A Critical Examination of the life of W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois. Born: February 23, 1868; Died: August 27, 1963. 

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“The South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

The above quote is a snippet from the groundbreaking book by Du Bois, entitled The Souls of Black Folk. In my matriculation through high school and college, it was required reading. As I reflect on the life of Dr. Du Bois, I recognize his transitions, struggles, and the overall journey he made. I believe many of us could learn from his life and apply it to the challenges and endeavors we face today. Du Bois was born as a free man 3 years after the abolishment of slavery in America. He attended the renown HBCU Fisk University with money donated from neighbors, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1888. Next, he attended Harvard College. Harvard refused to accept transfer credits from Fisk, so he actually had to start over and pay his way through 3 more years of coursework to earn his second Bachelor’s degree in History in 1890. While on scholarship in Harvard’s Sociology Graduate School, Du Bois received a Fellowship to study abroad at the University of Berlin in Germany. The fellowship gave him the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and gain influence from several prominent Social Scientists. (Pause for a moment to consider these accomplishments at this time, given the circumstances he must have faced versus the ones you currently face).

Du Bois became one of the most prominent black leaders of his time, and integrated into the upper echelons of black society. He was an early leader within the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (1909), as well as the Sigma Pi Phi (Boulé) Fraternity (1912). He helped found the NAACP along with several other prominent black leaders and white abolitionists. However, he had his issues. Some black leaders called Du Bois a “sellout,” and avoided him. Some people say these organizations were tools used to keep the masses at bay, and underhandedly promote agendas of white supremacy. Since he was born free in the North, he had trouble relating to the problems many blacks faced in the post-slavery south. He argued against many black leaders, most notably Booker T. Washington. Washington saw the need for blacks to learn trades and continue to work with their hands to rebuild their lives and communities. Du Bois considered Washington a “new age slave” of sorts, and pushed a hard intellectual agenda coining the term “The Talented Tenth.” For the record, they both were correct. We have always been a diverse people, and there was surely a need for both agendas (as well as others) during the time. Sadly, Du Bois hated on the great Marcus Garvey, his UNIA organization, and sabotaged his “Back to Africa” movement. Du Bois even went as far as to call Garvey a “gorilla” due to their differences in skin complexion. This is an utmost tragedy because Garvey was one of the most brilliant and prolific black leaders in our history.

As time progressed, Du Bois began recognizing the value of collective black economics, and began spearheading Pan-African conferences. In 1920, he published a highly controversial book entitled Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. In it, he commented on the crushing forces of white supremacy, and his prayers for the rise of a Black Messiah. It made the ever popular Souls of Black Folk seem tame and conservative by comparison. He began to change his vision for the NAACP, and felt the organization should focus on black economic development instead of simply fighting discrimination. In 1934 (age 56) he resigned as the editor of The Crisis. 5 years later, he launched a more radical journal on racial issues. As a result of his “new” views, he was forced to resign from Atlanta University. He disagreed with the NAACP leaders on how the organization should function, and was officially dismissed in 1948. In 1961, Du Bois finally gave up on America and renounced his citizenship! He moved to Accra, Ghana, home of Pan-African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah. When he died in 1963, he had transitioned from “sellout” to Pan-Africanist, and died a Ghanaian citizen. He had chosen to have his body buried in Ghana, and a beautiful shrine now sits in his honor.

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Du Bois’s life is worth noting and examining because it shows determination, achievements, and the growth that we all experience during the course of our lifetimes. I find it ironic that in his youth he sabotaged a movement that he ultimately would have agreed with in his later years. Have you once argued against some of the some ideas that you now argue for? Has the way you think about life changed gradually over the years? Does this help you understand other people who are where you once were? 

-Excerpts for this post were borrowed from: Rap, Race, and Revolution: Solutions for our Struggle by Dr. Supreme Understanding.

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