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Du Bois, W. E. B.

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s life spanned the two great reconstructions of democracy in the United States. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868, as the former slaves were entering political life in the South, and he died in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington that marked a high point in the modern civil rights movement. In his ninety-five years, Du Bois not only bore eloquent witness to his country’s advances toward and retreats from interracial democracy but, as a scholar, activist, and artist, he actively participated in the cause of racial justice in the United States and around the world. He also contributed to the understanding of the nature of race and the causes of racism, offering a powerful refutation of scientific conceptions of race and insisting on the distinctive cultural, political, and economic contributions of Africans and African Americans.

Du Bois often observed that he spent his childhood in New England largely detached from African American life and unaware of the power of racial hierarchies. It was as a college student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, that he encountered both the privations of Jim Crow segregation and the richness and variety of African American culture. During this period, Du Bois’s work as a school-teacher in rural Tennessee also impressed on him the ongoing after effects of slavery. Leaving Fisk in 1888, Du Bois went on to study philosophy, history, and economics at Harvard and the University of Berlin. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, and his first book, based on a dissertation on Americans’ erratic efforts to withdraw from the international slave trade, heralded the entry of a remarkable scholar.

In the first phase of his scholarly career, Du Bois pursued the conviction that ignorance was the root of racial prejudice and that collecting and disseminating knowledge about black life was crucial to obtaining full citizenship for African Americans. To that end, he published a ground-breaking sociological study of the African American community in Philadelphia, and as a professor at Atlanta University, produced sixteen studies of African American life. Over time, Du Bois came to believe that knowledge alone would not eliminate racial injustice, and his writing increasingly focused on the importance of unconscious racism and economic self-interest in sustaining racial hierarchies. Among his greatest achievements, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880 (1935) rewrote the history of Reconstruction by highlighting the central role of the slaves in securing the Union’s victory and by countering the prevailing view that the experiment in interracial democracy was a disaster. Black Reconstruction also explored the links between capitalism and white supremacy, revealing the growing influence of Marx’s ideas on Du Bois’s thought.

Persistent violence against African Americans convinced Du Bois to trade academic life for full-time activism in 1910. He had already come to public attention when he published an essay in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that criticized the leadership of Booker T. Washington and when he established the Niagara Movement in 1905 to demand civil and political rights for African Americans. He was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), its only original African American board member, and the founder-editor of its journal, The Crisis . Over the next twenty-four years, Du Bois used this platform to advocate for anti-lynching legislation, black political and civil rights, women’s suffrage, international peace, and a host of other social justice issues.

Du Bois never confined the fight against racism to the United States. Even his early writings indicate an awareness of connections between racial hierarchies at home and European colonialism in Africa and Asia. When he first prophesied that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” in his 1900 “Address to the Nations of the World,” Du Bois insisted that the color line encompassed the globe. After World War I he organized a series of Pan-African Congresses to encourage cooperation among people of African descent; and after World War II he continued to work with transnational networks of activists, fighting for human rights at home and abroad, for the independence of colonized nations, and for the cause of world peace.

Art was, for Du Bois, an essential element of the struggle against racism. “All art is propaganda and ever must be,” he declared in his 1926 essay, “The Criteria of Negro Art.” Du Bois never meant that beauty should be sacrificed to politics. Rather, he insisted that beauty was intimately connected to truth telling, particularly to conveying the truth of African American humanity. He understood, furthermore, that poetic expression could change people’s perspectives where a mere recitation of facts might fail. To that end, Du Bois wrote constantly and in a variety of genres; he published essays, novels, poetry, autobiographies, and a wide range of occasional pieces; he staged elaborate pageants that displayed the glories of black civilization; and he served as a conduit for other writers and artists as editor of The Crisis . The best known of his books, The Souls of Black Folk , exemplifies Du Bois’s ability to blend historical and sociological detail with profoundly moving passages about the impact of race on his own life and that of his fellow citizens.

Although Du Bois’s final years have received relatively less scholarly attention, he remained active until his death. He continued to write prolifically, and after an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate as an American Labor Party candidate in 1950, he dedicated much of his energy to the peace movement. A victim of cold war politics, Du Bois was indicted in 1951 on charges of operating as an agent for foreign interests. Despite his acquittal, he was denied a passport in 1952 and was not allowed to travel abroad until 1958. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left the United States for Ghana, where, upon his death, he was buried as a hero. Fittingly, at his death, Du Bois was at work on the Encyclopedia Africana , a comprehensive study of black life and history.

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