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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism W. E. B. Du Bois (c. 1868-1963)

[5719] Cleveland Advocate, Article: Oppose “Birth of a Nation” (1915), courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.

With the publication of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois emerged as the intellectual leader of a new generation of African American activists who broke with the leadership and views of Booker T. Washington. Declaring that blacks should no longer accept second-class citizenship and should instead fight for suffrage, civil equality, and the right to education, Du Bois sent out what at the time was a revolutionary call for change in the racial status quo. In doing so, he became simultaneously one of the most influential and controversial black people in America.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up far from the strife and racial divisions of the American South. Though he experienced discrimination as a child, it was not until he went south to attend Fisk University that he saw what he called “a world split into white and black halves, where the darker half was held back by race prejudice and legal bonds.” Moved by the situation that he saw in the South, he decided to devote his life to fighting against racial prejudice and effecting legal and social change for blacks in America. After graduating from Fisk, Du Bois went on to receive an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and to pursue advanced study in the emerging field of sociology at the University of Berlin.

When he returned to the United States in 1894, Du Bois found that in spite of his impressive academic record he could not get a permanent position at a major research university because of his race. Instead, he took a position teaching subjects outside his areas of interest at Wilberforce, a small all-black college in Ohio. In 1897 he left Wilberforce to take a temporary position at the University of Pennsylvania and later a permanent position at Atlanta University, where he conducted systematic, sociological studies of what was then termed “the Negro problem.” But Du Bois’s faith in the importance and efficacy of objective scientific inquiry was shaken by horrifying incidents of racial violence in the Reconstruction-era South. As he later put it, “one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist, while Negroes were being lynched, murdered, and starved.” By the turn of the century, Du Bois had concluded that his scholarly studies were doing little to change the reality of everyday life for African Americans. Accordingly, he committed himself to more public political action.

One of Du Bois’s first acts in his new role was to offer a strong critique of Booker T. Washington’s position on African American rights. Espousing what often sounded like an acceptance of disenfranchisement, segregation, and second-class citizenship in exchange for low-level economic opportunities, Washington was popular with white audiences and had come to be regarded as the undisputed leader of the African American community. Although Du Bois had previously supported Washington’s conciliatory philosophy, in The Souls of Black Folk he modified his position: “so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North and 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 . . . we must unceasingly and firmly oppose [him].” Du Bois’s shift from supporting to challenging Washington was typical of what would become a pattern in his career: he changed his mind or modified his views on so many different topics and issues that his ideology can be difficult to characterize.

In 1905 Du Bois joined with other critics of Washington to form the first all-black protest movement in American history, the Niagara Movement, which was dedicated to direct action to end racial discrimination. By 1910, the Niagara Movement was folded into a new organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois was recruited to serve as the NAACP’s director of publicity and research and was for many years the only African American among the organization’s leadership. In this position, Du Bois edited the association’s official magazine, Crisis, and reached an enormous audience with his message of civil equality and educational opportunity.

Increasingly radical in his views and at odds with the leadership of the NAACP, Du Bois was forced to resign as editor of Crisis in 1934. He then began to focus his energies on working for broader, worldwide race reform and international understanding, leading a series of Pan-African conferences, working with the United Nations, and serving as chairman of the Peace Information Center. Du Bois eventually became convinced that communism offered the greatest hope for racial equality and world peace, a position that made him extremely controversial and alienated him from many more main-stream African American organizations. In 1961 he joined the Communist party and left the United States to live in Ghana, where he died at the age of ninety-five. Throughout his long career, Du Bois was an untiring champion of both African American and human rights in the United States and around the world.

Teaching Tips

  • Du Bois’s articulation of “double-consciousness” and the “two-ness” of African Americans is one of the most famous passages in The Souls of Black Folk. You might begin your discussion of Du Bois by focusing on this passage, which appears early in Chapter 1, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” Ask your students to think about Du Bois’s claims that double-consciousness is both a gift (it enables a “second-sight” into American culture) and a curse (it denies African American individuals “true self-consciousness”). According to Du Bois, what kinds of stresses and tensions does double-consciousness create for African Americans? How can these tensions be resolved? Ask students to consider how Du Bois’s formulation of double-consciousness impacted later twentieth-century artists interested in recording the experiences of racial minorities (Toni Morrison’s and Ralph Ellison’s work might lend themselves well to this discussion).
  • Divide your class into two groups and have them prepare a mock debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Ask them to imagine that the two leaders are meeting to formulate a platform of goals for the African American community at the turn of the twentieth century. What strategies would each leader advocate? How would they prioritize their goals? Ask each group to anticipate arguments and to be prepared to defend their strategies in the context of the historical circumstances of early-twentieth-century America.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What criticisms of Booker T. Washington does Du Bois offer in Chapter 3, “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”? On what points does he agree with Washington? On what issues does he disagree? How are his strategies for strengthening the African American community different from Washington’s?
  2. Comprehension: What does Du Bois mean when he talks about the “double-consciousness” and “two-ness” of African American identity?
  3. Context: Du Bois repeatedly calls for African Americans to work toward attaining “self-conscious manhood” and complains that Booker T. Washington’s policies are “emasculating” and in opposition to “true manhood.” What is the role of masculinity and manhood in Du Bois’s theories about racial struggle? How does his equation of racial strength and self-consciousness with masculinity compare to the depictions of minority women’s struggles for strength and self-consciousness in works by writers such as Anzia Yezierska or Sui Sin Far?
  4. Exploration: Like Du Bois, Frederick Douglass found himself “stirred” and “moved” by the haunting strains of the Sorrow Songs. How does Douglass’s account of his relationship to the Sorrow Songs in Chapter 2 of his Narrative compare to Du Bois’s discussion of the songs in Chapter 14, “The Sorrow Songs”?
  5. Exploration: How do you think Du Bois’s work and philosophy might have influenced later African American protest movements? You might think about Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement.

Selected Archive Items

[4801] Arthur Rothstein, Sharecropper’s Children (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-025464-D].
Photograph of three African American children on a porch. Landowners rarely kept sharecroppers’ homes in good condition. Du Bois hoped that an educated “Talented Tenth” of African Americans would help lift such children out of poverty.

[5719] Cleveland Advocate, Oppose “Birth of a Nation” (1915),
courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society.
Civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized protests against D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The film glorified the Ku Klux Klan and helped the organization gain new strength.

[7102] J. E. Purdy, W. E. B. Du Bois (1904),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-28485].
Taken a year after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, this portrait shows Du Bois as a refined and serious intellectual. In his lifetime Du Bois led the NAACP and championed the cause of African American advancement through education.

[7132] Anonymous, Steal Away to Jesus (n.d.),
courtesy of John W. Work’s Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907), Fisk University.
These lyrics remind listeners that those who obey the divine Lord are assured ultimate salvation, while unredeemed sinners, whether slaves or masters, have cause to tremble. This song could also refer to “stealing away” to forbidden worship meetings, or it could be an Underground Railroad code.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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