W. E. B. Du Bois

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Virginia Hamilton, in W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography, tells more than the story of Du Bois’ life; the book is also the history of the struggle for equal rights for African Americans and of the profound influence that Du Bois had on that process. Du Bois lived for ninety-five years, so the biography is able to portray the progress and setbacks that occurred over a considerable period of time. Struggles within the African-American community itself are also shown; the debates between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington became a crossroads in the unification of African Americans. Hamilton provides an objective account by drawing upon diary entries and quotations from Du Bois’ speeches and other writings. The reader follows Du Bois in his struggle to obtain the rights for Southern African Americans to vote, to achieve equal access to public facilities, and to end the separation of blacks and whites.

Du Bois believed that education was the road from poverty for African Americans. He went to college, obtaining his B.A. from Fisk University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University; Harvard, however, first made him repeat his junior and senior B.A. program because it would not recognize a degree from a black Southern college. Du Bois was the first sociologist in the field of African-American studies to use experiment and observation as a basis of his research. His program for a scientific study of blacks was finally undertaken by Atlanta University. In 1897, Du Bois believed that the scientific study of his people—the gathering of knowledge of their past and present—was of paramount importance. Assuming that the world would want to know the truth about blacks, he also assumed that the world at large would support truth over fiction. Basing his own actions on reason, he wrongly assumed that others would do the same.

In 1895, a debate began between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over the best approach to achieve equality and advancement for African Americans. Washington came forth with the Atlanta Compromise, stating, in essence, that blacks and whites could live together. He wrote, “In all things that are purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet ONE as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This speech shocked and infuriated Du Bois, who saw it as a program to appease white people—at a time when black people were completely segregated. Washington was to form the Tuskegee Machine, while Du Bois worked with the Niagara Movement, later to evolve into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From the beginning, this organization was to include both blacks and whites working for the advancement of African Americans.

Du Bois was the director of publications and research; he established Crisis magazine to promote change and equality. At this time, he became friends with Jane Addams, the social reformer who founded Hull-House in Chicago, as well as with Woodrow Wilson, then a candidate for the United States presidency. It was also at this time that Du Bois began to promote socialism. He would eventually be asked to give up editorship of Crisis because of his socialist leanings.

In 1922, the laws and political system of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were formalized, based on the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx. Du Bois was very interested in this system, because it promised equality for all. He studied communism, seeing in it a hope for African Americans. Because of the anticommunist movement in the United States, however, he was indicted and put on trial. The judge threw the case out of...

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court, but the controversy caused great harm to Du Bois’ leadership and following. Du Bois eventually moved to Africa, where he died at the age of ninety-five. Ironically, the next day, a half million Americans gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest protest demonstration ever seen in the United States, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and leaders of the NAACP.


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Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959. An older work still valuable for understanding the evolving views of W. E. B. Du Bois. It contains much biographical information and is especially incisive in capturing the troubled spirit of Du Bois through his many difficult transitions.

Byerman, Keith E. Seizing the Word: History, Art, and Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Examines Du Bois in terms of contemporary literary and cultural theory. Discusses the work of Du Bois and its influence on nineteenth and twentieth century America.

Horne, Gerald, and Mary Young, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. A guide to the life and work of Du Bois.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New York: H. Holt, 1993. This 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning book chronicles the major impact Du Bois’s controversial thinking had on the United States. It focuses on a crucial fifty-year period in Du Bois’s life and in the nation’s civil rights struggle.

Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. This second volume in Lewis’s massive biography of Du Bois focuses on the last forty-four years of Du Bois’s life.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. An especially good treatment of Du Bois’s creative genius. Essentially a biography, traces Du Bois’s life from his New England beginnings to his last years in Ghana.

Rudwick, Elliott M. W. E. B. Du Bois: Voice of the Black Protest Movement. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982. A well-documented study; covers the full sweep of Du Bois’s career from his youth to his later involvements in pan-Africanism and peace promotion.


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