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W.E.B. Dubois Essay, Research Paper

W.E.B. Du Bois

Few men have influenced the lives of African-Americans as much as William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois is considered more of a history-maker than a historian(Aptheker, “The Historian”). Dr. Du Bois conducted the initial research on the black experience in the United States. Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. have referred to Du Bois as a father of the Civil Rights Movement. Du Bois conducted the initial research on the black experience in the United States, and paved the way for the Pan-African and Black Power movements. This paper will describe his life, work, influence in the black community, and much publicized civil dispute with another black leader, Booker T. Washington.

Du Bois was born in the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington. His family roots were French Huguenot on his father’s side and Dutch and African on his mother’s side. His father, Alfred Du Bois, left his family when W.E.B. was a young boy. W.E.B. lived with his mother Sylvina until her death in 1884. This same year, Du Bois graduated from high school as the valedictorian and only black in his graduating class of twelve. He was awarded a scholarship to attend Fisk University in

Nashville, Tennessee. He had grown up with more privileges and advantages than most blacks living in the U.S. at the time, and suffered no severe economic hardship or racism.

Du Bois continued his education at Fisk University. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1885 and won a scholarship to attend Harvard University. He received his second bachelor’s degree in 1890, and then enrolled in Harvard’s graduate school. He earned his master’s degree and then doctoral degree in 1895. He became the first black to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard. His doctoral dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade was published in 1896 as the initial volume in the Harvard Historical Studies Series. The same year the dissertation was published, Du Bois began to teach Latin, Greek, German, and English at Wilberforce University in Ohio. After teaching for several years, Du Bois conducted an exhaustive study of the social and economic conditions of urban blacks in Philadelphia in 1896 and 1897. The results were published in the Philadelphia Negro (1899). This was the first sociological text on a black community published in the United States.

In 1897 Du Bois moved to Atlanta University, where he taught economics and history for more than a decade. His most widely acclaimed work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) was published during his time in Atlanta. With The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had begun to challenge the leadership of Booker T. Washington, a fellow educator who was then the most influential and admired black in the United States.

Washington, who had faith in the future of his race in the country, believed that hard work, patience, and self pride would build their character and eventually earn them their civil rights. This is evident in Washington’s The Future of the American Negro. He shows the “impatient extremists” within the Negroes of the North whose “ill-considered, incendiary utterances tend to add to the burdens of our people in the South rather than relieve them.” (”Washington,” Discovering Authors)

During the Atlanta Exposition, Washington gave a speech before a crowd of whites and African Americans. Here he states that blacks “cast down their buckets” by providing services that whites needed. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we much begin, not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities,” quotes Washington.(”Washington,” Discovering Authors) He also speaks of equality and justice. He believed equality would come naturally if Blacks proved themselves to be intelligent and hardworking:

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and the at progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will came to

us must be the result to severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. (The Atlanta Exposition Address, Norton Anthology)

Du Bois was not opposed to Washington’s power, but rather, he was against his ideology and methodology of handling the power. The way blacks should go about achieving their civil rights between Du Bois and Washington. Washington suggests to his people to compromise to stop struggling for social and political equality. African Americans “compromised” by asking for less than they truly wanted, hoping to achieve a portion of their goals. Washington argued that opposing segregation might create more violence – and the blacks had no way to defend themselves. Washington felt it was more important that African Americans have food, shelter, and good jobs, rather than equality or integration, and told African Americans to accept segregation – for the time being – in exchange for education and jobs.

W.E.B. Du Bois criticized his views and argued that Booker had been wrong to compromise. Du Bois stated Black people’s three demands should be their right to vote, civil equality, and education according to ability. Du Bois believes that segregation must not be tolerated, no matter what the cost, and that African Americans must demand equal treatment, and he encouraged people to protest and take action.

Both men also had their differences in their views of education. Washington argued that Black people should temporarily forego political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth. They should concentrate all their energies on industrial education. Washington wanted blacks to try and get along in society. He encouraged blacks to become educated and to work in agriculture and industry, to accept their second class status in American society.

Washington glorified manual labor. He believed equality would come naturally if Blacks proved themselves to be intelligent and hardworking. Washington even made fun of blacks who studied Latin or Greek.

Du Bois believed in the higher education of a “Talented Tenth” who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization. Du Bois feared that Washington’s educational model was becoming the only option open to black students. Du Bois felt that Washington’s plan would cause blacks to give up political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth. While Du Bois respected Washington and his accomplishments, he felt that blacks needed political power to protect what they had worked for.

Du Bois felt that the greatest enemy of blacks in America was not necessarily whites, but the ignorance of whites concerning the accomplishments and capabilities of the black race. He wanted to encourage and develop the black youth through education. The most talented of the black youth should be taught to be leaders in the black community. In his 1903 book The Negro Problem, Du Bois stated, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” (Redding, Portrait…Du Bois) Du Bois felt that only educated blacks could gain political power. And political power, he felt, was the only way that blacks could become equal in American society. In his speech “Behold the Land,” given to the Southern Negro Youth Congress in 1946, it shows these ideals by encouraging the black youth of the South to fight a nonviolent manner for equality. Du Bois quotes:

We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate Black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other peoples. They have a right to know, to think, to aspire. (Turner, The Harlem Renaissance Reexamined)

Du Bois had a unique influence on the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was hired to head the NAACP’s publicity and research efforts. He also was named editor of The Crisis, which soon became the most important national voice for the advancement of civil rights, largely through Du Bois’s reporting and editorials.

Du Bois resigned from the NAACP in 1934 because he was unwilling to advocate racial integration in all aspects of life, a position adopted by the NAACP. He returned to Atlanta University, where he taught, wrote books, and founded a new journal, called Phylon. He also published Black Reconstruction and Dusk of Dawn.

In 1961 Du Bois moved to the newly independent West African nation of Ghana. In an act of defiance just before his departure, he joined the American Communist Party. He renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1963 and became a citizen of Ghana in February of that year, shortly before his 95th birthday. Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah welcomed Du Bois’s decision and deemed him “the first citizen of Africa.” Du Bois died a few months later.

The Souls of Black Folk (which shall now be referred to as Black Folk)is perhaps as emotional and subjective a book as any written in the first decade of the 20th century(Redding, Portrait…Du Bois). It is considered one of the most prophetic and influential works in American Literature(Aptheker, “The Historian”). Du Bois uses the essay to state that Black’s quiet acceptance of racism only stifles their chance for advancement in society.

Black Folk exposed the magnitude of racism in our society. Black Folk is a collection of 14 essays which records the cruelties of racism, celebrates the strength and pride of black America, and explores the paradoxical “double consciousness” of African-American life. Du Bois made this famous statement concerning this “double consciousness” on the black identity:

One feels his two-ness- an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois, Norton Anthology, pg.1687-1688)

Du Bois also challenges black men to perform their duties, and questions Washington’s leadership in the following excerpt:

The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,- a forward movement to oppose part of the work of their greatest leader… So far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,- so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,- we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. (Du Bois, The Norton Anthology, pg.1701)

Black Reconstruction is a Marxist interpretation of the post Civil War era in the South. According to Aptheker(”The Historian”), it contains four main themes:

1. The American Negro not only was the cause of the Civil War but a prime factor in enabling the North to win it.

2. The Negro was the only effective tool which could be used for the immediate restoration of the federal union after the war.

3. The enfranchisement of the freedmen after the war was one of the greatest steps toward democracy taken in the nineteenth century.

4. The attempts to retrace that step, disfranchising the Negro and reducing him to caste conditions, are the deeds which make the South today the nation’s social problem Number One….

Personally, I find Du Bois’s views truly remarkable. After completing this paper, I have concluded that he was a definite founding father of the Civil Rights Movement. Evidently, his views for the betterment of the black community proved to be more beneficial than those of Booker T. Washington, who preached more moderate reforms. His work was basically mimicked by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., who considered Du Bois a mentor. His influence in the black community was often inconspicuous compared to Washington, but I find Du Bois’s contributions to be much more sufficient, especially during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, which acted out what he preached more than half a century before.

“W. E. B. Du Bois.” EXPLORING Poetry. Gale Research, 1998.

Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills,

Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/

Turner, Darwin T., “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Theory of a Black

Aesthetic,” The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, Ed. Victor

A. Kramer, AMS Press, 1987, pp. 9-30.

Redding, J. Saunders, “Portrait … W. E. Burghardt Du Bois,” in

The American Scholar, Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1948-49, pp.

93-6. Discovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in

Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group.

December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/

Aptheker, Herbert, “The Historian,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: A

Profile, edited by Rayford W. Logan, Hill & Wang, 1971, pp.

249-73. Discovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in

Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group.

December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/

Du Bois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folk(Chapters I and III). The

Norton Anthology Shorter Fifth Edition. Edited by Nina Baym. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999.

Washington, Booker T. Chapter XIV. The Atlanta Exposition

Address. The Norton Anthology Shorter Fifth Edition. Edited by Nina Baym. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999.

Rampersad, Arnold, “Slavery and the Literary Imagination: Du

Bois’s `The Souls of Black Folk’,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 104-24. Discovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/

“Booker T(aliaferro) Washington.” Discovering Authors. Gale

Group, 1999. Reproduced in Discovering Collection. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/DC/

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