Born: 23 February 1868
Birthplace: Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Died: 27 August 1963
Best Known As: Author of The Souls of Black Folk
Name at birth: William Edward Burghardt DuBois
Scholar and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). DuBois attended Harvard University and in 1895 became the first African-American to receive a doctorate from the school. He became a university professor, a prolific writer and a pioneering social scientist on the topic of black culture. DuBois particularly disagreed with black leaders such as Booker T. Washington who urged integration into white society; Du Bois championed global African unity and (especially in later years) separatism. He distilled his views in his famous 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. In 1909 he was a founding member of the NAACP, an organization promoting progress and social equality for blacks. Du Bois continued for decades as a strong public voice on behalf of African-Americans. In the 1950s he clashed with the federal government over his support for labor, his public appreciations of the Soviet Union, and his demands that nuclear weapons be outlawed. He emigrated to Ghana in 1961 and became a citizen of that country shortly before his death in 1963. The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois was published posthumously in 1968.
African American Literature: W. E. B. Du Bois
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1868-1963), essayist, novelist, journalist, critic, and perhaps the preeminent African American scholar-intellectual. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868. He was born into a small community of blacks who had settled in the region since at least the Revolutionary War, in which an ancestor had fought. His mother, Mary Sylvina Burghardt, married a restless young visitor to the region, Alfred Du Bois, who disappeared soon after the birth of his son. Du Bois grew up a thorough New Englander, as he recalled, a member of the Congregational Church and a star student in the local schools, where he was encouraged to excel.
In 1885 he left Great Barrington for Nashville, Tennessee, to enter Fisk University. The racism of the South appalled him: "No one but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism." Nevertheless he enjoyed life at Fisk, from which he was graduated in 1888. He then enrolled at Harvard, where he completed another bachelor's degree in 1890 before going on to graduate school there in history.
At Harvard his professors included William James, George Santayana, and the historian A. B. Hart. He then spent two years at the University of Berlin studying history and sociology and coming close to earning a second doctorate. Du Bois enjoyed his stay in Europe, which greatly expanded his notions about the possibilities of culture and civilization. Then, in 1894, he dropped back, as he himself put it, into "nigger-hating America."
Despite his education, most jobs were closed to him. In the next few years Du Bois taught unhappily at black Wilberforce University in Ohio, carried out a complex project in empirical sociology in a black section of Philadelphia for the University of Pennsylvania, and then, in 1897, settled in to teach economics, history, and sociology at Atlanta University.
His doctoral thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States 1638-1870, was published in 1896 as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies, to be followed in 1899 by his acclaimed study in empirical sociology, The Philadelphia Negro. However, in 1903, as Du Bois became more disenchanted with race relations in the South and increasingly saw social science as relatively powerless to change social conditions, he moved away from strict scholarship to publish a landmark collection of prose pieces, The Souls of Black Folk.
This volume, which expressly attacked Booker T.Washington, the most powerful black American of the age, brought Du Bois to controversial prominence among blacks. Brilliantly written and extraordinarily rich and complex as a portrait of black life, it also became a sort of Bible for younger black intellectuals and artists in America.
Du Bois's growing dissatisfaction with scholarship in general led him while at Atlanta to ventures in journalism as editor of two magazines, the Moon and the Horizon, between 1905 and 1909. He also published a biography, John Brown (1909), about the martyr of Harpers Ferry, that underscored his growing interest in radical action. Finally, in 1910, he gave up his professorship in Atlanta to move to New York as director of publicity of the new NAACP and as founder and editor of its magazine, the Crisis.
Du Bois quickly made the journal a trumpet against all forms of racism, as well as a reliable vehicle for writers young and old. Aiming consciously to stimulate artistic activity among younger blacks, he wrote of a coming renaissance. In 1911 he himself published a novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, about blacks and cotton in the South, that suggested the influence of Frank Norris. In 1915, reflecting a deepening knowledge of Africa, came The Negro, his Pan-Africanist account of the history of blacks in Africa and around the world. In 1920 he published his second collection of fugitive pieces, this time including some verse, Dark-water: Voices from within the Veil. This volume showed him starkly alienated and embittered, especially as compared to the self-portrait in The Souls of Black Folk, with which the new volume invited comparison.
Between 1919 and 1926, Jessie Redmon Fauset served as literary editor of the Crisis and helped to attract early work by Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other young writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, however, in a Crisis symposium called "The Negro in Art," Du Bois attacked many of the younger writers for failing to recognize their political responsibilities. "All art is propaganda," he insisted, in a reversal of an earlier position, "and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists." To illustrate his point, he contributed a novel, Dark Princess (1928), about a black American man, the beautiful Indian princess with whom he falls in love, and a plot among representatives of the darker nations of the world to rid themselves forever of white domination.
In 1934, with the Crisis circulation greatly reduced and the Renaissance exhausted by the Great Depression, Du Bois resigned from the NAACP after years of tension with other leaders. He returned to Atlanta University to teach there. The next year he published Black Reconstruction in America, a massive treatise built largely on secondary material, about the post-Civil War period in the South. The work was highly colored by Du Bois's renewed interest in Marxism, to which he had been drawn earlier, and by his sometimes overwhelming dramatic sense. In 1940 his autobiography Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept explored the relationship between his life and the evolution of theories of race in America and elsewhere.
In 1944 Du Bois rejoined the NAACP in New York as director of special research. Before long, however, he was again in conflict with the Association leaders over his growing interest in Communism and what he saw as their conservatism. In 1948 the Association fired him, this time for good. He joined forces with Paul Robeson and others in the Council of African Affairs, an anticolonialist organization, but also associated himself openly with other elements of the international Left. In 1950 he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the Labor Party ticket. In 1951 he was indicted by a grand jury and arrested for operating as the unregistered agent of a foreign power because of his involvement with a group called the Peace Information Center, of which he was chairman. After the trial judge threw out the case, Du Bois wrote about his experiencesin In Battle for Peace: The Story of My Eighty-Third Birthday (1952).
In the 1950s he consolidated his links to Communism. He was prominent in the outcry against the execution of the Rosenbergs and took part in their funeral service. The government retaliated by seizing his passport and holding it for several years. Still Du Bois continued to write. In his last years he published The Black Flame, a trilogy of novels: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961). These novels offered an encyclopedic account of modern African American and world history seen from a radical perspective, mainly through the experiences of a stalwart though intellectually mediocre African American educator, Manuel Mansart. The trilogy was ignored by virtually all American critics and reviewers, black or white.
In 1959, after much travel following the restoration of his passport, he emigrated to Ghana. He did so at the invitation of its president, Kwame Nkrumah, to begin work on an Encyclopedia Africana, in which Du Bois had taken an almost lifelong interest. At the same time, he publicly applied for membership in the U.S. Communist Party. In Africa, he renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana. He died in Accra in August 1963.
Merely as the author of five novels and enough poems for a slender volume, Du Bois deserves a place in African American literary history. However, his impact on black literature went well beyond his efforts as a poet or writer of fiction. The Souls of Black Folk revolutionized African American self-perception by locating the black personality and character in the context of history, sociology, religion, music, and art as it had never been located before. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness and his image of black Americans as living behind a veil in America, which he developed in harmony with astute critical analyses of history and sociology, opened up the representational world for black artists responding to the crisis in which African Americans have been forced to live.
His many brilliant essays, backed by a rare command of black history and social complexity, were a resource on which generations of black intellectuals and artists drew. The grand tribute given Du Bois by Arthur Spingarn of the NAACP when Du Bois resigned from the organization in 1934 is hardly off the mark: "He created, what never existed before, a Negro intelligentsia, and many who have never read a word of his writings are his spiritual disciples and descendants."
- Francis L. Broderick W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis, 1959.
- Elliott Rudr, wick, W. E. B. Du Bois: Propagandist of the Negro Protest, 1968.
- Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1971.
- Herbert Aptheker, ed., Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1973.
- William L. Andrews, ed., Critical Essays on W. E. B. Du Bois, 1985.
- Herbert Aptheker, ed., The Complete Published Works of W. E. B. Du Bois, 35 vols., 1973-1985.
- Nathan I. Huggins, ed. W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, 1990.
- Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1990.
- David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, 1993.
- Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W.E.B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888-1903, 1996
US Military History Companion: W. E. B. Du Bois
(1868-1963), civil rights leader and author
Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, W. E. B. Du Bois earned undergraduate degrees at Fisk University (1885) and Harvard (1890), and a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1895. Du Bois taught history and economics at Atlanta University in 1897-1910 and 1934-44. From 1910 to 1934, he served as founding editor of the Crisis, the official organ of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
When his most influential book, The Souls of Black Folk, was published in 1903, Du Bois became the premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States and among the first thinkers to grasp the international implications of the struggle for racial justice. The problem of the twentieth century, he wrote then, was the problem of the "color‐line."
Du Bois's legacy is complex. A severe critic of racial segregation, he still enjoined other African Americans to accept, if temporarily, the segregated units and officer training facilities of the U.S. Army in 1917-18-in the hope that wartime military service would lead to full civil rights. An elitist who emphasized the leadership role of a "talented tenth" in the liberation of black people, Du Bois moved increasingly to the Left after World War II, denouncing U.S. Cold War policies as imperialistic and espousing Communist solutions to problems of race and class. He joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1961 and spent the last two years of his life in Ghana.
- David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race. Vol. 1, 1993