W. E. B. Du Bois Essay

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  1. E. B. Du Bois was a sociologist and historian, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Though he wanted to attend Harvard after high school, the lack of funds and the advice of a few of his teachers dissuaded him, so, instead, he attended Fisk, where he received his BA in 1888. He received a second BA from Harvard University in 1890, where he was also awarded an MA (1891) and a PhD (1895) with the dissertation ”The suppression of the African slave trade to the United States of America, 1638—1870. Between 1892 and 1894 Du Bois was a graduate student at the University of Berlin, made possible by a combination gift/loan from the Slater Fund. This experience would have enduring consequences on both his personality and his scholarship, though, as he stated in his classic Souls of Black Folk (1903), his experiences at both Fisk and Harvard had already shaped some of his views on race, class, and philosophy.

Du Bois sociological significance rests on three major themes: (1) his role as one of the early sociology pioneers; (2) his role as a sociologist of race; and (3) his role as a scholar-activist. As one of the early modern pioneers, along with Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel, Du Bois viewed the connection between theory and research as inextricably linked to the alleviation of social problems and as contributors to overall societal reform. This was important to Du Bois because so little data had been collected in areas in which scholars allegedly knew so much.

Even as Du Bois fought mightily to believe that science and objectivity would make a difference in matters of race, class, and social justice, his scholarly and sociopolitical activities illustrated that he would be the Great Dialectician, whose mind, interests, and concerns might reflect shifting intellectual modes and themes. So, even as theme (1), science and research, was in operation, as a good dialectician he was already into theme (2) with its focus on a sociology of race. For example, his paper ”The conservation of races (1897) was a justification for maintaining certain racial/cultural values, even as blacks sought greater entry into the larger society. Today, such a claim is understandable under the rubric of social and cultural pluralism. This article and a later one, ”The study of the Negro problem” (1898), but especially The Souls of Black Folk, would make race analysis, its shape, depth, and contours, as important for many as Marx s class analysis had been and continues to be. It is here as sociologists of race that later generations of scholars and students would find sociological richness in concepts such as the talented tenth, double consciousness, the color line, the veil, racial solidarity, and masking.

Du Bois prescient assertion in Souls that ”the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line was a bold prediction for what was in store for the western world, but also presaged a lifetime struggle for himself, as he vowed to lend a hand in the destruction of that color line. The very title, The Souls of Black Folk, would be an exploratory search and revelation as Du Bois would lay bare, for whites to see, the heart and soul of a people. What was also patently visible was the heart and soul of the young scholar Du Bois, for even before C. Wright Mills asserted his version of a sociological imagination, Du Bois, in Souls (p. 87), had inserted himself personally into a larger national and international sociology and history.

The more one researches the life of Du Bois, the more it becomes abundantly clear that neither his life nor his intellectual and scholarly activities can be neatly compartmentalized, and his ideas are found in so many intellectual niches and corners. With the increasing loss of faith in science Du Bois began to define himself as a scholar-activist — he uses the term ”propagandist — and would become, as the chief ”propagandist for the race, the scholar as organizer: organizer of four Pan-African Congresses; founder and general secretary of the Niagara Movement; one of the founders of the NAACP; founder and editor of The Moon; founder and editor of The Horizon; founder and editor of The Crisis; founder and editor of Phylon. And during this same period he writes sociologically significant books, books reflecting his markedly leftward political shift: John Brown (1909), Black Reconstruction (1935), Dusk of Dawn (1940), and The World and Africa (1947). In Battle for Peace (1952) was written after he had been indicted, placed on trial, and acquitted for being an unregistered foreign agent of the Soviet Union, as a result of his leadership in various peace movements and organizations. Given his pronounced political preferences and pronouncements throughout the 1940s and 1950s, it was not surprising to many when in 1961 Du Bois joined the Communist Party of the United States. In a masterful stroke marking him as a true dialectician, Du Bois, that same year, accepted an invitation from President Nkrumah to go to Ghana to complete his Encyclopedia Africana Project, a project which would be a version of the Encyclopedia of the Negro, which Du Bois initiated in 1909. In 1963 he renounced his United States citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana. He died on August 27, 1963, on the eve of the historic March On Washington.


  1. Dennis, R. M. (1975) The sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois. Dissertation,   Washington   State University, Pullman, WA.
  2. Dennis, R. M. (1996) W. E. B. Du Bois: The Scholar as Activist. JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.

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