William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

"O, I wonder what I am, I wonder what the world is, I wonder if life is worth the striving.  I do not know. Perhaps I shall never know.  But this I do know.  Be the truth what it may, I shall seek it on the pure assumption it is worth seeking, and heaven nor hell, God nor devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die." (W.E.B. Du Bois aged 25 while a student in Berlin)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was a major figure in American philosophy and humanities who wanted to make his name so as to raise the prospects of his race. His rewarding experience with academic studies led him to believe that he could use his knowledge to empower African Americans.  He was born in 1868 in Massachusetts, United States.  He attended the local integrated public school where teachers recognized his ability and encouraged his intellectual pursuits.  When he decided to attend Fisk University, a historically black college, the congregation of his childhood church raised the money for his tuition. Like other Fisk students, he relied on teaching during the summer months to support his university studies. While travelling and residing in the South to teach, he first experienced Southern racism, which at the time encompassed Jim Crow laws, bigotry, suppression of black voting and lynchings.

Following his bachelor’s degree from Fisk, Du Bois attended Harvard where he was awarded his second bachelor’s degree in history. He received a scholarship to attend the sociology graduate school at Harvard and a fellowship to attend the University of Berlin for graduate work.  There, he studied with some of the nation’s most prominent social scientists. He wrote about his time in Germany: "I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in. With me were white folk – students, acquaintances, teachers – who viewed the scene with me. They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world; particularly, the part of the world whence I came.”

 After returning from Europe where he had travelled extensively, Du Bois completed his graduate studies and in 1895 he was the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. He became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. He wrote many books and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (NAACP in 1909)

In an attempt to portray the genius and humanity of the black race, in 1903 Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of fourteen essays.  To demonstrate intellectual and cultural parity between black and white cultures, each chapter begins with two epigraphs - one from a white poet and one from a black spiritual. The introduction addresses the division of race: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” In other words, colour was made the basis of denying non-white people the right of sharing the opportunities of modern civilisation.

Du Bois writes with honesty and feeling whilst remaining objective.  Although describing the life of descendants of enslaved people in America at the time, the book has a timeless quality and explores wider themes of humanity.

“… The journey at least gave leisure for reflection and self-examination; it changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect.”

“In those sombre forests of his striving his own soul rose before him, and he saw himself, - darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another.”

A major theme in the book is what Du Bois calls “double consciousness”, the challenge of being both American and negro – two thoughts, souls, unreconciled; always looking at oneself from the perspective of another that is critical and demeaning.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever 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. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn't bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

A Trained Economist and Sociologist, Du Bois clearly explains how economic injustice is the root of most of the problem. The very strong prejudice among the Americans, especially in the south, facilitated its justification. This was the situation that Du Bois spent his lifetime trying to correct, but he does not condemn the prejudice outright. His writing shows such understanding of human nature that one can recognize the same elements of ignorance and misunderstanding happening in many areas of the world today.

Du Bois’ tenet is education.  In this he differed from his popular contemporary, Booker T. Washington, who argued for economic support and education of the Black people in exchange for the commitment that the education should be for manual labour, and the Black people always be subservient and ruled by the white people. In Du Bois’ view, since the Africans, originating in Africa, were transported and enslaved in America several generations previously, they now were Americans. Their future was in America and they too, like all men, had much to offer.  Du Bois argued on the basis of common humanity.  While he recognised that for many, this approach would be most serviceable, there existed among black people - as among all peoples –‘the talented tenth’ –capable and well suited to higher education and leadership.

“And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.  And to make men we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living, - not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.  The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame.  And all this is gained only by human strife and longing, by ceaseless training and education, by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth."

"The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves by Plato, that formed the trivium and quadrivium, and is today laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University.  And this course of study will not change; its content richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal, - not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of life that meat nourishes."

"Not at Oxford or at Leipsic, not at Yale or Columbia, is there an air of higher resolve or more unfettered striving; the determination to realise for men, both black and white, the broadest possibilities of life, to seek the better and the best, to spend with their own hands the Gospel of Sacrifice, - all this is the burden of their talk and dream." (Referring to Atlanta)

Du Bois writes passionately about his own love of learning and the freedom made available through study.

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”

Some of the essays take the reader on a personal exploration, where Du Bois travels and visits settlements of Black people in different parts of America, including the Black Belt. In all cases his observation is objective and enlightening. Two of the essays - 'Of Alexander Crummell' and 'Of the coming of John' recount the stories of men who have benefitted from an education only to experience not just frustration but sadness and despair at the exclusion and rejection of what they have to offer.

"Out of the temptation of Hate, and burned by the fire of Despair, triumphant over Doubt, and steeled by Sacrifice against Humiliation, he turned at last home across the waters, humble and strong, gentle and determined.  He bent to all the gibes and prejudices, to all hatred and discrimination, with that rare courtesy which is the armour of pure souls.  He fought among his own, the low, the grasping, and the wicked, with that unbending righteousness which is the sword of the just.  He never faltered, he seldom complained; he simply worked, inspiring the young, rebuking the old, helping the weak, guiding the strong." (Of Alexander Crummell)

The book concludes with an essay on the purity of African Music which despite transformations over the years, nonetheless, embodies something of the pure African nature; its profundity of feeling and understanding.

“And so by fateful chance the Negro folk song, - the rhythmic cry of the slave - stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but not withstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.” (The Sorrow Songs)

Du Bois stands a bridge across cultures. He spent his life trying to promote principles that would go some way to solving the unnatural distress that he witnessed because of ‘The Color line’ and ‘The Veil' (a word he used to describe the feeling of being different and of not being seen for who you truly are).

“There must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development.” (Of the Training of Black Men)

Find out more:

History Brief: WEB DuBois


History Brief: WEB DuBois - YouTube

A Recorded Autobiography (1961)

W.E.B. DuBois: A Recorded Autobiography (1961) - YouTube