, it had the great advantage of helping disclose truth or neglected aspects of reality exactly because its point of observation differed. There was something else, too; Du Bois not only held that a new vantage point offered new insights. He held also that a racist viewpoint was a blighted one; that it could not fail to distort reality and that an explicitly anti-racist viewpoint was not only different but better. Hence, he insisted that the view—or prejudice, if one wishes—which he brought to data would get closer to reality not only because it was fresh but also because it was egalitarian. (p. 252)

Du Bois in practice resolved the difficult problem of objectivity and partisanship, of truth and justice, of the moral and the scientific by affirming—perhaps assuming would be more exact, for the argument is never quite explicit—that separating morals from science caricatures the latter, that the just is the true, and that while objectivity in the sense of utter neutrality in any meaningful matter is absurd this does not rule out the describing of reality—of "telling it like it is"; that, rather, the solution to the apparent paradox has a paradoxical twist: it is intense partisanship—on the side of the exploited and therefore on the side of justice—that makes possible the grasping of truth. Or, at least, that such partisanship is the highway leading to that accumulation of knowledge which brings one closer and closer to the real but not reachable final truth. (pp. 254-55)

Du Bois had a towering sense of the Right, of the Just, a basic faith in reason and a passionate commitment toward achieving the just through the use of reason. Indeed, all this together is what Du Bois meant by that word which to him was most sacred: Science. And in his lifetime and in his experience the central lie was racism; this, therefore, received the brunt of his blows. (p. 256)

How shall we sum up Du Bois' conception of history? There is the facile technique of labels, normally unsatisfactory and in the case of a man as polemical, radical, and productive as Du Bois, bound to be, I suggest, especially unsatisfactory. (p. 259)

Having found Du Bois described as a confirmed Marxist, a plain Marxist, a quasi Marxist, and not a Marxist we have perhaps exhausted the possibilities.

Du Bois was a Du Boisite. His political affiliations or affinities varied as times changed, as programs altered, and as he changed…. (pp. 259-60)

While [Black Reconstruction] is weak insofar as it tends to ignore the former nonslaveholding whites who were landed—i.e., the yeomanry—and who therefore had class as well as racist differences with the black millions, and is weak, too, insofar...

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Wilson J. Moses

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Du Bois's early work struggles to fuse two complementary but substantially different mythological traditions. The first of these is "Ethiopianism," a literary-religious tradition common to English-speaking Africans, regardless of nationality. The other is the European tradition of interpretive mythology, transplanted to America by its European colonizers. (p. 411)

Ethiopianism may be defined as the effort of the English-speaking Black or African person to view his past enslavement and present cultural dependency in terms of the broader history of civilization. It serves to remind him that this present scientific technological civilization, dominated by Western Europe for a scant four hundred years, will go under certainly—like all the empires of the past. It expresses the belief that the tragic racial experience has profound historical value, that it has endowed the African with moral superiority and made him a seer. Du Bois's poetry, while highly original, is nonetheless a product of this tradition, and therefore traditional. T. S. Eliot's poetry, by way of comparison, works within the European tradition of interpretive mythology although it is clearly innovative.

European interpretive mythology is the second of the two traditions basic to Du Bois's mythmaking…. This tradition, once revived in the Middle Ages, endured throughout the Renaissance, and as Douglas Bush has shown, became a mode functional to English...

(The entire section is 576 words.)