Battling with Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois looms over the study of African-American life like a cathedral over its close. He wrote in almost every conceivable genre—autobiography, biography, criticism, drama, essays, fiction, journalism, poetry, reviews—and was a scholar in a variety of disciplines. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, he became, at the age of twenty-seven, the first African-American doctoral alumnus of Harvard University. He was also one of the first black people to hold the university’s bachelor’s degree, though his Harvard baccalaureate degree was his second—the first came from Fisk, the black university in Nashville.

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Granger Collection
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1904; photograph by J.E. Purdy

His graduate education continued at the University of Berlin, where the modern doctoral program was invented. He took a Ph.D. in history; his first academic position was as professor of classics, and one of his earliest major books, The Philadelphia Negro, was a substantial contribution to sociology. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays he published in 1903, was commended by Henry James as “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction pub- lished for many a year.” He was a founder of the NAACP, and created and edited The Crisis, its journal, for almost a quarter of a century; he was a pioneer in the writing of African history; and he was the dominant voice of the global pan-African movement for nearly fifty years. Robert Gooding- Williams calls his book of essays on African-American political theory In the Shadow of Du Bois; it is a title you could borrow for studies in most areas of African-American cultural life.

But prophets are defined by who they are not, and one reason for Du Bois’s continuing significance is his very public conflict with Booker T. Washington, who was, at the turn of the century, the most influential black figure in our country. For many, the conflict dramatized a choice facing black America. Du Bois summarized their dispute in the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk:

Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth,—
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.

People like Du Bois, however, “feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation” exactly the opposite: “1. The right to vote. 2. Civic equality. 3. The education of youth according to ability.”

Booker T. Washington stood for separate development. He intended to build an independent, prosperous black community, and defer social integration and civic equality. The main task, he thought, was to train black men and women for practical affairs, to get them ready for business. By contrast, Du Bois’s recommendation was, in the words of his disciple, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah: Seek ye first the political kingdom. To do …

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