W.E.B. Du Bois

Author, journalist, social reformer, activist, poet, philosopher, and educator, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) wielded one of the most influential pens in African-American history. For 66 years he functioned not only as a mentor, model, and spokesman for generations of black Americans, but also as the conscience of all Americans who yearned for racial equality and social justice.

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Photo: W. E. B. DuBois, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID ggbain 07435

Born during the painful period of Reconstruction, Du Bois graduated from Fisk University in 1888 and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895 before entering the worlds of academia and activism. Using Atlanta University as his base from 1897 to 1910, he opposed Booker T. Washington’s educational views as too limiting, and organized the Niagara Movement, which strongly opposed racial segregation and disenfranchisement. In 1909 Du Bois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1910 he launched its historic magazine The Crisis. During this period he also published his classic treatise The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the best known of many passionate and well-argued philosophical and sociological studies of his race, which also included The Philadelphia Negro, John Brown, The Gift of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction, and Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace.

Harlem Renaissance and The Crisis
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois was a familiar presence in New York. A prime mover in that fast-paced, exciting cultural explosion, Du Bois extended a helping hand to many of his younger colleagues, publishing in the pages of The Crisis the best poetry and prose of African-American writers, among them Langston Hughes, who dedicated The Negro Speaks of Rivers to Du Bois. Through the NAACP, Du Bois was also instrumental in creating opportunities for intellectual and artistic advancement for blacks and ways of rewarding and encouraging excellence, notably his collaboration with the Spingarns in creating the prestigious medals which bear that family’s name. He published a novel, Dark Princess, in 1928, and he continued to edit The Crisis until 1934, when he began to reject the conservatism of the NAACP’s political views.

Du Bois’s gradual radicalization paralleled that of a number of other black intellectuals and artists, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson prominently among them. Du Bois embraced leftist ideology, was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1958, and formally joined the Communist Party in 1961. In the last year of his life he moved to Ghana, and took citizenship in that nation. His memoir Dusk Of Dawn, written in 1940, and the posthumously published three volumes of The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois constitute not only a personal history but also the autobiography of a race of people in their proud ascent from slavery to freedom and in their courageous quest for equality–a struggle that Du Bois had once described as an unending battle against the forces of hell.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

From The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
(Chapter IV: “The Sorrow Songs”)
“They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days–Sorrow Songs–for they were weary at heart. And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black man spoke to men. Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely. They came out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and mine. Then in the years when I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past…… The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words…

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and of song–soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years before your weak hands could have done it; the third a gift of the Spirit….Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

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