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Du Bois W. E. B.

Historian, 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 importance.

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."

From Fisk, 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.

Du Bois's 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 degree—his support from the white philanthropic Slater Fund dried up before he could complete the residency requirement—his 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.

Despite his 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.

In 1898, 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.

The Souls 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 Crisis.

Du Bois's 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 Deal—all 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.

Inevitably, 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' is about."

Embedded 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.

As these 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 and critics.

Disagreements 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 novel—Wallace Thurman half-facetiously predicted that a statue in Van Vechten's honor would one day be erected in Harlem—Du 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.

Over the 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 will portray?
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 not interesting?
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 spirit—Jessie Fauset's reply deserved perfect marks—the 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.

Du Bois's 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.

Although 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.

Though by 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.

Biography
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.

James Campbell


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


Selected Works
The 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. 1924.
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. 1940.
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. 1962.

Further Reading

Aptheker, Herbert. The Literary Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. White Plains, N.Y.: Kraus International, 1989.

Bell, Bernard W., Emily R. Grosholz, and James B. Stewart, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois on Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Lewis, David 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.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

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