W. E. B. Du Bois Research Paper

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William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868. Ninety-five years later, having renounced his citizenship of the USA, he died an exile in Accra, the capital of the newly decolonized republic of Ghana on April 29, 1963. An unorthodox and multidimensional career had unfolded between these two events. An unwavering devotion to the cause of human progress underpinned Du Bois’ cosmopolitan life that was also characterized by bold shifts in ideological outlook. He moved through pragmatism, elitism, socialism, nationalism, and several versions of Pan Africanism in an idiosyncratic, but always thoughtful sequence that terminated amidst the gloom of the Cold War when the old savant, aged 93 and deprived by his government of the means to travel freely, applied to join the Communist Party of the USA and then fled the land of his birth.

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Du Bois had been identified as an outstanding student at an early age. After completing high school in Massachusetts, he continued his studies initially at Fisk University in Nashville. When he entered the college in 1885, it was a haven lodged in a bitterly segregated world still resonating with the destructive energies released by civil war. Life there, confined within what he called the veil of color, was a very different proposition from anything that Du Bois had experienced in the New England environment that had nurtured him. It was there that he discovered and wholeheartedly embraced the black cultures of the American South that he encountered inside the historic college, and discovered in more intense and ambiguous forms while working as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee during the summer vacations. He concluded his studies at Fisk in 1888, choosing the German Reich’s Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck as the topical subject of his oration at the college graduation ceremony.

In fulfillment of a childhood dream, and in recognition of the opportunities it would bring, Du Bois moved on to continue his education at Harvard later the same year. Among other classes, he studied philosophy with William James, who would become a friend, and read Kant with George Santayana. He took economics under Frank Taussig and history with Albert Bushnell Hart who helped to pilot his career through numerous institutional obstacles. After graduating cum laude in Philosophy in 1890, he applied to pursue postgraduate study in Political Science and gained an MA degree in 1891. It was at this point that Du Bois began to seek ways to continue his education in Europe. Financial support was difficult to find but in 1892 he was eventually rewarded with a year-long grant to study in Germany. Later that year, he entered Friedrich-Wilhelm III University in Berlin where his teachers included Gustav Von Schmoller, Adolf Wagner, and Heinrich Von Treitschke. It was also there that he first encountered Max Weber and Georg Simmel.

Du Bois attended several meetings of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) while living in Berlin. He had been working towards a German doctorate in economics but, to his disappointment, was denied the degree on the grounds that he had been registered at the university for an insufficient length of time. After extensive travel in Europe he returned to the corrupting provincialism of ‘nigger-hating America’ to complete his thesis in Harvard’s History department in 1895. Shortly afterwards, he became the first black person to receive the Ph.D. degree from that University, but as a result of this success was hugely overqualified for the limited professional opportunities available to him in a world that could not concede the intellectual capacity of ‘the Negro’ and consequently viewed him as something of a curiosity.

He eventually found a position at Wilberforce College in Ohio where he taught Classics, Greek, and English. His growing interest in Sociology was manifest in some unsuccessful attempts to have the new discipline added to the curriculum. He married Nina Gomer, who had been a Wilberforce student, in 1896 and, later that year, his first book The Suppression of the African Sla e Trade to the United States of America 1638–1870 (1896) was published to very favorable reviews. This welcome development boosted Du Bois’ career prospects and enabled him to move to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was employed to produce a groundbreaking sociological study of Philadelphia’s black population. Work on that project would continue after he accepted a Professorship of Economics and History at Atlanta University the following year.

This new post provided an institutional platform from which Du Bois organized an ambitious program of sociological investigations into various aspects of black life in the USA. It resulted in a flow of major publications between 1898 and 1914. His substantial empirical study of Philadelphia was published under the title The Philadelphia Negro in 1899; it was given a distinctive character by well-developed interests in economics and comparative history. It is rightly remembered as a landmark publication: the first academic monograph to consider the life of an American black community in depth. The Du Bois household was struck by calamity when Burghardt, their two year-old son, died of diphtheria in May 1899. This tragedy seems to have led to estrangement between Du Bois and his wife. However, it combined with his growing academic and political ambitions to endow an elegiac and sometimes melancholy tone in his next book: The Souls of Black Folk published in 1903. This was a remarkable, multivoiced collection of his essays, autobiographical reflections, and fiction. It made him a leader of black Americans.

Du Bois’ commitment to resolutely open-ended, liberal, and humanist education which would nourish the needs and responsibilities of a black elite destined for leadership at both local and global levels, brought him into conflict with the more modest and practically oriented educational proposals that were being advocated by Booker T. Washington and were on show at his Tuskeegee Institute. This national debate, which exposed the molten core of black America’s political and economic marginality, resulted in Du Bois leaving Atlanta University to pursue a new para-academic career as a writer, editor, and activist based in the North. In 1910 the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hired him as Director of Publications and Research. He was the founding editor of, and a prolific contributor to, the organization’s influential and dynamic monthly magazine The Crisis, a post he would hold until 1934. His first novel, The Sil er Fleece was published in 1911, the same year that he attended the Universal Races Congress organized in London by the English Ethical Culture movement.

The death of Booker T. Washington and the advent of the 1914–18 war transformed the political conditions in which Du Bois argued for the equality of black Americans and indicted the catastrophic impact of racism on the American polity stratified by color. Though he never completed a proposed volume on the experience of African-Americans during the war, the immediate aftermath of the conflict provided the impetus for the first of several Pan African congresses, which was held in Paris in 1919. After the war, Du Bois’ voice was raised against America’s failure to recognize its black citizens and in opposition to the gross violence that greeted the returning soldiers. He was severely critical of the more populist and militaristic forms of Black Nationalism associated with Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which was growing in importance as the influence of the NAACP diminished.

Du Bois’ cosmopolitan outlook and the breadth of his published work made him a pivotal figure among the younger writers, artists, and thinkers who led the artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. He contributed a memorable essay to The New Negro anthology, edited by the philosopher Alain Locke, that defined this important cultural departure but conflict soon followed with some of the younger writers, who were regarded by Du Bois as insufficiently attentive to their world-historic political responsibilities. Dark Princess, a vibrant political novel that concerns a grand planetary alliance of peoples of color against imperialism and colonialism and which was identified by Du Bois as his own favorite among his many books, was published in 1928.

The thirties saw Du Bois renewing his interest in Marxism and developing an original and complex critique of Marx’s political theory. This striking synthesis was elaborated in a monumental historical study: Black Reconstruction In America (1935). The first of his several autobiographical volumes appeared in 1940. Du Bois rejoined the NAACP as their director of special research in 1944. He was sacked four years later after yet another bout of political disagreements, this time resulting from his intermittent affiliation to communist causes that the utterly respectable and sometimes conservative organization was unable to tolerate. Anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist commitments led Du Bois into further battles with the US government. In 1951 he was arrested and charged with the crime of operating as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. The charges were eventually dismissed but this unhappy experience galvanized him in support for the Soviet bloc. This phase of his life was explored in yet another book In Battle for Peace: The Story of My eighty-third Birthday (1952).

1. Du Bois’ Scientific Contribution

Du Bois was the first sociologist of the American South. He articulated the complexities of African-American life in comparative and historical terms that owed much to his multidisciplinary training. He placed sociological reason at the disposal of black Americans’ freedom struggles and sowed the seeds that would bear fruit in the mid-twentieth century legal judgements that cited later sociological studies in support of desegregation. His own timely empirical contributions, particularly The Philadelphia Negro (1899) were also important because they replaced top-heavy theoretical speculation with an honest blend of theory with practical innovations in research technique. Guided as much by Schmoller as by the spirit of Charles Booth, Du Bois was also the first American social scientist to make empirical research the pivot of an investigation. His investment in the power of properly scientific sociology as a stimulus for governmental intervention and the pursuit of democracy unmarked by racial categories was considerable; however his faith in progress was neither simplistic nor naıve. Sociology was obviously indispensable but it was also insufficient. Its hard-won truths had to be communicated in several tongues, and made accessible to the widest possible audience. But more than this, Du Bois’ achievements suggested that sociology was always at its most eloquent when supplemented and enhanced by the power of poetry.

2. The Contemporary Influence

In addition to his accomplishments as a distinguished social scientist Du Bois is still remembered as an essayist, editor, novelist, historian, and political leader. The breadth of his intellectual interests and the skill with which he turned them into a host of compelling written material in several distinct disciplines and styles made him the dominant African-American thinker of the twentieth century. Close to the aftermath of slavery and against the expectations of those who had judged ‘Negroes’ to be incapable of higher learning, his extraordinary work boldly redefined America’s racial hierarchy as intrinsic to the incomplete workings of American democracy. In making that unpalatable argument in potent language which was both scholarly and poetic, Du Bois created a black intelligentsia which understood itself and its historical and sociological predicament in terms he had specified. His exceptional scholarly insights were articulated in a prolific output that continued throughout his long life. All of this work was characterized by a double achievement to match the double consciousness from which it grew—a sense of black intellectuals caught, or as he put it ‘imprisoned,’ within the folds of European civilization developing interests of their own distinct from those of the black poor.

He transformed understanding of African-American history and society while supplying the intellectual cornerstones for new varieties of critical and oppositional consciousness that could move beyond the task of defending America’s black communities as they emerged from the twilight of slavery. In articulating an especially rigorous, energetic, and durable brand of dissident intellectual work, Du Bois not only provided solid foundations for the scholarly study of racism, he enabled his many successors to challenge white supremacy in the world of ideas, and provided important conceptual and historical resources for anticolonial movements worldwide.


  1. Broderick F 1959 W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader In A Time of Crisis. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  2. Du Bois W E B 1896 The Suppression of The African Slave Trade To The United States of America 1638–1870 Harvard Historical Studies, no. 1, Longmans Green, New York
  3. Du Bois W E B 1899 The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Philadelphia Press, Philadelphia
  4. Du Bois W E B 1903 The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. A. C. McClurg, Chicago
  5. Du Bois W E B 1911 The Quest of The Silver Fleece. A. C. McClurg, Chicago
  6. Du Bois W E B 1928 Dark Princess: A Romance. Kraus Thomson Organization, Millwood, New York
  7. Du Bois W E B 1935 Black Reconstruction In America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America 1860–1880. Atheneum Press, New York
  8. Du Bois W E B 1952 In Battle for Peace: The Story of My Eighty-Third Birthday. Masses & Mainstream, New York
  9. Levering L D 1993 W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of A Race. Henry Holt, New York
  10. Locke A (ed.) 1925 The New Negro. A. and C. Boni, New York
  11. Rampersad A 1976 The Art And Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
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