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The Core Curriculum

W.E.B. Du Bois

1868 CE – 1963 CE

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the son of Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois. From an early age, Du Bois excelled at school. After graduating valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at Fisk University in Tennessee. Du Bois graduated from Fisk in the spring of 1888.

The following fall, Du Bois continued his education at Harvard, where he had been offered a scholarship, and where he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree cum laude. While at Harvard, Du Bois received a fellowship to pursue graduate work at the University of Berlin, an honor that afforded him the chance to study with some of Germany’s finest scholars and gave him the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. Several years later, in 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Throughout his long life, Du Bois worked tirelessly to combat racism. Early in his career, his efforts came from within the academy: from 1897 to 1910, he taught at Wilberforce College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1910, Du Bois left higher education temporarily in order to serve as director of research for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also worked as the primary editor for the organization’s journal, Crisis.

After nearly twenty-five years with the NAACP, Du Bois returned to teaching at Atlanta University.  During this stage in his life, Du Bois  became increasingly committed to the cause of progressive labor in the United States – a commitment that did not always sit well with the FBI, which investigated him in 1942 as an alleged socialist. In spite of such pressure, Du Bois continued to take on new political leadership roles. In 1950, at the age of 82, he ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat from New York on the labor party ticket. In 1961, after having traveled extensively through China and Russia, Du Bois joined the Communist Party USA.

That same year, Du Bois was invited to Ghana by President Kwame Nkrumah in order to direct the compilation of the Encyclopedia Africana, a collection of Africana studies. Du Bois became ill during his stay in Ghana, and died on August 27, 1963, at the age of ninety-five, one day before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Du Bois is buried in Accra, Ghana.

Works Consulted:
Charles Lemert. “W.E.B. Du Bois.” The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists. George Ritzer, editor. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Natalie Lewis. "The Souls of Black Folk." Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005, p. 437.
W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover, 1994.
“William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. 

Patrick Comstock, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teacher's College, Columbia University 

Historical Contexts

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk, arguably Du Bois’s most famous and enduring book, was first published in 1903, while Du Bois was teaching at Atlanta University.  He was thirty-five years old. The book contains a collection of Du Bois’s essays, several of which had been previously published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in the years leading up to the book’s launch.
 
The Souls of Black Folk, read as a single work, is a unique admixture of history, social documentary, autobiography, and anthropological fieldwork. By drawing on such a range of disciplines, Du Bois is able to offer his readers different lenses for viewing one central problem: the devastating effects that living in segregation had had on the souls and consciousness of black people.

One way to understand The Souls of Black Folk is as a response to the legacy of an earlier black American leader, Booker T. Washington. Washington was, by most accounts, the leading figure in the black community between 1895 and 1910. He advocated a gradual approach to ending racism, an approach that centered on an education in technical and industrial skills. Such an education, to Washington’s mind, was one that could lay the economic foundation for social and political progress for black Americans.

While Du Bois had high admiration and great respect for Booker T. Washington, he could not abide by Washington’s program. The central issue, for Du Bois, was that Washington’s policies acquiesced to the alleged inferiority of black Americans. On Du Bois’s view, Washington was essentially asking black Americans to give up political power, civil rights, and higher education – resources that, to Du Bois’s mind, were critical in the fight to achieve equality. As Du Bois writes in the third chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, entitled “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”: “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”

Du Bois himself worked in season and out to secure equal rights for black Americans. His philosophy, outlined in eloquent and moving prose in The Souls of Black Folk, continues to make a monumental impact not only on the field of Black  Studies, but also on the course of American – and global – history.    

Patrick Comstock, Columbia University

Works Consulted: 
Charles Lemert. “W.E.B. Du Bois.” The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists. George Ritzer, editor. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 
Natalie Lewis. "The Souls of Black Folk." Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005, p. 437.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover, 1994. 
“William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. 
Charles Lemert. “W.E.B. Du Bois.” The Blackwell Companion to Major Classical Social Theorists. George Ritzer, editor. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 
Natalie Lewis. "The Souls of Black Folk." Encyclopedia of Black Studies. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama, editors. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005, p. 437.
W.E.B. Du Bois. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover, 1994. 
“William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online.