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The Emergence of the Race Issue in W.E.B. Du Bois' Life

Seminararbeit 2004 18 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde




Unaware, Yet Not Ignorant – Du Bois’ Early Childhood

On the Way to Consciousness – Du Bois’ High School Years

Educational Interlude – Du Bois’ Studies at Fisk University

Among America’s Elite – Du Bois’ Studies at Harvard University

Years of Apprenticeship – Du Bois’ German Venture

Distanced, Then Activated – Conclusion Page 13 Bibliography


This paper is concerned with, as the title already suggests, the idea of how W.E.B. Du Bois got inclined to the problem which is presenting itself throughout the history of mankind: the issue of animosity and oppression against certain ethnic groups within society. In W.E.B. Du Bois’ case that means in particular America’s situation at the end of the 19th century: The Civil War had been fought, the Northern States and so the Yankees had won over the Republican South, and the equalization of America’s black minority seemed established. Yet, how was this situation in the US to be changed in a few weeks, months or years that had instituted itself over more than two centuries? Exactly this question seemed most evident to those who were to be profiting from this new contribution to equality throughout the American nation.

Even if in his own life this was not as evident as in many others’, due to his home area being set in New England rather than in the much more hostile South, he still could feel some sort of inferiority of his family towards other citizens of his home town and had notions of people’s differences other than just the color of their skin. W.E.B. Du Bois can be seen as an icon in the course of the fight that had been fought, and in some ways is still being fought today, for the political and social emancipation of the black minority in America. Thus, the importance of his person and his lifelong crusade for equality and social improvements does not have to be questioned.

It seems interesting that despite growing up in the rather “enlightened” environment and society of Great Barrington in terms of race relation and respecting one another disregarding any differences in color, Du Bois was able to evolve as a fighter for the emancipation of his black people in America in such an intense and profound way. Therefore, it appears somewhat contradictory and paradox that in the course of his life and work, as he became more of an international figure, Du Bois was accepted less and less by his contemporaries at home. When he left America to become a citizen of Ghana in 1961, however, he did not do so as a rejection of his countrymen: Returning to the land of his forefathers marked a resolution of many conflicts with which Du Bois had struggled all his life.

His mature vision was a reconciliation of the “sense of double consciousness” or the “two warring ideals” of being both black and an American that he had written about fifty years earlier. He came to accept struggle and conflict as essential elements of life, but he continued to believe in the inevitable progress of the human race and that out of individual struggles against a divided self and political struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors, a broader and fuller human life would emerge that would benefit all of mankind.

In the following, it will be focused on how he became acquainted to and how he encountered this authentic problem of differentness, for which he in his early years had no explanation or even a distinct denomination, and how it could present itself to him so that his whole life seemed to be destined to help settling the race issue in America.

Unaware, Yet Not Ignorant – Du Bois’ Early Childhood

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in the small New England village of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Unlike most black Americans, his family had not just emerged from slavery. His great-grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, and the Burghardts had been an accepted part of the community for generations. Yet, from his earliest years Du Bois was aware of differences that set him apart from his Yankee neighbors, as he said in one of his many letters: “I knew nevertheless that I was exceptional in appearance and that this riveted attention upon me”.[1] As a child, he had almost no experience of segregation or color discrimination, and he was long unconscious of it in any obvious or specific way. From the beginning though, Du Bois was aware of an earlier tradition that set him apart from his New England community: A distant hidden past, in sharp contrast to the detailed history of Western Civilization that he learned at school.

Du Bois’ father left home soon after he was born. Thus, the youngster was raised largely by his mother, who gave to her child the sense of a special destiny, which was to unfold itself in the course of his later work.[2] In particular that meant that she encouraged his studies and his adherence to the Victorian virtues and pieties characteristic of rural New England in the 19th century. Thus, Du Bois excelled at school and was better than his white contemporaries, among whom he made friends. And if there were any remarks on his appearance he faced them with his genius and “gave the best a hard run”.[3] Accordingly, Du Bois came to realize that there was no real discrimination of color and that it was all a matter of ability and hard work.[4] Class and race had more to do with character than with economics, and still he had an understanding of social mobility.[5] Indeed, he noticed that colored people including his family were poorer than the rest of the white inhabitants, that for example they had to live in more primitive houses and had no further property like stores. But as he himself implies he “did not then associate poverty or ignorance with color, but rather with lack of opportunity; or more often with lack of thrift, which was in strict accord with the philosophy of New England and of the 19th century”.[6] In other words he considered socioeconomic disadvantages were self-caused issues. There was no idle rich or outstanding ‘society’ nor was there any great exhibition of wealth in his home community. Knowing that people like him and his family “could also have risen to equal whites”, Du Bois then considered most evidently success in school as a means of self-improvement.[7] He considered excellence as well as accomplishments as a secret of life and a possibility to loose the color bar.

On the whole, he considered the borderline between Great Barrington’s citizens as a rather social than racial one.[8]

On the Way to Consciousness – Du Bois’ High School Years

By the time he entered high school, the Reconstruction of the South had begun only some four years earlier. During his time in high school Du Bois also worked as a correspondent for New York newspapers, after he had merely been the distributor of those weeklies in Great Barrington, and turned out to be something of a prodigy in the eyes of the community. Already in his contributions to the papers during his teenage years, an “embryonic distinct voice of the future prophet of African-American advancement and protest” can be detected.[9]

As he reached adolescence he became even more aware of the social boundaries, which he was expected to observe, and also began “to feel the pressure of the ‘veil of color’”.[10] In detail, this notion was generated by a new white student entering his high school in Great Barrington, who was an overly self-centered offending character, most of all towards the young Du Bois.[11] Moreover, he had to learn that some of the white citizens of Great Barrington thought of having brown skin as being a misfortune or even a crime.[12] In addition, another hint on his fragility and isolation was given by a local judge, for example, who had the opinion that “a smart, poor, spirited black boy would be much improved learning a trade under lock and key” and thus contributed to the growing awareness of some terrible helplessness in Du Bois young mind, although it never made him lose his good spirits and hopes. On the contrary, this made him even more determined to force the community to recognize his academic achievements, a community “which [actually] conceived itself as having helped put down a wicked rebellion for the purpose of freeing four million slaves.”[13]


[1] Lewis, David L. W.E.B. Du Bois; Biography of a Race. New York: Holt, 1993. page 30 (in the

following: Lewis). And Du Bois, W.E.B. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois; a Soliloquy on

Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century . New York: International Publishers,

1968. page 75 (in the following: Du Bois).

[2] Lewis, page 30.

[3] Du Bois, page 76.

[4] Lewis, page 33.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Du Bois, page 75.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kerschgens, Edda: Das gespaltene Ich: 100 Jahre afroamerikanischer Autobiographie.

Freiburg (Breisgau): Univ., Diss., 1979., page 204 (in the following: Kerschgens).

[9] Lewis, page 39.

[10] Ibid., page 34.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Du Bois, page 100.


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Universität Leipzig – Institut für Amerikanistik
Emergence Race Issue Bois Life American Higher Education



Titel: The Emergence of the Race Issue in W.E.B. Du Bois' Life