W. E. B. Du Bois was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in America. Of French and African descent, Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts and did not begin to comprehend the problems of racial prejudice until he attended Fisk University in Tennessee. Later he was accepted at Harvard University, but while he was at that institution, he voluntarily segregated himself from white students. Trained as a sociologist, Du Bois began to document the oppression of black people and their strivings for equality in the 1890s. By 1903 he had learned enough to state in The Souls of Black Folk that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," and he spent the remainder of his long life trying to break down racial barriers.
The Souls of Black Folk was not well received when it first appeared. Houston A. Baker, Jr. explained in his Black Literature in America that white Americans were not "ready to respond favorably to Du Bois's scrupulously accurate portrayal of the hypocrisy, hostility, and brutality of white America toward black America." Many blacks were also shocked by the book because Du Bois announced his opposition to the conciliatory policy of Booker T. Washington and his followers, who favored assimilation and argued for the gradual development of the Negro race through vocational training. Du Bois declared: "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 him. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men." In retrospect, many scholars have pointed to The Souls of Black Folk as a prophetic work. Harold W. Cruse and Carolyn Gipson noted in the New York Review of Books that "nowhere else was Du Bois's description of the Negro's experience in American Society to be given more succinct expression. . . . Souls is probably his greatest achievement as a writer. Indeed, his reputation may largely rest on this remarkable document, which had a profound effect on the minds of black people."
A few years after The Souls of Black Folk was published, Du Bois banded with other black leaders and began the Niagra Movement, which sought to abolish all distinctions based on race. Although this movement disintegrated, it served as the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois helped to establish the NAACP and worked as its director of publicity and research for many years. As the editor of the Crisis, a journal put out by the NAACP, he became a well-known spokesman for the black cause. In 1973 Henry Lee Moon gathered a number of essays and articles written by Du Bois for Crisis and published them in book form as The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from "The Crisis."
In addition to the articles and editorials he wrote for the Crisis, Du Bois produced a number of books on the history of the Negro race and on the problems of racial prejudice. In Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, he wrote about the role blacks played during Reconstruction, a role that had been hitherto ignored by white historians. The history of the black race in Africa and America was outlined in Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race. Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, H. J. Seligmann found Black Folk impressive and noted, "No one can leave it without a deepened sense of the part the Negro peoples have played and must play in world history." An even higher compliment was paid by Barrett Williams. Writing in the Boston Transcript, Williams commented that "Professor Du Bois has overlooked one of the strongest arguments against racial inferiority, namely, this book itself. In it, a man of color has proved himself, in the complex and exacting field of scholarship, the full equal of his white colleagues."
Although Du Bois's novels did not attract as much notice as his scholarly works, they also are concerned with the plight of the black race. His first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, dramatizes the difficulties created by the low economic status of the Southern Negro. Dark Princess deals with miscegenation. After reading Dark Princess, a reviewer for Massachusetts's Springfield Republican observed: "The truth is, of course, that Du Bois is not a novelist at all, and that the book judged as a novel has only the slightest merit. As a document, as a program, as an exhortation, it has its interest and value."
Du Bois gradually grew disillusioned with the moderate policies of the NAACP and with the capitalistic system in the United States. When he advocated black autonomy and "non-discriminatory segregation" in 1934, he was forced to resign from his job at the NAACP. Later he returned to the NAACP and worked there until another rift developed between him and that organization's leadership in 1944. More serious conflicts arose between Du Bois and the U.S. government. Du Bois had become disenchanted with capitalism relatively early. In Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, he depicts the majority of mankind as being subjugated by an imperialistic white race. In the 1940s, he returned to this subject and examined it in more detail. In Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace, he presents a case against imperialism. "This book by Dr. Du Bois is a small volume of 143 pages," critic H. A. Overstreet observed in the Saturday Review of Literature, "but it contains enough dynamite to blow up the whole vicious system whereby we have comforted our white souls and lined the pockets of generations of free-booting capitalists." The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History contains a further indictment of the treatment of colonials. Du Bois "does not seek exaggeration of Africa's role, but he insists the role must not be forgotten," Saul Carson remarked in the New York Times. "And his insistence is firm. It is persuasive, eloquent, moving. Considering the magnitude of the provocation, it is well-tempered, even gentle."
Du Bois not only wrote about his political beliefs, he acted upon them, belonging to the Socialist party for a brief time in the early 1900s. Later he conceived a program of Pan-Africanism, a movement he described as "an organized protection of the Negro world led by American Negroes." In 1948 he campaigned for the Progressive Party in national elections, and in 1950 he ran for the office of U.S. senator from the state of New York on the American Labor Party ticket. Du Bois's radical political stance provoked some run-ins with the U.S. government, the first of which occurred in 1949, when he accepted an honorary position as vice-chairman of the Council on African affairs. This organization was labeled "subversive" by the U.S. attorney general. His work with the Peace Information Center, a society devoted to banning nuclear weapons, also embroiled him in controversy. Along with four other officers from the Peace Information Center, Du Bois was indicted for "failure to register as an agent of a foreign principal." The case was brought to trial in 1951, and the defendants were acquitted.
After the trial was over, Du Bois hoped to travel outside the United States, but he was denied a passport on the grounds that it was not in "the best interests of the United States" for him to journey abroad. Later the U.S. State Department refused to issue a passport to him unless he stated in writing that he was not a member of the Communist Party, a condition Du Bois rejected. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision declaring that "Congress had never given the Department of State any authority to demand a political affidavit as prerequisite to issuing a passport." This decision enabled Du Bois and his wife to leave the country the same year. For several months they traveled in Europe, the USSR, and China.
Du Bois's travels abroad had a profound influence on his thinking. In 1961 he joined the Communist Party. He explained in his autobiography how he reached this decision: "I have studied socialism and communism long and carefully in lands where they are practiced and in conversation with their adherents, and with wide reading. I now state my conclusion frankly and clearly: I believe in communism. . . . I believe that all men should be employed according to their ability and that wealth and services should be distributed according to need. Once I thought that these ends could be attained under capitalism, means of production privately owned, and used in accord with free individual initiative. After earnest observation I now believe that private ownership of capital and free enterprise are leading the world to disaster."
After joining the Communist party, Du Bois moved to Ghana at the invitation of Ghanaian President Nkrumah. While there he served as the director of the Encyclopaedia Africana project. In August of 1963, the ninety-five-year-old leader spearheaded a protest march on the U.S. embassy in Accra to show support for the historic "March for Jobs and Freedom" taking place in Washington, D.C., that same month. Shortly afterward, Du Bois died.
Although Du Bois was a controversial figure during his lifetime, his reputation continued to grow during the decades after his death. In a discussion of the revival of scholarly interest in Du Bois, Cruse and Gipson wrote: "It is important to remember that he continued to plead for a truly pluralistic culture in a world where the superiority of whites is still an a priori assumption. In so far as he grasped the basic dilemma of Western blacks as being a people with 'two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings,' Du Bois's attitudes have been vindicated. He was, as we can now see, one of those unique men whose ideas are destined to be reviled and then revived, and then, no doubt, reviled again, haunting the popular mind long after his death."
That Du Bois has remained a central figure in considerations of race was evident in 2003 when a host of events were held around the United States to celebrate the centennial of the publication of The Souls of Black Folk. Atlanta's National Black Arts Festival focused on the music, dramas, and arts inspired by the book while a staged adaptation of readings from the book premiered in New York. In an interview with Felicia R. Lee for the New York Times, Dolan Hubbard commented: "Du Bois was a founding father of multiculturalism, of blending races and ideas. You can trace the lineage of black music all the way to hip-hop in Souls. And certainly there is the religious imagination, the question of how people deal with problems of human suffering, a problem as old as Job." In a Black Issues in Higher Education article, Caroline Maun commented, "Du Bois, as the sorrow songs he speaks so insightfully about, taught us how to feel about race in America. Feeling about race—directly, honestly, and fully—can be a demanding and painful task, but part of Du Bois's message is that it is the only sure path toward social change."
*This post is part of our online forum on W.E.B. Du Bois @ 150.
In a previous post for Black Perspectives, I wrote about the significance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s late career trilogy of novels, The Black Flame, and its connection to the 2015 Charleston Massacre. This is one of many examples of Du Bois’s enduring influence as a scholar and public intellectual. The 150th anniversary of his birth offers another opportunity to reflect upon his life and legacy. While scholars such as Arnold Rampersad, Keith Byerman, and Claudia Tate, have appraised Du Bois’s fiction, there seems to be a resurgent interest in this particular aspect of his writing. A sterling example of the recent scholarship on Du Bois as a novelist and short story writer is the publication of his previously unpublished science fiction story “The Princess Steel,” edited by Adrienne Brown and Britt Russert in PMLA.
My own interest in Du Bois’s work relates to his depictions of higher education. Du Bois is an underappreciated innovator in the academic novel—a genre defined by its fictional depictions of students, professors and university life. From his first fictional experiments, including the serialized story “Tom Brown at Fisk” (1888), to his first two novels, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Dark Princess (1928), to his critical analysis in essays such as “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), Du Bois saw literature as a battleground for representation, and devoted his own creative efforts toward increasing representations of Black higher education in literature and popular culture.
Scholars have written about The Black Flame trilogy—consisting of The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961)—as an historical novel. With a fictional narrative that runs from 1876 to 1954 peppered with real persons and events, the novel is undoubtedly driven by the historian’s chronological orientation. But it is also important to read The Black Flame as a fictional representation of higher education, and Du Bois makes a particular intervention by creating a main character, Manuel Mansart, who is the president of a Black college in Georgia, allowing Du Bois to analyze the realm of higher education as an important aspect of the Black political struggle for equality.
When it comes to Du Bois as an academic novelist, Mansart Builds a School is the most relevant single volume of this trilogy. The novel begins where The Ordeal of Mansart left off, with Manuel Mansart, who was born in 1876 in the violence of post-Reconstruction South Carolina, now a graduate of Atlanta University, and superintendent of colored schools in Atlanta. He is soon appointed president of the newly formed (fictional) Georgia A&M State College in Macon, where he serves from 1920 to 1946. (Though I doubt there was any direct inspiration involved, it is fascinating to see that Georgia A&M is also the name of the Atlanta-based HBCU on B.E.T.’s show The Quad.) These historical markers are important, as Du Bois places Mansart in the events of American and world history, showing his responses to World War I, the Red Summer of 1919, and contemplating the developments of the Harlem Renaissance.
In fact, the chapter on “High Harlem” is an interesting microcosm of this trilogy’s thrilling and frustrating literary form. The chapter shows Mansart’s realization of the cultural developments in Harlem. He is a regular reader of The Crisis, and through the journal he observes the political changes of the New Negro era:
But the Crisis became more than complaint; it was a vehicle of the human expression of the race. It printed pictures of prominent black folk; faces of cunning black babies and of almost all black college graduates who excelled. It printed poetry; it discovered poets; it published stories. Gradually, other journals joined the Crisis: Opportunity from the Urban League; Philip Randolph’s socialist Messenger and the anarchist Challenge. The voice of the Negro became louder and more strident with novels and books of essays. After that blood bath of 1919, the West Indian poet, Claude McKay, burst out in Harlem with the crowning defiance: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs!”
Du Bois is certainly engaging in some self-mythologizing here (he appears in the narrative as the scholar “James Burghardt”), but TheCrisis was undoubtedly an important intellectual organ. The above excerpt is followed by a remarkable analysis of the literary and cultural output of the Harlem Renaissance. But by the end of the chapter, Mansart himself resides at the edge of the stage while the narrative addresses Harlem real estate, the internal workings of TheCrisis magazine, the first two meetings of the Pan-African Congress, and the NAACP’s relationship to labor.
Mansart Builds a School ends with a passage where Mansart reflects on all that had come before, and on his life’s calling as an educator. He walks across the college campus, affirming the significance of the physical space of the campus as a setting for the hopes and dreams of the race:
[Mansart] wandered sleepless about his college grounds, as so often he had been wont to do in the early days of its beginning when evil lurked. He saw the same stars that shone on Washington, and the mist which started toward them. He believed that beyond the mist burned the Black Flame. How could it be black if it flamed? How could it burn without heat and wild destruction? Yet all this it did, and the dark blaze of its urge as it rolled and roared out of the South bound his heart and world, into one whole of Power and Peace, of Freedom and Law, of Force and Love. But not yet, not for a long, long time yet; and his tears blurred the mist that hid the stars.
This image at the end of the novel, placing the college in an international and cosmic perspective, sets up the third book of the trilogy, Worlds of Color, which depicts Mansart’s evolving internationalism and his global vision of the Black intellectual who lives in a Jim Crow society at home, but sees the potentials for coalition with non-white populations around the globe, in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. For Mansart, his later tour of Europe and Asia helps him to broaden his intellectual horizons, and to re-consider his understanding of the relationship between capital, labor, and education. He also begins to explore the relations between the white supremacist nations of Europe and the United States, and a broader “world of color” that includes Asia and Africa.
What Du Bois and other Black academic novelists repeatedly address in their work is that the Black intellectual is one who is specifically identified and hailed by white supremacists as biologically and metaphysically incapable of being a scholar. The necessities of racial capitalism under slavery, and in its afterlife, mandated that Blacks be constructed as property, as the raw material for wealth extraction, and not as fully formed human beings capable of equal citizenship or intellectual development. And the academy played an important role in the perpetuation of these ideas, as Craig Steven Wilder elucidates in his important historical study Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2015). From Notes on the State of Virginia to The Bell Curve, white supremacy has marshaled all of its forces of pseudo-science, revisionist history, and racist theology in order to negate Black intelligence and a Black presence in history, even as, at the same time, it condescendingly admonishes Black people to use education and respectability as a means of upward mobility. The Black Flame is such a remarkable and under-appreciated literary accomplishment because it shows Du Bois using the malleable form of the novel to include historical and sociological commentary on these ideas and creating a counternarrative of Black intellectual history. Collectively, The Black Flame serves as a document of Du Bois’s commitment to the creation of Black art, an attempt to fulfill his own admonition in “Criteria of Negro Art” that Black art is inherently propaganda and ever must be. As literature, The Black Flame certainly has its flaws, but the trilogy constitutes a record of W. E. B. Du Bois as an elder scholar, revisiting the Black freedom struggle, and the narrative arc of his own life, envisioning how far we had come, and how far there is to go.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.