W.E.B. DuBois and Black History

His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. DuBois

by Shirley Graham DuBois
Lippincott, 396 pp., $6.95

The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. DuBois

edited and with an introduction by Julius Lester
Random House, 815 pp., $3.95 each (paper)

W. E. B. DuBois: A Profile

edited by Rayford W. Logan
Hill & Wang, 324 pp., $6.50

The Black Titan: An Anthology

by the Editors of Freedomways
Beacon, 333 pp., $2.95 (paper)

W. E. B. DuBois was a distinguished American black scholar, the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934, and an active and outspoken writer on black questions during long years of political reaction in his country. Yet in spite of his obvious talents as a social critic, DuBois never commanded the influence to which he aspired and he died little known to the American public and neglected by scholars. Fortunately the story of his life is now being retold, with varying degrees of success, in a growing number of books and academic studies.

Considered in retrospect, this venerable old man did more than merely redefine for blacks their role in Western history. On the contrary, as blacks began to grapple seriously with DuBois’s positions, and to comprehend the tenacity with which he held to the ideals that informed them, they recognized that he had bequeathed to them the right of intellectual independence. DuBois’s true legacy to American blacks was his intellectual audacity. Largely because of his example, a black writer could assert in 1964 that

…never, never again must the Negro people pay the price that they have paid for allowing their oppressors to say who is or is not a fit leader of our cause.

DuBois’s origins made him an unlikely candidate for the radical image that he now has. He was born in 1868 and grew up in the small rural community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, mainly in the house of his grandfather, who had been a chief steward on steamboats, a small merchant in Springfield, a senior warden of the St. Luke’s Parish Church in New Haven. DuBois wrote of him,

Always he held his head high, took no insults, made few friends…. Beneath his sternness was a very human man. Slyly he wrote poetry. He loved much and married three wives, but he was hard and unsympathetic with his children. Some of them and their children are now “white,” but his oldest son quarrelled and ran away from home and married my brown mother.

But DuBois’s father “early began his restless wandering,” and his mother returned with her son to Great Barrington where, as DuBois later wrote, blacks were “rare.” Only when he arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to study for an undergraduate degree at Fisk University did he begin to grasp the harsh realities of the color line in American society. What he discovered in the unreconstructed South contrasted sharply with the rather placid and accommodating racial atmosphere of western Massachusetts.

By 1888 DuBois had taken his degree at Fisk and entered Harvard for further study. From his own account, it appears that he preferred to be a lonely figure in Cambridge. He was not drawn to collegiate life and the snubs of his Harvard classmates only confirmed his suspicion that they were not his intellectual betters. Although DuBois later mentioned that Herbert Croly and Augustus Hand were among his classmates, he observed that it …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.