Key thinker: W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, better known as W.E.B. Du Bois, was born and raised in a relatively tolerant and integrated community in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (https://iep.utm.edu/web-dubois/). After graduating from Great Barrington High School, Du Bois enrolled at Fisk University, a historically Black higher education institution in Nashville, Tennessee (https://www.britannica.com/biography/W-E-B-Du-Bois). In 1888, Du Bois earned his BA and moved to Harvard University where he was awarded a PhD in History in 1895. Du Bois was the first Black person to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/). He also spent two years at Humboldt University in Berlin. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published in 1896 (https://www.britannica.com/biography/W-E-B-Du-Bois). That same year Du Bois was hired by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a sociological study of the city’s Black population, which was published in 1899 as The Philadelphia Negro (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/).
For the next decade, Du Bois devoted himself to the sociological study of Black people in America (https://www.britannica.com/biography/W-E-B-Du-Bois). In 1897, Du Bois was appointed professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. A few years later, he published The Souls of Black Folks (1903), which marked an important shift in his thinking (https://iep.utm.edu/web-dubois/). In the book, he introduced the concept of the ‘color line’ to describe the sociohistorical phenomenon of white supremacy (see 31.2. The Problem of Exclusion). He also criticized the influential Black leader, Booker T. Washington, for his self-help and self-reliance philosophy (see Key thinker: Booker T. Washington). In 1909-10, Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) alongside Ida B. Wells-Barnett (see Key thinker: Ida B. Wells-Barnett) and became the founding editor of its official journal, The Crisis (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/). Du Bois would continue to edit The Crisis until 1934, when he resigned following a clash with the NAACP leadership over his claim that ‘separate but equal’ status for Black people (i.e., that racial segregation was compatible with legal equality before the constitution) was an acceptable outcome of the civil rights struggle (https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois).
In the following years, Du Bois became increasingly involved with Pan-Africanism (see Key Concept: Pan-Africanism). In 1919, he organized the first Pan-African congress in Paris, and attended the second congress in London that same year (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/). In 1945, he attended the fifth Pan-African congress in Manchester; the fifth congress brought together politicians and activists who would go on to become leaders in the American Civil Rights and African independence movements later in the decade, including Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya and the future president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (https://theblackcurriculum.com/blog/celebrating-manchesters-pan-african-congress-meeting). In the early 1960s, Du Bois accepted Nkrumah’s invitation to move to the newly independent Ghana (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/). Du Bois, who described himself as a socialist (https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois), was persecuted and harassed under McCarthyism in the United States for his labour activism, which certainly contributed to his decision to leave the country (see 126.96.36.199. Critique of the NAACP). Du Bois, who had become a citizen of Ghana, died in Accra in 1963, a day before the historic March on Washington. He was 95 years old.
Du Bois is considered a pioneer of the modern discipline of sociology (Morris, 2015). In his studies of the Black neighbourhoods in Philadelphia and Atlanta, Du Bois developed empirical methods that treated the ‘Negro problem’ as a question of social scientific inquiry (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/). Du Bois argued that the failure to integrate Black people into American society could be explained by pointing to racism in white society and the cultural ‘backwardness’ of Black Americans. But unlike Washington, Du Bois believed that these factors could not be addressed by simply encouraging Black people to develop social virtues such as personal responsibility and hard work, which would allow them to build wealth and escape poverty and segregation (see 31.2.1. Du Bois’s Philosophy of Resistance and Race). Du Bois insisted that full civil rights could only be achieved by directly challenging racist prejudices (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dubois/); any material gains that Black people might gain through sheer hard work and effort could easily be reversed in society structured by white supremacy. For Du Bois, white supremacy was historically shaped by the institutions of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism and upheld by Jim Crow legislation (see 31.2. The Problem of Exclusion). White supremacy, then, is not just a system of structural inequalities or economic exclusion, but one that completely devalues the social worth of racialized groups.
In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois argued that orthodox scholarship on the Reconstruction era—the period after the American Civil War—downplayed the important role that Black people played in the attempt to reconfigure American democracy. Moreover, Du Bois showed that Reconstruction was not the failure that scholars had made it out to be; in fact, it heralded the promise of a worker’s democracy which would replace the plantation economy. In a section on the post-Civil War South, Du Bois introduced the concept of ‘the wages of whiteness’: interracial organising among workers had not only been prohibited by differences in material wages, but also in the ‘psychological wage’ (i.e., a feeling of superiority) that white workers received in white supremacist society (see 31.2. The Problem of Exclusion). Du Bois was active in the labour movement and published articles in The Crisis supporting unionized labour. But he also criticized the union leadership for preventing Black people from becoming members of labour unions (https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/web-du-bois). While socialism remained an important aspect of Du Bois’ politics, he insisted that the ultimate test for American socialists and communists was to overcome the racial prejudices which prevented them from organising alongside their Black comrades (see 188.8.131.52. Critique of the American Labour Movement).
Some feminist scholars have criticized Du Bois for his dismissal of women as potential leaders in the civil rights struggle (Carby, 1998) (see 31.3. Du Bois on Gender and the Black Family). And while he aligned himself with feminist politics and women’s rights movements, he often failed to square his politics with his personal treatment of women (see 31.3.1. Slavery and the Black Family). But despite his masculinist politics and personal failings as a feminist, Du Bois’ work remains an important resource for understanding the contemporary intersection between race, class, and gender on a global scale.
Du Bois developed a theory of history which revised Marx’s theory of revolution and class struggle (Robinson, 2021). Du Bois’ Marxism is a controversial topic among scholars: some have even argued that Du Bois was a ‘black radical liberal’ (Mills, 2018) (see Chapter 9 on Charles Mills) not a socialist. But although Du Bois did break with Marxist orthodoxy, he never abandoned Marxism as a method, or his commitment to progressive politics (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v44/n07/kevin-okoth/resistance-from-elsewhere). In his final years, Du Bois aligned himself more closely with the socialist anti-colonial Pan-Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah (see 184.108.40.206. Critique of the NAACP). Although early Pan-Africanists like Martin Delany, Alexander Crummel, or Edward Blyden were instrumental in shaping the movement, Du Bois is still considered its most influential thinker.
Morris, Aldon, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Penguin Classics, 2021.
Carby, Hazel, Race Men, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Mills, Charles W. (2018) “W. E. B. Du Bois: black radical liberal,” (ed.) Nick Bromell, A Political Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois (Lexington: University Press)