| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
W.E.B. Du Bois
At the turn of the twentieth century, William Edward
Burghardt Du Bois, the most outspoken civil rights activist in America,
committed himself to a style of political leadership which emphasized that, in
order for African Americans to survive the inordinate stress and cruelty of
racial discrimination, they had to make a “...determined attempt at
self-development, self-realization, in spite of environing discouragement and
prejudice.” The style called upon African Americans to seek full exercise of
civil rights in the United States through militant protest and agitation.
Bois’s posture met with little popularity, for it was at the time that the
nation had witnessed the undermining of the “Reconstruction Amendments”—which
had given blacks the legal prerogatives of the vote, access to public
facilities and services, and equal rights under the law—by the 1896 Supreme
Court decision, Plessy v. Fergusson or the “separate but equal” doctrine.
Rayford W. Logan, a noted historian, called the ensuing period of
disfranchisement the “nadir” and betrayal of African American citizenship in
the United States. Du Bois was undaunted in his conviction that, despite Plessy
v. Fergusson, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the
United States were documents of entitlement and that the struggle of African
Americans was a struggle for securing basic human and civil rights for all
Americans. Hence, for Du Bois, the turn-of-the-century nadir signaled social
and political conditions for blacks which made protest an absolute necessity.
Bois’s political idealism was a product of his childhood observations of and
participation in the civic activities of his home town and of his formal
education in the 19th-century disciplines of history and sociology, both of
which held firm to a belief in human progress and the perfectibility of man in
society. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, Du Bois grew up in a
typical New England small-town environment, where social and economic
activities were reinforced by strong traditions in “primary democracy”: all of
its citizens had a right to be heard. The people of Great Barrington considered
their community to be one with a moral purpose; thus, assuming social responsibility
was an integral part of civic life. Having grown up in such an environment, Du
Bois had little direct experience with the social, political, and economic
exclusion of blacks before he went south to attend Fisk University in 1885.
graduating from Fisk University, Du Bois went to Harvard, 1888 to 1892, where
he completed a second baccalaureate degree in philosophy and a master’s degree
in history. He studied philosophy with William James, George Santayana, and
Josiah Royce, whose thoughts on individualism, community, pragmatism, and the
use of ideas to promote social change influenced Du Bois’s thinking throughout
his long career as an activist and writer. His advanced study led to his
earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard and the distinction of having his
dissertation, The Suppression of the Slave Trade in the United States of
America, published as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies in
new social science held that one should seek the “truth” of the human history
through an examination of a range of historical documents: the Congressional
Record, the census, newspapers, private papers, and so forth. Study of such
primary sources would allow the scholar to write a comprehensive view of any
historical era or issue. During the initial period of his career, Du Bois
utilized the new social science methodology as a researcher and teacher at
Wilberforce University (1894–96), the University of Pennsylvania (1897), and
Atlanta University (1897–1910). Between 1896 and 1905, he conducted studies of
the urbanization of blacks in the North (The Philadelphia Negro) and the social
organization of blacks in the rural South (The Atlanta University
Publications). By 1900, however, having declared that “the problem of the
twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” he realized that his
scholarly work reached a limited audience. He began experimenting with the
literary forms in search of containers, as it were, for a kind of literature
which portrayed the African American’s social and cultural distinctiveness in
ways the social sciences did not. Many of his experimental works—essays, poems,
short stories, plays, dramatic sketches, and so on—were published in two
magazines which he edited, the Moon Illustrated Weekly (1905) and the Horizon (1907–10). The poem
“The Song of the Smoke,” for example, was first published in the Horizon
(February 1907); and, in many respects, its theme is characteristic of Du
Bois’s early work: an assertion of a positive disposition toward blackness for
its beauty, its creativity and its service to mankind.
Bois also realized as early as 1900 that organized collective action by black
people needed an institutional structure in order to be effective. In 1905, he
was the principal founder of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights protest
organization, in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory posture of
accommodating racial discrimination. The organization called for direct action
against racial discrimination through protest, through the use of the courts, and
through education of the American people. Four years later, he was a principal
organizer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP). Its mission was identical to that of the Niagara Movement but its
membership included both blacks and whites. From 1910 to 1934, as the NAACP
Director of Publicity and Research and editor of its magazine (the Crisis), he
combined his experimentation in literature, his understanding of American
culture, and the rhetoric of protest. He was, for nearly a quarter century, the
undisputed intellectual leader of a new generation of African Americans.
1934, Du Bois was fired from his post with the NAACP because he advocated use
of segregation as a strategy for binding blacks into a cohesive group during
the worst of the Depression years. Other officials of the organization felt
such a strategy was against the NAACP’s basic mission: seeking an integrated
society. While Du Bois’s strategy is little understood, nevertheless it remains
the primary reason cited for his departure from the civil rights organization
which he helped to found and to which he gave direction.
Du Bois returned to the NAACP as Director of Special Research from 1944 to
1948, 1934 marked the end of his influence in the organization and in the
affairs of African American letters. Already a world leader by 1900, Du Bois
dedicated his post-1934 years almost exclusively to world affairs. For almost
two decades, to his death, he was identified as a sympathizer with world peace
movements. In 1963, he became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in August of
the same year.
University of Iowa
In the Heath Anthology
The Song of the Smoke
The Souls of Black Folk
Chapter I: "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
Chapter III: "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others"
Chapter XIV: "Of the Sorrow Songs"
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America
Atlanta University Studies on the American Negro (19 volumes)
(1897 - 1915)
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study
The Quest of the Silver Fleece
The Star of Ethiopia
The Gift of the Negro
Dark Princess: Voices from Within the Veil
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept
Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace
The World and Africa
The Black Flame--A Trilogy: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961)
(1957 - 1961)
Booker T Washington Crazy?
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Atlantic Monthly, 1965
An interview conducted by Ralph McGill shortly before Du Bois's death.
Perspectives in American Literature
Primary works and selected bibliography including books and articles.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Virtual University
Ohio State graduate student site devoted to many aspects of Du Bois studies.
W.E.B. Du Bois Resources
Numerous links to online projects, texts, and more.
W.E.B. Dubois: Sociologist & African-American Protest Leader
Biographical sketch and links to additional Internet resources.
William L. Andrews, Critical Essays on W.E.B. DuBois, 1985
Frances L. Broderick, W.E.B. DuBois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis, 1959
Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois, 1976