Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource
W.E.B. Du Bois; detail of a drawing by Winold Reiss, circa 1925

W.E.B. Du Bois’s very long life coincided almost exactly with the period in African-American history between slavery and citizenship. Du Bois was born, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and, as he liked to point out, almost exactly coincident with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which ushered in “Radical Reconstruction,” the brief experiment with civil and voting rights for former slaves in the former Confederacy.

He died the day before the 1963 March on Washington—the last of his copious writings was a telegram of support to the organizers of the march—and he would have been surprised that the enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments in the South, which ended in 1876, was just on the verge of resuming. He spent most of his life looking for some other solution to “the problem of the color-line”—his resonant phrase—than the one the civil rights movement achieved.

Du Bois was almost unbelievably prodigious. He was a, or maybe the, pioneer elite black academic, with a master’s degree from Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Berlin and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and he was also one of the most influential figures in the constrained world of black higher education, and a passionate chronicler of the lives of the black rural poor. He was a founder of the NAACP and editor of its “record of the darker races,” The Crisis, which in its heyday had a larger circulation than The Nation or The New Republic.

As a writer he made pioneering and enduring contributions to sociology (with The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, possibly the first full-dress work of urban ethnography), history (with Black Reconstruction in 1935, which predated by decades the revision, in a positive direction, of the Reconstruction era), and the public-facing, issue-defining extended essay (with The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, his most widely read book). He helped start the anticolonial pan-Africanist movement, and died in Ghana. At the age of ninety-three, following an extended period as a staunch Stalinist, he joined the Communist Party USA, confirming the long-held suspicions of the US government, which had denied him passports for years. He dabbled in poetry, drama, fiction, and memoir. As his major biographer, David Levering Lewis, reminds us in a new essay in The American Scholar, besides his many published works, Du Bois left behind 357 boxes of papers, which demonstrate that there was almost no controversy he ignored and nobody he didn’t know.1

Because for American Negroes (always his preferred term) the main goal was elusive all through Du Bois’s life, his career was centrally one of protest. His argument with Booker T. Washington, the most celebrated black American of his young manhood, over whether to accept or resist segregation was the central debate within black America in the early twentieth century. As a matter of principle,…

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