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 TWashington, 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 US 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 US Communist Party In Africa, he renounced his US 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” .