70 W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

Tapan Basu

Introduction

The Souls of Black Folk (1903), The Negro (1915), “The African Roots of War” (1915)

Born in Great Barrington, western Massachusetts, in 1868, William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois lived for almost a century, which stretched from the post-U. S. Civil War period to the period of the beginnings of the Cold War.

Although he had a tough childhood, brought up by his mother and her relatives after his father deserted the family, he grew up to be a voracious reader of books and graduated with honors from the local high school in 1885.

During the next few years, he, to put it in his own words, “went South” to ”the South of slavery, rebellion and black folk,” spending four years at Nashville, Tennessee. Subsequently, he studied at Harvard, earning, in 1895, a Ph.D. degree following upon a B. A. and a M. A., and at the University of Berlin (1892 – 1895). In an age of severe lack of middle – class professional opportunities for black people in the United States, Du Bois was able to break the barrier of prejudice and obtain research and teaching assignments at several universities, including the Wilberforce University in Central Ohio, the University of Pennsylvannia and the Atlanta University in Georgia.

Later in life he assumed the role of a public intellectual, seeking to represent the cause of the American blacks and of black people of the world at large. In this capacity, he helped to found, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he served as the director of publications. In 1910 he took over as the editor of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis, a position he held until 1934. He was also a key figure of the African – American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, along with other African – American writers and artists such as Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Politically, by the 1950s he had veered towards sympathy for the communist movement, inspired by events in the Soviet Union and in the People’s Republic of China. In 1961 he applied for membership of the Communist Party of the USA. Soon afterwards, he renounced his U. S. citizenship and adopted Ghanaian residency. He died in Ghana in 1963.

Among the many books which he produced were The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America 1638 – 1870 (1896), The Philadelphia Negro (1915), Black Reconstruction in America, 1860 –1880 (1935), Dusk of Dawn (1940) and Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945).

The Souls of Black Folk is generally recognised to be his magnus opus. In it, Du Bois critically analyses the history of slavery and segregation of the black people in the United States and pronounces, with a prophetic air, that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. He projects the image of the “veil” to convey the logic of separation between black and white, and follows up on this argument by theorizing the “double consciousness” that defines the African in America.

… One ever feels his twoness

… an American, a Negro;

two souls, two thoughts,

two unreconciled strivings;

two warning ideals in one

dark body, whose strength

alone keeps it from being

torn asunder…

A race radical, Du Bois, in one of the most stringent thematics of the book, takes on what he thinks is the accomodationist attitude of his African – American contemporary, Booker T Washington, on the issue of race relations. As against the so – called Atlanta Compromise position of Washington which prescribed education and entrepreneurship as panacea for the ills afflicting African – Americans rather than them engaging in battle for civil rights, Du Bois staunchly advocated that they struggle “for the rights which the world accords to men,” abiding by the spirit of the U. S. Constitution.

The Negro, a much lesser known creation of Du Bois, his “little book,” as he called it, tracks the more than ten thousand year old record of the people of Africa, especially from the sub – Saharan region including Zimbabwe, Ghana and Songhai. Du Bois’ intention was to counter the racist belief, popular in the Jim Crow era, that the people of African origin had no civilization other that the one into which they were enculturated into by their slave owner masters and mistresses. Indeed, the Atlantic slave trade, it is emphasized by him, destroyed the rich cultural heritage of the African people.

Du Bois here offers to his readers in an easy – to – read, nonacademic narrative, one of earliest accounts of life in Africa prior to its colonization by European nations and thereby, effectively, demolishes the myth of the white man’s burden.

Once again a lesser known publication by Du Bois, the essay “The African Roots of War” first appeared in the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In it, Du Bois traces the cause of the First World War to the rivalry between the European nation – states: Germany’s attempt to catch up with annexation of land projects in the so – called Dark Continent which had already been embarked upon by Great Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal. Ironically, the desire for conquest of territories far away from home led these countries into warfare with each other on their home ground. Although the thesis of the essay, in some ways, anticipated the argument put forward by V. I. Lenin in his famous tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which was published a year later, Du Bois does not go to the extent of developing a full – fledged theory of imperialism. He is clearly more interested in the large – scale translational consequences of racism than in studying the political economy of empire – building. Hence the all – important statement of the essay:

Nearly every human empire

that has arisen in the world,

material and spiritual, has

found some of its greatest

crises on the continent of

Africa…

Du Bois’ own African roots, no doubt, provide him his ideological apparatus for his critique of imperialism.

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Tapan Basu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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