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Bois W. E. B.
sociologist, political activist, editor, essayist, novelist, poet,
and prophet, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois stands as one of
the towering figures in American history. In a public career encompassing
three-quarters of a century, Du Bois delivered eloquent, trenchant,
occasionally contradictory commentary on what he called "the
problem of the Twentieth Century . . . the problem of the color
line." In the 1920s, he played a central role in the unfolding
drama of the Harlem Renaissance, initially as an inspiration and
patron, later as an increasingly captious critic.
Du Bois was
born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868. His origins
were humble. His mother, Mary, worked odd jobs, mostly as a domestic
servant, before suffering a paralytic stroke; he scarcely knew
his father, Alfred, who had abandoned the family. Still, Du Bois
remembered his childhood as happy, a more or less "typically
New England" upbringing, only occasionally ruffled by the
racial realities of post-Reconstruction America. He flourished
in Great Barrington's public schools, exhibiting even in these
early days the qualities that would distinguish his life and art:
a voracious intellect, a romantic imagination, and an overweening
(though, in retrospect, quite justified) sense of his own historical
Du Bois graduated
from Great Barrington High School in 1885 and proceeded to Fisk
University, from which he graduated three years later. Fisk, the
flagship of the American Missionary Association's post-Civil War
campaign to uplift the freedpeople, gave Du Bois not only a fine
classical education but his first exposure to black life in the
south under Jim Crow. In Darkwater (1921), Du Bois would
describe that experience in characteristically grandiloquent prose:
"Consider, for a moment, how miraculous it all was to a boy
of seventeen, just escaped from a narrow valley. I willed and
lo! my people came dancing about me . . . riotous in color, gay
in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading."
Du Bois went to Harvard, where he earned a second bachelor's degree
in 1890 and a doctorate in history five years later. Though excluded
from the university's dormitories and most of its social life,
he flourished academically, developing close relationships with
some of America's premier intellectuals, including the philosophers
William James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana and the historian
Alfred Bushnell Hart. Du Bois's Ph.D. dissertation, "The
Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of
America," completed under Hart's direction, was published
in 1896- the first of his more than two dozen books.
graduate education also included a two-year sojourn at the University
of Berlin, where he immersed himself in the emerging discipline
of sociology. Though he failed to earn the coveted German doctoral
degreehis support from the white philanthropic Slater Fund
dried up before he could complete the residency requirementhis
years in Germany proved formative. The encounter with sociology
not only shaped Du Bois's future academic career but confirmed
his political vocation, offering a framework for engaged intellectual
activism. Though often frustrated by the sheer irrationality of
racial prejudice, Du Bois remained convinced that it was possible
to generate authoritative, objective knowledge about human life
(and about Negro life in particular), and that this knowledge
could be used to fashion a more rational, more just world. More
broadly, the years in Germany established some of the signature
tensions in his thought. Living in Germany sharpened his racialism,
his conviction that each race or Volk possessed its own
distinctive genius or "gift"; but at the same time,
Germany confirmed the cosmopolitan in him who exulted in what
he called "the world beyond the veil," that vast "kingdom
of culture" unsullied by American racial madness.
peerless education, Du Bois had no chance of a permanent appointment
at a white university when he returned to the United States in
1894. He accepted a position teaching classics at Wilberforce
University, an African Methodist Episcopal church school in Ohio.
(Ironically in light of future events, Du Bois also applied for
and was offered a position at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee
Institute, but the offer did not arrive until after he had accepted
the post at Wilberforce.) Though he often waxed lyrical about
African-American Christianity, Du Bois had little patience with
organized religion, and he soon became estranged from the dominant
evangelical ethos at Wilberforce. In 1896, he left to accept a
temporary research position at the University of Pennsylvania,
from which came his second book, The Philadelphia Negro,
still regarded as a classic of urban sociology. In retrospect,
his years at Wilberforce are significant chiefly for introducing
him to his future wife, a "doe-eyed," somewhat stolid
student named Nina Gomer. Though grievously mismatched, the couple
remained married for more than half a century, until Nina's death
in 1950. They had two children: a son, Burghardt, whose death
in infancy would later be poignantly rendered in "The Passing
of the First Born," one of the essays in The Souls of
Black Folk; and a daughter, Yolande.
Du Bois joined the faculty of Atlanta University, where he spent
the next decade teaching, writing, and overseeing the Atlanta
Studies, an ambitious annual series of conferences and monographs
designed to provide an exact sociological portrait of African-American
life. He also put the final touches on his masterwork, The
Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays, autobiographical
fragments, and fiction intended to illuminate the subjective human
reality of those who lived "within the veil." In the
book's belletristic "Forethought," Du Bois made it clear
that his imagined audience was white, but this work would have
its most profound impact on African-American readers, including
virtually all the writers and artists who later distinguished
themselves in the Harlem Renaissance.
of Black Folk marked Du Bois's entrance into the arena of
racial politics. Chapter 3, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington
and Others," offered a respectful but telling critique of
the so-called "wizard of Tuskegee," whose advocacy of
"industrial" education and political accommodation had
lent an apparent black seal of approval to the Jim Crow regime
settling over the south. In 1905, Du Bois helped to organize the
Niagara Movement, an assembly of black leaders opposed to Washington's
leadership and committed to fighting for full civil equality for
African-Americans. While this movement never achieved a firm institutional
foundation, it signaled a new black assertiveness and contributed
directly to the establishment, four years later, of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In
1910, Du Bois moved to New York City, to take office as the director
of publicity of NAACP and to edit its monthly journal, The
relationship with the predominantly white leadership of NAACP
was contentious from the outset and would eventually culminate
in his resignation. But for the predominantly black readership
of Crisis, Du Bois was the NAACP. Working with limited
funds and a minimal staff, he turned the magazine into his personal
broadsheet, offering news and commentary, edifying reading lists,
book reviews, and, on more than a few occasions, scathing criticism
of individuals or institutions that had neglected their responsibility
to the race. The riot in east St. Louis, the savage practice of
lynching, America's entry into World War I (which Du Bois, to
his later regret, endorsed), the Bolshevik revolution, Garveyism,
the biennial meetings of his own Pan-African Congress; the New
Dealall these developments and more were discussed and digested
in the columns of Crisis. In the words of Lewis (1993),
Du Bois became the self-appointed "preceptor of the race."
No debate in black American life could be considered complete
until Dr. Du Bois had had his say.
Du Bois was drawn into debates swirling around the Harlem Renaissance.
Initially, he expressed an almost paternal fondness for the writers
of the "younger literary movement," whom he regarded
as his own heirs. That assessment was characteristically immodest
but by no means unfair. Virtually all the core contentions of
the New Negro movement can be found in Du Bois's writing a generation
before. It was Du Bois who first insisted that the Negro was "primarily
an artist," that the "rude melodies" of black slaves
constituted the "only true American music," and that
blacks' "gift of laughter and song" had enriched an
otherwise impoverished, materialistic American culture. Du Bois
also recognized, long before Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson,
and other progenitors of the Harlem Renaissance, that artistic
and literary production could provide a powerful weapon in African-Americans'
continuing quest for justice and respect. Though his chief identity
was as a scholar and editor, he occasionally wielded that weapon
himself, most notably in the novel The Quest of the Silver
Fleece (1911) and the sprawling historical pageant The
Star of Ethiopia (1913).
Du Bois was
quick to establish himself as a patron and mentor to the emerging
New Negro movement. He hired the novelist Jessie Fauset as literary
editor of Crisis, and together they launched one of the
era's first competitions for black writers. Among the young writers
"discovered" by Crisis was Langston Hughes, whose
epochal poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," dedicated
to Du Bois, appeared in 1921. Du Bois attended the Civic Club
dinner of 1924 that served as literary Harlem's downtown debut,
and he was one of the first reviewers to hail the genius of Jean
Toomer's Cane, though he seems to have been taken more
with the book's lyricism than with its modernist conception, which
left him frankly bewildered. "His art carries much that is
difficult or even impossible to understand," Du Bois complained.
"I cannot, for the life of me, for instance, see why Toomer
could not have made the tragedy of 'Carma' something that I could
understand instead of vaguely guess at; 'Box Seat' muddles me
to the last degree and I am not sure that I know what 'Kabnis'
in Du Bois's curious review of Cane were the seeds of his
future estrangement from the New Negro movement. For someone who
wrote so eloquently of the "souls" of black "folk,"
Du Bois had surprisingly conservative aesthetic tastes. In an
era attuned to modernist experimentation and the possibilities
of vernacular expression, Du Bois preferred the soaring flights
of Byron and Tennyson or their German romantic antecedents, Goethe
and Schiller. (The Souls of Black Folk included epigrams
from all four authors.) His taste in music was likewise classical
and distinctly Eurocentric. Though he appreciated the majesty
of the "sorrow songs," he regarded blues as vulgar and
jazz as unrefined. While Langston Hughes glimpsed a universe of
beauty in the keening wail of a saxophone on a Harlem street corner,
Du Bois thrilled to Beethoven and Wagner.
differences in aesthetic values and judgment became apparent,
Du Bois's regard for the rising generation of black writers plummeted,
as did their respect for him. By the mid-1920s, Opportunity,
an upstart magazine launched by Charles Johnson and the National
Urban League, had displaced Crisis as the premier outlet
for New Negro writing, and figures like Johnson, Alain Locke,
and Carl Van Vechten had usurped Du Bois's role as literary patron.
Personal encounters between Du Bois and his imagined offspring
typically left both parties disappointed. The poet Claude McKay
detected no human warmth in the idol of this youth, only "a
cold, acid hauteur of spirit, which is not lessened when he vouchsafes
a smile." Though not mentioned by name, Du Bois was clearly
one of the targets of Fire!!, a short-lived journal launched
by "younger Negro writers" (including Langston Hughes,
Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Zora Neale Hurston)
as an artistic declaration of independence from the older generation
of "respectable," "bourgeois" black writers
over the direction of the New Negro movement exploded into the
open in 1926, following the publication of Carl Van Vechten's
notorious novel Nigger Heaven. While many black writers
defended the novelWallace Thurman half-facetiously predicted
that a statue in Van Vechten's honor would one day be erected
in HarlemDu Bois decried it as a "slap in the face,"
a violation of the "hospitality" that black people had
extended to its white author. The book's appearance confirmed
Du Bois's belief that the New Negro movement had lost its way,
that a movement begun to advance black claims to citizenship had
degenerated into a modern-day minstrel show, purveying stereotypical
images of black criminals, prostitutes, and buffoons for the amusement
of white readers.
In the months
that followed, Du Bois continued to rail against what he dubbed
the "Van Vechten school" of black writing. In his eyes,
younger black writers were guilty not only of political irresponsibility
but of artistic blindness, recycling tales of "low down"
black people while ignoring the rich vein of artistic material
to be found in the predicament of intelligent, upstanding Negroes.
His reviews of New Negro writing ranged from disappointed (Fine
Clothes to the Jew, Langston Hughes's second volume of poetry,
contained "extraordinarily beautiful bits" but lamentably
confined itself to "lowly types") to vicious (passages
in Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, he reported, left him
"wanting to take a bath"). In the end, only a handful
of writers escaped his scorn, among them Jessie Fauset, Countee
Cullen (who was briefly married to Du Bois's daugher, Yolande),
and Nella Larsen.
course of the 1920s, Du Bois made several attempts to redirect
the Harlem Renaissance along more appropriate lines. In 1926,
he launched a symposium in Crisis: contributors, white
and black, were asked to respond to a series of seven questions
on the theme "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?"
Although he circulated the questionnaire to a cross section of
writers, editors, and publishers, his own opinions were obvious
from the tone of the questions:
1. When the
artist, black or white, portrays Negro characters, is he under
any obligations or limitations as to the sort of character he
2. Can the author be criticized for painting the worst or the
best characters of a group?
3. Can publishers be criticized for refusing to handle novels
that portray Negroes of education and accomplishment, on the ground
that these characters are no different from white folk and therefore
4. What are Negroes to do when they are continually painted at
their worst and judged by the public as they are painted?
5. Does the situation of the educated Negro in America with its
pathos, humiliation, and tragedy call for artistic treatment at
least as sincere and sympathetic as "Porgy" received?
6. Is not the continual portrayal of the sordid, foolish, and
criminal among Negroes convincing the world that this and this
alone is really and essentially Negroid, and preventing white
artists from knowing any other types and preventing black artists
from daring to paint them?
7. Is there not a real danger that young colored writers will
be tempted to follow the popular trend in portraying Negro character
in the underworld rather than seeking to paint the truth about
themselves and their own social class?
For the next
six months, Du Bois printed the replies in Crisis. Insofar
as he had hoped through the questionnaire to recapture artistic
leadership of the Harlem Renaissance, the results were disappointing.
While a few respondents answered in the intended spiritJessie
Fauset's reply deserved perfect marksthe vast majority reacted
with something between bemusement and dismissal. "What's
the use of saying anything?" Langston Hughes asked. "The
true artist is going to write what he chooses anyway regardless
of outside opinion. . . . It's the way people look at things,
not what they look at, that needs to be changed."
Du Bois concluded
the symposium with a long essay of his own, "Criteria of
Negro Art," in which he explicated his ideas about the universal
attributes of "beauty" and the specific contributions
that black writers and artists might make toward its realization.
The essay included stern instructions on the political responsibilities
of the black writer, suggesting in several places that the duty
of vindicating the reputation of the race trumped the value of
art for art's sake. "All art is Propaganda," he thundered.
"I do not give a damn for art that is not Propaganda."
It is no
disrespect to Du Bois, whose place in history is now secure, to
say that this was not his finest hour. In the first place, his
characterization of contemporary writing was factually incorrect.
As James Weldon Johnson showed in a careful inventory published
at the end of the 1920s, scarcely a quarter of the works written
by or about African-Americans in the previous decade fell within
what Du Bois called the "Van Vechten school." Even Nigger
Heaven itself, after its admittedly lurid beginning, dealt
chiefly with the predicament of educated middle-class black people.
The unfolding debate had also pushed Du Bois into a position-
art equals propaganda- that not only smacked of philistinism but
directly contradicted positions he himself had previously maintained.
Just five years before, for example, Du Bois had defended Eugene
O'Neill's controversial play The Emperor Jones against
black critics who decried it for perpetuating racial stereotypes.
To compel artists to represent only "the best and highest
and noblest in us," to "insist that Art and Propaganda
be one," betrayed a "complete misunderstanding . . .
of the aim of Art," he wrote on that occasion. "We have
criminals and prostitutes, ignorant and debased elements just
as all folks have." Five years later, having seen his position
as literary patron usurped, he was prepared to subject art to
a more rigorous political test.
second novel, Dark Princess (1928), can also be read as
an attempt to move African-American literature in more responsible
directions. The novel hewed closely to its author's political
prescriptions, with middle-class characters debating the predicament
of the world's darker races in impeccable English and with nary
a prostitute or jazz club in sight. The main character, Matthew
Towns, is a disillusioned black medical student who has fled the
racism of the United States to live in Germany. There he meets
the title character, a beautiful Indian princess who just happens
to be the leader of a secret global movement of people of color.
Alternately romantic and didactic, the book could scarcely have
been more out of step with the artistic temper of the 1920s, and
it had little apparent impact on other black writers.
Du Bois surely lost the battle for the soul of the Harlem Renaissance,
he may have won the war. As the Great Depression ravaged Harlem
and popular enthusiasm for black people's arts ebbed, many prominent
"New Negroes" began to look back at the 1920s with a
certain embarrassment, renouncing not only the bohemian excesses
of the decade but their own naive belief that art alone could
conquer racial prejudice. Du Bois watched it all with more than
a little satisfaction. In 1933, in a speech at Fisk University,
he pronounced an epitaph for the renaissance- an epitaph that
continues, for better and for worse, to shape critical assessments
of the movement:
Why was it
that the Renaissance of literature which began among Negroes ten
years ago has never taken real and lasting root? It was because
it was a transplanted and exotic thing. It was a literature written
for the benefit of white people and at the behest of white readers,
and starting out privately from the white point of view. It never
had a real Negro constituency and it did not grow out of the inmost
heart and frank experience of Negroes. On such an artificial basis
no real literature can grow.
1933 Du Bois had settled comfortably into the role of curmudgeonly
elder statesman, his public career had run scarcely half its course.
He survived for another three decades, remaining politically and
intellectually engaged until the end. Though he resigned as editor
of Crisis in 1934, he continued to churn out articles, essays,
and editorials on the issues of the day. He also published a steady
stream of books, including Black Reconstruction, a classic
work of radical history; Dusk of Dawn, a lyrical autobiography;
and three more novels, the so-called "Black Flame" trilogy,
which traced the movements of a thinly veiled autobiographical
protagonist, Manuel Mansart, through the twentieth century.
As the shadow
of McCarthyism darkened American political life, Du Bois found
himself increasingly isolated and vulnerable. His passport was
suspended, and he faced mounting harassment, an experience he
recounted in the short book In Battle for Peace. In 1951,
he was arrested for failing to register as an agent of a foreign
principal, a politically motivated charge growing out of his involvement
with an international Peace Information Center. In 1961, Du Bois
accepted an invitation from Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of the
newly independent republic of Ghana, to spend his last years in
Africa. On the day of his final departure from the United States,
1 October 1961, he formally enrolled as a member of the American
Communist Party, a parting shot against the native land that had
rejected his gifts.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born 23 February 1868 in
Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He studied at public schools
in Great Barrington; Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee (A.B.,
1888); Harvard University (A.B., 1890, A.M., 1991, Ph.D., 1895);
and the University of Berlin (1892-1894). He taught at Wilberforce
University, Xenia, Ohio (1894-1896); the University of Pennsylvania
(1896-1897); and Atlanta University (1897-1910, 1934-1943). Du
Bois was a participant in the Pan-African Conference of 1900 and
the Universal Races Congress of 1911. He was a founding member
of the Niagara Movement (1905), National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (1910), and Pan-African Congresses (1919, 1921,
1923, 1927, 1945). Du Bois was an editor at Moon Illustrated
Weekly, Memphis, Tennessee (1906-1907); Horizon, Washington,
D.C. (1907-1910); Crisis, New York City (1910-1934); and
Phylon, Atlanta (1940-1944). He was a columnist for the
Pittsburgh Courier (1936-1938), New York Amsterdam News
(1938-1944), Chicago Defender (1947-1948), and People's
Voice (1947-1948). He was also vice-chairman of the Council
on African Affairs (1949-1954) and a candidate for the U.S. Senate
(Labor Party, 1950). He immigrated to Ghana in 1961 and became
a Ghanaian citizen. His awards included Knight Commander, Liberian
Order of African Redemption (c. 1907); Spingarn Medal (1920);
International Peace Prize (1952); and Lenin Peace Prize (1959).
Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana, 27 August 1963.
See also: Atlanta University Studies; Cane; Crisis, The; Crisis:
The Negro in Art---How Shall He Be Portrayed? A Symposium; Dark
Princess; Emperor Jones, The; Fire!!; Fauset, Jessie Redmon; Harlem
Renaissance: 1---Black Critics of; Harlem Renaissance: 2---Black
Promoters of; New Negro Movement; Niagara Movment; Nigger Heaven;
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Pan-African
Congresses; specific individuals
Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of
America, 1638-1870. 1896.
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. 1899.
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. 1903.
The Quest of the Silver Fleece: A Novel. 1911.
The Negro. 1915.
Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. 1921.
The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America.
Dark Princess: A Romance. 1928.
Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History
of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct
Democracy in America, 1860-1880. 1935.
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing
My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. 1962.
Herbert. The Literary Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. White
Plains, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1989.
W., Emily R. Grosholz, and James B. Stewart, eds. W. E. B.
Du Bois on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
New York: Holt, 1993.
W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century,
1919-1963. New York: Holt, 2000.
Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1976.
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