WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT DU BOIS (1868-1963) Author, journalist, social reformer, activist, poet, philosopher, and educator W.E.B. Du Bois wielded one of the most influential pens in African-American history. For sixty-six years he functioned not only as a mentor, model, and spokesman for generations of black Americans but also as the conscience of black and white Americans alike who yearned for racial equality and social justice.
Born in 1868 during the painful period of Reconstruction, Du Bois was graduated from Fisk University in 1888 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895 before entering the worlds of academe and activism. Using Atlanta University as his base from 1897-1910, he opposed Booker T. Washington’s educational views as too limiting, preferring to organize young black intellectuals in the Niagara Movement. In 1909 he founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1910 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, COLOR AND DEMOCRACY: COLONIES AND PEACE.
Harlem Renaissance & 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 RIVERS to Du Bois. Through the N.A.A.C.P. 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 nedals which bear that family’s name till today. He published a novel, DARK PRINCESS, in 1928, and he continued to edit THE CRISIS from 1910-1934 until he began to reject the conservatism of the N.A.A.C.P.’s political views.
Du Bois’ gradual radicalization paralleled that of a number of other black intellectuals and artists, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson prominently among them. He 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 memoirs, DUSK OF DAWN, written in 1940, and his posthumously published three volumes of CORRESPONDENCE constitute not only a personal history but also the autobiography of a race in their proud ascent from slavery to freedom and in their courageous quest for equality–a struggle which Du Bois had once described as an unending battle against the forces of hell.
From W.E.B. Du Bois’ THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, (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?”.