W. E. B. Du Bois

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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

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[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 picturesque, he can not only vividly describe a county, in his brilliant chapter upon the Black Belt, but there is a dreamy suggestiveness to his chapters "Upon our Spiritual Strivings," "The Wings of Atalanta," and "Alexander Crummell," a delicate literary touch, which entitles Du Bois to a place in the magic circle of prose poets. (p. 89)

What then does Du Bois lack? As Dunbar lacks a grasp of the problems that interest and perplex the modern mind, so Du Bois seems to ignore the unity of human history. He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness…. (pp. 89-90)

The Souls of Black Folk is the protest of Du Bois, the individual, and not the protest of the universe against caste prejudice.

But it may be that if the subjective and personal note was not so clear and strong in The Souls of Black Folk; if instead of having for its keynote a despairing wail, it had rung with the buoyant faith of a Browning, the book might not have caught the ear of the age in the way that it has. (p. 91)

That Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk has become the political bible of the Negro race, that he is regarded by the colored people as the long-looked-for political Messiah, the Moses that will lead them out of the Egypt of peonage, across the Red Sea of Jim Crow legislation, through...

(This entire section contains 592 words.)

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the wilderness of disfranchisement and restricted opportunity, and into the promised land of liberty of opportunity and equality of rights, is shown by the recent Niagara Movement, which has crowned Du Bois as the Joshua before whom it is hoped the Jericho of American caste prejudice will fall down. (p. 92)

William H. Ferris, "The Emerging Leader: A Contemporary View" (originally published in his The African Abroad; Or His Evolution in Western Civilization, Tracing His Development under the Caucasian Milieu, Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1913), in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Profile, edited by Rayford W. Logan, Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 86-121.

Herbert Aptheker

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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 as it accepts the concept of a monolithic white South from the pre-Civil War period to Reconstruction, it pioneered in a related area, for it called attention very forcefully to the neglect, then, of the history of the poorer whites in the South.

The momentous impact upon the nature of U.S. society and therefore upon world history of the failure of the effort at democratizing the South—which is what the defeat of Reconstruction meant in Du Bois' view—is emphasized in Black Reconstruction. The consequent turn toward an imperial career, to which Woodrow Wilson pointed with delight, was a development which Du Bois denounced and concerning which he warned in prescient terms.

Du Bois also sought to make clear that Reconstruction was an episode in the entire—and worldwide—struggle of the rich versus the poor; in this connection he emphasized not only the specifics of the land question in the South but the whole matter of property rights; indeed, he called one of the most pregnant chapters in his volume, "Counter-Revolution of Property." He saw—as had Madison a century before him—that the right to and control of property was central to problems of the state and therefore of all forms of state, including that of democracy. Indeed, Du Bois—as Madison—emphasized the special connection between democracy and property insofar as the principle of universal enfranchisement meant political power in the hands of the majority and that majority normally had been and was the nonpropertied.

In this sense, Du Bois saw the story of Reconstruction—especially as it concerned the millions of dispossessed blacks—as an essential feature of the story of labor; not labor in the sense of industrial and/or urban working people, but labor in the more generic sense of those who had to work—to labor—in order to make ends meet. I think, too, that Du Bois' use of the term proletariat was more classical than Marxian…. (pp. 265-66)

Certainly, in the Marxian sense, Radical Reconstruction represented an effort to bring a bourgeois-democratic order to the South and in this effort—given the formerly slave-based plantation economy—the idea of "land to the landless" was fundamental; this meant not the elimination of the private ownership of the means of production—a basic aim of the dictatorship of the proletariat—but rather its wider distribution. From this point of view Du Bois' choice of words and expressions was confusing—and erroneous; but his perception of the relationship of particularly exploited black masses to any effort at making democracy real and to any secure advance of the deprived of all colors—which is what he was bringing forward—was a profound one and remains a challenging one for today, not only in terms of history-writing but also in terms of history-making. (pp. 267-68)

It will be well … to allow Du Bois himself to state the basic theme of Black Reconstruction; presumably he is good authority for this. He stated this, in differing ways, several times; we shall for reasons of space, quote only one and that extremely brief:

To me, these propositions, extreme as they may sound, seem clear and true:

1. The American Negro not only was the cause of the Civil War but a prime factor in enabling the North to win it.

2. The Negro was the only effective tool which could be used for the immediate restoration of the federal union after the war.

3. The enfranchisement of the freedmen after the war was one of the greatest steps toward democracy taken in the nineteenth century.

4. The attempts to retrace that step, disfranchising the Negro and reducing him to caste conditions, are the deeds which make the South today the nation's social problem Number One.

                                           (p. 269)

In the enormous body of Du Bois' writings, errors of fact will be found; almost always these are of a minor—even picayunish—nature. I think it is true that their occurrence is probably somewhat less uncommon than among historians of analogous scope. (p. 270)

Somewhat more serious was a kind of literary tendency on Du Bois' part which took the form of rather exaggerated assertions or a kind of symbolism that in the interest of effect might sacrifice precision. Professor Wesley in his … review in Opportunity (1935) gave several examples of this tendency; he called it "a tendency to dismiss the explanation of some events with all too brief a wave of the hand." Exaggerations for effect would lead Du Bois to ascribe the Seminole Wars purely to the problem of fugitive slaves, or U.S. acquisition of the Louisiana Territory solely to the rebellion of Haitian slaves. A kind of poetic license would lead Du Bois to place John Brown's hopes as centering on the Blue Ridge Mountains—which was probably true—but he would add that it was in those same mountains "where Nat Turner had fought and died, [and] where Gabriel had sought refuge," which is simply not true; but probably this objection reflects the weaknesses of a pedestrian plodder before the canvases of an inspired poet-historian.

With such nitpicking I am reminded of Du Bois' "Fore-thought" to his immortal Souls of Black Folk: "I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there."

His grains accumulated to a vast monument and precious heritage. It was Du Bois who began the scientific study of the Negro's history, who saw that it constituted a test of the American experience and dream, that it was a basic constituent in the fabric of United States history, that it was part of the vaster pattern of the colored peoples who make up most of Mankind.

Even in detail, it was Du Bois who pioneered the study of the slave trade, who first offered new insights into the Freedmen's Bureau, who first pointed to the significance of the Negro in the Abolitionist movement, who contested the stereotype of the docile and contented slave, who helped illuminate the meaning of John Brown, who transformed approaches to the Civil War and Reconstruction, who pioneered in writing the history of African peoples, whose studies of Southern agriculture and of Northern cities—in particular Philadelphia—remain massive and—again—pioneering efforts in historiography. (pp. 270-71)

Herbert Aptheker, "The Historian," in The Negro History Bulletin (reprinted by permission of The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Inc.), Vol. 32, No. 4, April, 1969 (and reprinted in W.E.B. DuBois: A Profile, edited by Rayford W. Logan, Hill & Wang, 1971, pp. 249-73).

Wilson J. Moses

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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 and American poetry.

How can it be known that Du Bois was aware of the tradition of interpretive mythology and that he consciously wrote in this tradition? In Chapter VIII of The Souls of Black Folk, in the section titled "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece," Du Bois demonstrated his awareness of this kind of writing and his desire to experiment with it…. In an earlier chapter of the same book, "Of the Wings of Atalanta," Du Bois had demonstrated his skill at updating mythology and adapting it to the needs of his times. The Quest of the Silver Fleece, in 1911, brought to maturity the ideas briefly outlined in the parent essay. In this novel he created a universe in which the ideology of progressive socialism and the traditionalism of Christian black nationalism work harmoniously within the framework of a Greek myth. (pp. 416-17)

Can Du Bois the social scientist be reconciled with Du Bois the poet and prophet of race? How could a man so well trained in social science have allowed the Ethiopian tradition, rooted in nineteenth-century Volksgeist mythologies, to dominate his thought?

As a youth Du Bois was romantically involved with the idea of social science, which he naively believed might yield a science of racial advancement. He was infatuated, like many other young men of his generation with the notion of a "science of man." But Du Bois's theories of social change were not always consistent. Sociology became relatively less important with the passage of years until by 1910 it was no longer Du Bois's chief concern. Though he was capable of writing perfectly good sociology, it does not appear that he wanted to. He turned—and it would seem with more satisfactory results—to the power of imagination as his chief instrument for changing public morality. He became a crusading journalist, a novelist, and a poet of Ethiopianism, dedicated to embodying his view of history in mythical form. (pp. 425-26)

Wilson J. Moses, "The Poetics of Ethiopianism: W.E.B. Du Bois and Literary Black Nationalism, in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 47, No. 3, November, 1975, pp. 411-26.


Du Bois, W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) (Vol. 1)


Du Bois, W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt) (Vol. 2)