September 11, 2020

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” 

William Edward Burghart DuBois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on February 23, 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. He died on the eve of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on August 27, 1963 in Accra, Ghana.

His mother raised him on her own instilling in him the values of hard work, education and thriftiness. They were poor as compared with other members of the community, but the DuBois family was respected. 

William was given great recognition because of his success in school. He did well in high school and was helped to get a scholarship to go to Fisk University. He also attended Harvard University where he received his masters degree, a doctorate and a grant to study in Berlin. He worked as a professor in several universities. 

As a scholar he helped invent the field of Sociology as we know it today. As an activist he helped found the NAACP. As a writer he penned some of the finest works of prose to come out of America in the Twentieth Century, including The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction. As a public intellectual Du Bois fought injustice, inequality, and prejudice wherever he found it through public debates, speeches, countless editorials, and essays. As a propagandist he took on prevailing assumptions of his own time with powerful rhetoric, and compelling imagery. More often than not, his mouthpiece was The Crisis Magazine, which he edited for almost a quarter of a century.

Many of his theories were in response to the writings of Booker T. Washington. Washington believed that blacks in America needed pride in themselves in order to rise in a white dominated society. His concern was for solidarity and self-help. William agreed with him in some aspects but had a different prescription for curing the ills of the black community. Washington called for Negroes to give up higher education and politics in order to concentrate on gaining industrial wealth whereas William disagreed. He believed that only though education could blacks gain status and that Washington’s idea promoted black submission to whites. 

Another great achievement was that of the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which he founded along with a number of other black and white leaders who shared his beliefs in 1909. He served as director of publicity from 1919-1934. He was also a consultant to the United Nations and edited his magazine, Crisis, from 1910-1932. 

“But what of black women?… I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire.”

He contributed greatly to the education and enlightenment of many people in America though his critics claim that he spoke only to the educated and elite thereby omitting much of the black population from his readers. William was a global figure, a world traveller, a convener of Pan African Congresses, and an enemy of colonialism. He fought for peace throughout his life, and this eventually brought him into conflict with the United States Justice Department, who were caught up in the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s.

William was persecuted, hand-cuffed at his arraignment, vilified, put on trial, but acquitted. He chose to leave the US behind him and emigrated to Ghana, at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, where he spent the rest of his life.

Sources: raceandhistory.com, duboiscenter.library.umass.edu

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