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A Short W. E. B. DUBOIS Biography

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition


WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT DUBOIS was born February 23, 1868, at Great Barrington, Mass. He received the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Fisk University in 1888, the same degree at Harvard in 1890, that of Master of Arts at Harvard in 1891, and, after a season of study at the University of Berlin, received also the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1895, his thesis being his exhaustive study, "Suppression of the Slave-Trade." Dr. DuBois taught for a brief period at Wilberforce University, and was also for a time an assistant and fellow in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, producing in 1899 his study, "The Philadelphia Negro." In 1896 he accepted the professorship of History and Economics at Atlanta University, the position which he left in 1910 to become Director of Publicity and Research for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In connection with this work he has edited the Crisis since the beginning of that publication. He has made various investigations, frequently for the national government, and has contributed many sociological studies to leading magazines. He has been the moving spirit of the Atlanta Conference, and by the Studies of Negro Problems, which he has edited at Atlanta University, he has become recognized as one of the great sociologists of the day, and as the man who more than anyone else has given scientific accuracy to studies relating to the Negro.

Aside from his more technical studies (these including the masterly little book, "The Negro," in Holt's Home University Library Series), Dr. DuBois has written three books which call for consideration in a review of Negro literature. Of these one is a biography, one a novel, and the other a collection of essays. In 1909 was published "John Brown," a contribution to the series of American Crisis Biographies. The subject was one well adapted to treatment at the hands of Dr. DuBois, and in the last chapter, "The Legacy of John Brown," he has shown that his hero has a message for twentieth century America, this: "The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression." "The Quest of the Silver Fleece," the novel, appeared in 1911. This story has three main themes: the economic position of the Negro agricultural laborer, the subsidizing of a certain kind of Negro schools, and Negro life and society in the city of Washington. The book employs a big theme in its portrayal of the power of King Cotton in both high and lowly life in the Southland; but its tone is frequently one of satire, and on the whole the work will not add much to the already established reputation of the author. The third book really appeared before either of the two works just mentioned, and embodies the best work of the author in his most highly idealistic period. In 1903 fourteen essays, most of which had already appeared in such magazines as the Atlantic and the World's Work, were brought together in a volume entitled, "The Souls of Black Folk." The remarkable style of this book has made it the most important work in classic English yet written by a Negro. It is marked by all the arts of rhetoric, especially by liquid and alliterative effects, strong antithesis, frequent allusion, and poetic suggestiveness. The color-line is "The Veil," the familiar melodies, the "Sorrow Songs." The qualities that have just been remarked will be observed in the following paragraphs:

I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest. And there in the King's Highway sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, by which the traveler's footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries' thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?

Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they all come graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

Where merit is so even and the standard of performance so high, one hesitates to choose that which is best. "The Dawn of Freedom" is a study of the Freedmen's Bureau; "Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" is a frank criticism of the late orator and leader; "The Meaning of Progress" is a story of life in Tennessee, told with infinite pathos by one who has been the country schoolmaster; "The Training of Black Men" is a plea for liberally educated leadership; while "The Quest of the Golden Fleece," like one or two related essays, is a faithful portrayal of life in the black belt. The book, as a whole, is a powerful plea for justice and the liberty of citizenship.

W. E. Burghardt DuBois is the best example that has so far appeared of the combination of high scholarship and the peculiarly romantic temperament of the Negro race. Beneath all the play of logic and statistic beats the passion of a mighty human heart. For a long time he was criticised as aloof, reserved, unsympathetic; but more and more, as the years have passed, has his mission become clearer, his love for his people stronger. Forced by the pressure of circumstance, gradually has he been led from the congenial retreat of the scholar into the arena of social struggle; but for two decades he has remained an outstanding interpreter of the spiritual life of his people. He is to-day the foremost leader of the race in America.