*Du Bois, W.E.B.
Du Bois, W.E.B.
W.E.B. Du Bois was the preeminent African American writer, scholar, editor, and activist of the first 50 years of the 20th century. He published scores of essays, which range in style from the lyrical to the polemical and in subject matter from the personal to the historical. His influence as an essayist, especially inspiring to African American writers, has been immense. Du Bois showed that the essay could be used to do battle in the struggle for justice and equality as well as to explore the self. In his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), James Weldon Johnson refers to Du Bois’ collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as “a work, which, I think, has had greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any single book published in this country since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The range of Du Bois’ voice as an essayist originates in his awareness that as an African American he could not write a strictly “personal” essay. He believed that the black writer must always speak publicly and politically as well as personally. The Negro, he wrote in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” (1903), has “no true self-consciousness,” but only a “double-consciousness,” for he must always “see himself through the revelation of the other world.” For Du Bois this meant that he must address the issue of racism even in his most personal essays.
In “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), Du Bois wrote that he could “conceive” that “somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect beauty sits above truth and right, but here and now in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable.” For him, “all art is propaganda and ever must be” and “whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.”
But, if art was a weapon, it was also art and all the more effective if beautiful. Du Bois’ conception of beauty was classical. Raised in the Congregational Church of New England and educated at Harvard and in Berlin, Du Bois was torn at an early age between the elitism and gentility of his education and the militance and outrage forced on him by white racism. A white artist might be able to aspire to beauty in and of itself; a black artist could not. For Du Bois, beauty had to serve truth and justice, and to such ends the plasticity of the essay was well suited. Du Bois was a committed student of the essay, especially the 19th-century English and American essayists. He admired the specific rendering of personality in Hazlitt and Lamb, and the abstract theorizing and magisterial pronouncements of Emerson and Carlyle. He saw the essay as a form that could accommodate scholarship and objectivity as well as opinion and lyricism.
From 1910 until 1934 Du Bois was editor of Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though he published many of the writers of the emerging Harlem Renaissance, his support of the New Negro movement was qualified. His own classicism and his belief in the leadership of the “talented tenth” of the Negro population led him to want to put the “best foot forward,” and he had difficulty with the blues rhythms, street argot, and sometimes seamy material of the younger writers. Nevertheless, he recognized the difficulties renaissance writers faced as they tried to steer between “the Scylla of prudery and Charybdis of unbounded license” (“Harlem,” 1927) and, in fact, his own writing, especially his essays, presented the example of one who was willing to take political and stylistic risks. In a 1903 essay, “Of Mr. Booker T.Washington and Others” (1903), he had challenged Washington’s accommodationist views on education and the hegemony the older man maintained among black intellectuals. The break with Washington marked a move by Du Bois toward more and more radical positions. First exposed to Marxism during graduate work in Berlin (1892–94), Du Bois maintained an uneasy relationship with socialist thought for the next several decades. Though he did not join the Communist Party until 1961, he used the opinion page of the Crisis from the beginning to support socialist causes, and even, after a 1926 visit, the young Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Du Bois continued to write political essays throughout his life, promoting pan-Africanism, women’s rights, and the civil rights movement while attacking lynching, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, fascism, and McCarthyism.
In his attempts to get black readers to adopt a sense of racial pride and white readers to take the issue of race seriously, Du Bois employed a variety of stylistic approaches in his essays. In essays in the Crisis, he turned the style of the gossip column and the celebrity profile to political ends. He even offered a send-up of Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) entitled “A Mild Suggestion” (1912,), sarcastically proposing to whites that they pick a night on which they might each lure a few blacks into their homes and massacre them:
“The next morning there would be ten million funerals, and therefore no Negro problem.
Think how quietly the thing would be settled!”
Du Bois employed satire elsewhere (for instance in “The Black Man Brings His Gifts,” 1925), but it was not his favored tone. More often he chose to take seriously that which was too often ignored, such as black spirituals (“Of the Sorrow Songs,” 1903), everyday racial slights (“On Being Black,” 1920), and the lives of poor Negroes in the rural South (“Of the Black Belt,” 1903).
Du Bois exploited a wide range of what the essay offers. He wrote lyrically and allegorically, used classical allusions and rigorous research, and revealed a most personal and even nostalgic voice at times, but almost invariably his subject was too serious for the whimsy and wit of the light essay of the late Victorian period. Even an essay occasioned by his daughter’s wedding makes clear at the outset that it will be about racism: “The problem of marriage among our present American Negroes is a difficult one” (“So the Girl Marries,” 1928). When the subject is a much sadder one—for example, the death of his son—Du Bois knows that the real subject remains racism. In “Of the Passing of the First-Born” (1903), he adds anger to the grand and somber tones of the classical elegy, apostrophizing Death and confronting his own despair before deciding he must return to his work so that some “young souls,” if not his own son, might know a “morning” when the “veil” of racism is lifted.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. Born 23 February 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Studied at public schools in Great Barrington; Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1885–88, A.B., 1888; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1888– 90, A.M., 1891, Ph.D., 1895; University of Berlin, 1892–94. Taught at Wilberforce University, Ohio, 1894–96, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1896–97, and Atlanta University, 1897–1910. Married Nina Gomer, 1896 (died, 1950): one son (died in youth) and one daughter. Founder, Pan-African Congress, 1900, and the Niagara Movement, 1904. Editor, Moon Illustrated Weekly, Memphis, Tennessee, 1906–07, and Horizon, Washington, D.C., 1907–10. Cofounder, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1910: director of publicity and research, editor of its magazine the Crisis, 1910–34, and director of Special Research, 1944–48. Editor, with A.G.Dill, Brownies’ Book, 1920–21; columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, 1936–38, Amsterdam News, New York, 1938–44, Chicago Defender, 1945–48, and People’s Voice, 1947–48; also wrote for Current History, the Journal of Negro Education, Foreign Affairs, and American Scholar; editor, Phylon, Atlanta, 1940–44. Vice chair, Council on African Affairs, 1949–54; candidate for U.S. Senate for New York, 1950. Married Shirley Graham, 1951. Emigrated to Ghana, 1961, and became citizen, 1963. Awards:
Spingarn Medal, 1920; International Peace Prize, 1952; Lenin Peace Prize, 1959. Knight Commander, Liberian Order of African Redemption; Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Member, American Academy. Died in Accra, Ghana, 27 August 1963.
Essays and Related Prose
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903; revised edition, 1953
Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920
The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America, 1924
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
Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race, 1939
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept, 1940
An ABC of Color: Selections from over Half a Century of the Writings, 1964
W.E.B.Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses 1890–1963, edited by Philip Foner, 2 vols., 1970
Selected Writings, edited by Walter Wilson, 1970
W.E.B.Du Bois: A Reader, edited by Meyer Weinberg, 1970
The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W.E.B.Du Bois, edited by Julius Lester, 2 vols., 1971
A W.E.B.Du Bois Reader, edited by Andrew D.Paschal, 1971
The Crisis Writings, edited by Daniel Walden, 1972
The Emerging Thought of W.E.B.Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from The Crisis, edited by Henry Lee Moon, 1972
The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques 1906–1960, edited by Herbert Aptheker, 1973
The Writings of W.E.B.Du Bois (selection), edited by Virginia Hamilton, 1975
Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses 1887–1961, edited by Herbert Aptheker, 1985
W.E.B.Du Bois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, 1995
The Oxford W.E.B.Du Bois Reader, edited by Eric J.Sundquist, 1996
Other writings: five novels (The Quest of the Silver Fleece, 1911; Dark Princess, 1928; The Black Flame trilogy, 1957–61), poetry, many works on African American politics and social conditions, an autobiography (published posthumously, 1968), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: The Complete Published Works (KrausThomson Organization Edition), edited by Herbert Aptheker, 20 vols., 1973–86.
Aptheker, Herbert, Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W.E.B.Du Bois (part of The Complete Published Works), Millwood, New York: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1973
Partington, Paul G., W.E.B.Du Bois: A Bibliography of His Published Writings, Whittier, California: privately printed, 1979; supplement, 1984
Andrews, William, editor, Critical Essays on W.E.B.Du Bois, Boston: Hall, 1985
Byerman, Keith E., “Hearts of Darkness: Narrative Voices in The Souls of Black Folk,” American Literary Realism 14 (1981): 43–51
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
Ikonné, Chidi, From Du Bois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro Literature, 1903– 1926, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981
Rampersad, Arnold, The Art and Imagination of W.E.B.Du Bois, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976
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