Conclusion (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 6 of 6)

 It is on this basis that Du Bois was able to defend African Americans from the accusations of the scientific racists of his day even while accepting certain aspects of that science—such as race essentialism—that most scientists today would reject. In so doing, Du Bois raises important questions regarding the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. While Du Bois was able to make an argument against racism through his scientific approach to humane disciplines like history and philosophy, the arguments he formulated rebutted ideas that were accepted as scientific fact in his day. By framing his life as a refutation of the scientific racism popular in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and by applying scientific methods to the humane arts in an attempt to rebut racial pseudoscience, Du bois helped to define the relationship between the humanities and the sciences and points to a healthy engagement between the two in which each can inform the other. A scientism which ignores the human element severs itself from the experiential facts of the lives it hopes to explain while a humanism that disvalues scientific ways of knowing is incomplete and likely to result in navel-gazing prognostications with little meaning for the real world. By bringing the two together, Du Bois used his training in the humanities and his knowledge of the sciences as means by which to explain and to change for the better the lives of millions of people.

History and Race Vindication in The Gift of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 5 of 6)

Twenty years after the initial publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to expand upon his use of history for race vindication with his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk. There, Du Bois built significantly upon his previous lists of African American contributions in yet another attempt. Published by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, as part of a series of three volumes exploring the contributions of persecuted ethnic groups to the United States, The Gift of Black Folk, along with the other two volumes in the series—one on Jewish people and the other on Germans—was part of an attempt to combat rising prejudice in the interwar United States by highlighting the achievements of members of ethnic minority groups.

        The book takes its title, argument, and structure from an assertion Du Bois originally made in The Souls of Black Folk:

Here we have brought three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.[54]

The chapters of The Gift of Black Folk begin with a discussion of “the gift of sweat and brawn.” Starting with the earliest explorers of the Americas and stretching through the history of the United States, Du Bois describes the numerous ways in which African American manual labor has contributed to the development of America. “Hard manual labor, and much of it of a disagreeable sort, must for a long time lie at the basis of civilized life,” Du Bois writes in response to those who would devalue this sort of work.[55] “In an ideal society it would be highly-paid work because of its unpleasantness and necessity.” Following this discussion of the contributions of black labor to the building of the United States, Du Bois transitions, via a discussion of the participation of African Americans in all of the United States’ wars, to a discussion of the cultural and intellectual contributions of African Americans to American society.

        Expanding on his claims in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois once again highlights the role that African Americans played as active agents in securing their own freedom. In so doing, claims Du Bois, African Americans accomplished a great victory for democracy and thereby expanded and secured the liberties of all peoples. Du Bois links African Americans’ struggle for and achievement of emancipation to the history of the United States as a whole: “There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.”[56] By gaining their own freedom, then, African Americans became participants in the expansion of freedom that has marked American history more generally. It is an “inescapable fact,” explains Du Bois, “that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic.”[57] The self-emancipation of African Americans, then, is a victory for all Americans.

        Du Bois also extends this discussion to encompass the overturning of social hierarchies more generally, attributing to the emancipation of the African American slaves of the South and the subsequent period of Reconstruction in that region the advent of “democratic government . . . free public schools . . . [and] new social legislation” which ended the Southern slaveholding oligarchy and thereby made the South more democratic, granting access to education and representation to whites of the non-slaveholding classes as well.[58] Du Bois would significantly expand upon these thesis in 1934 with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. There, taking a more clearly Marxist turn in his historiography, Du Bois countered the claims of the scientific and historical racists that African American leadership failed during Reconstruction and that the good that came out of the period was to be attributed to whites with, as was typical of his style, another thoroughly researched and well-documented historical discussion.[59]

        The last half of the book Du Bois dedicates to the gifts of song and spirit, the contributions by African Americans to American culture which he had highlighted as the most significant in The Souls of Black Folk. Writing as he did in 1924 during the Harlem Renaissance Du Bois is now able to expand upon his previous discussions of these contributions by pointing to the rising importance of African American music as well as the numerous contemporary African American poets. As Du Bois writes, these musicians and poets “form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression” that rose out of the spirituals and became the definitively American musical and poetic forms.[60] Just as American culture was shaped by the musical and poetic traditions of African Americans, writes Du Bois, American religion—that great center of all culture—bears the “imprint of Africa on Europe in America.”[61] In the final chapter, Du Bois discusses the numerous contributions of Africans and African Americans to American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, including leadership, hymns, and styles of worship. As Du Bois had shown, then, African Americans had contributed to the United States in body, mind, and soul.

[54] Ibid., 262–263.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk [1924] (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2009), 17.

[56] Ibid., 81.

[57] Ibid., 59.

[58] Ibid., 106.

[59] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (London: Cass, 1966).

[60] Ibid., 144.

[61] Ibid., 151.

Scholarship, Poetry, and Story in The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 4 of 6)

In 1903, Du Bois compiled and edited a collection of fourteen of his essays under the collective title The Souls of Black Folk, a book that has proved an enduring classic of American letters. The very title of the book proclaims its thesis, masking its depth with an apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of meaning. Du Bois’s use of the plural “souls” here is intended not to refer to the souls of African Americans as a group, but the duality Du Bois believed to be present within the soul of each African American, an idea which he acquired from the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel through the work of Du Bois’s friend and professor William James at Harvard. The term “folk” is an intentional borrowing by Du Bois’s from the nationalist movements of Europe, especially the German volk of Otto von Bismarck, who had only recently unified the German-speaking peoples of central Europe and upon whom Du Bois had chosen to write his undergraduate thesis at Fisk University.[36] Du Bois, then, is taking up, applying, and simultaneously transforming the thought of the vanguard of American and European intellectuals and political leaders with the intent of racial uplift for African Americans. In so doing, he seeks to find a place for African Americans within these paradigms while also serving the cause of racial vindication through the quality of his scholarship.

        One of the most influential and often discussed ideas introduced by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk is the notion of “double consciousness,” the source of the title’s plurality of “souls.”[37] As Du Bois describes it in the opening chapter,

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. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[38]

There is, of course, more than a little autobiography in this description of the state of being, so to speak, hyphenated. Du Bois’s many numerous experiences with rejection—from the little girl who had refused his card as a child in Great Barrington to the ending of the funding for his studies at the University of Berlin—had been frequent and painful because they had been based merely on the color of his skin and all in spite of his enormous and undoubted intellectual abilities. Du Bois sought to undermine this denial of opportunity that he had so often experienced himself and which had been even greater burden to so many other African Americans through a simultaneous appeal to the consciences of his white readers and careful elevation of African-American contributions to culture to a place alongside the contributions of Europeans and European-descended Americans.

        In one of the most famous passages from The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois movingly writes,

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 of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all 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 afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?[39]

Du Bois’s invocation of the name of Alexandre Dumas alongside Shakespeare, Balzac, Aristotle, and Aurelius and the unnamed but nonetheless invoked Plato and Moses is significant. Dumas, like Du Bois himself and like most African Americans, was of mixed racial descent; his grandfather was black, which made Dumas, according to the race scientists of Du Bois’s time, black and a sharer in the innate inferiority of blacks. Du Bois intentionally places Dumas alongside other great authors who were of entirely European descent, calling attention to his undoubtedly deserving location alongside them as “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.”[40] Just as he had through history and the social sciences, Du Bois here makes his case against racial hierarchy through an appeal to the humanities and the contributions people of African descent have made therein, coupling this with the accusation—undoubtedly correct—that other people of African descent were being denied the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the culture. As was the case with his treatments of black freedom under American slavery and black poverty in Philadelphia, Du Bois once more turns the accusations of the racists against them, pointing to racism and its proponents as the reason for the relative dearth of cultural contributions by those of African descent and the possibility, realized in Dumas, of such contributions by those who are allowed to contribute.

        Du Bois, in fact, drives this point home at the beginning of each chapter. For each of the chapters of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois chose a dual epigraph featuring lines of poetry from mostly European and white American poets and lines of musical notation from one of the Negro spirituals, for the latter of which Du Bois coined the nomenclature “sorrow songs.”[41] As Dolan Hubbard points out, Du Bois uses these epigraphs as a means of philosophical justification for African Americans by entering into the realm of aesthetics, in which hitherto “the canon of beauty adhere to a European standard.”[42] This canon of beauty, as has been noted, became one of the primary means by which scientific racists denied the full humanity of people of African descent. The comparison of skull shapes featured in Gliddon and Nott’s Types of Mankind, for example, clearly relied upon an assumption that the reader would immediately recognize difference and therefore a relationship of superior to inferior in their presentation of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, a well-known Roman statue widely considered to be the standard of artistic and physical beauty, alongside a caricatured drawing of a the head of an African. By positing people of African descent outside of the standard limits of beauty, Hubbard explains, the scientific racists had cut them off from humanity. “Any theory of life must begin with a theory of the sublime and beautiful, the ultimate cultural capital,” writes Hubbard, “for they are closely tied to our perception of as well as relationship with the Divine.”[43] Therefore, says Hubbard, “blacks struggle to become human” while “whites struggle to become God.”[44] 

        By positioning music from the spirituals alongside poetry written and respected by whites, however, Du Bois undermines this assumed racial hierarchy. Instead, as Zamir writes of this and other aspects of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois is adopting and modifying Plato’s allegory of the cave in such a way as to imply that the prisoners in the cave—here, equated by Du Bois with African Americans—have a message for those outside it just as much as those who are outside of the cave have, as in Plato’s original allegory, knowledge to impart to those within it.[45] As Du Bois writes, “Negro blood has a message for the world.”[46] This phrasing is indicative of both Du Bois’s subverting of the traditional racial hierarchy and the assumptions attached to it as well as his inability to entirely get outside of it. Such was the pervasiveness of the assumption that physical and cultural difference were intertwined that not even Du Bois seems entirely able to break free of it. His fight, then, was not necessarily one against race essentialism itself but instead a fight to prove that the essence of the African was different from what was thought by the advocates of racism.

        Early reviews of The Souls of the Black Folk along with Du Bois’s response to those reviews are particularly telling in this regard. One anonymous reviewer writing in the New York Times, for example, writes,

To a Southerner who knows the negro race as it exists in the South, it is plain that this negro of Northern education is, after all, as he says, “bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh” of the African race. Sentimental, poetical, picturesque, the acquired logic and the evident attempt to critically fair-minded is strangely tangled with these racial characteristics and the racial rhetoric.[47]

Du Bois’s response to his critics, published in The Independent in 1904, far from rejecting such race essentialism, embraced it as an important aspect of his book and his self. There, he writes, “In its larger aspects of the style is tropical-African. This needs no apology. The blood of my fathers spoke through me and cast off the English restraint of my training and surroundings.”[48] While such statements sound jarring to modern ears, it must be acknowledged that there was a limit to the extent to which Du Bois could depart from the racial assumptions of his time; such race essentialism was, after all, scientific fact according to the greatest minds of his day. What was possible for Du Bois, however, and what he could realistically set out to do, was an alteration of the assumptions that attached to the shared character of African-descended people.

        In many ways, this willingness to compromise with race essentialism as well as Du Bois’s methods in attempting to redefine the characteristics attributed to the essence of African-descended people is a further reflection of Du Bois’s interest in and influence by German nationalism, already seen in his adoption of the word volk, his Fisk senior thesis on Bismarck, and his happy experiences studying in Germany. The famous brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, for example, had been engaged in a project of searching for the essence of the German volk when they set off into the German countryside to collect and classify stories and to study the origins of the German language.[49] Just as fairy tales were seen by the Brothers Grimm in their proto-anthropological studies as constituting one of the aspects of the essence of the German volk, Du Bois points to the sorrow songs, both in their music and in the stories they tell, as essential aspects of the “soul” of the African American folk as well as defining features of the American cultural landscape:

We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.[50]

For Du Bois, then, the music and stories of African Americans are their essence and their contribution to America and to the world. These are, writes Du Bois, “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”[51]

        This contribution, in turn, places people of African descent alongside the members of the great civilizations of world history as contributors to the world’s knowledge and culture. “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son,” writes Du Bois.[52] Du Bois turns the rhetoric of the scientific racists against them to make this assertion; he writes,

The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. . . . Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?[53]

Just as whites of Northern European descent saw themselves standing atop a racial hierarchy with people of African descent at the bottom, writes Du Bois, it would have been possible for a Roman or a Greek to point to the Germanic and other peoples of Northern Europe and to assume a certain racial inferiority of these peoples given those peoples’ relative cultural inferiority. They did not, however, and, indeed, “the Teuton,” as Du Bois refers to these descendants of Northern Europeans, later made his mark on the world’s culture and civilization. It is the Teuton, however, a relative latecomer to civilization, who currently judges those whom he sees as not yet having made their mark to be incapable of doing so and therefore acts to deprive them of the opportunity of doing so.

[36] Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 28.

[37] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 3.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 109.

[40] Ibid., 4.

[41] Ibid., 250.

[42] Dolan Hubbard, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Invention of the Sublime in The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 305.

[43] Ibid., 312.

[44] Ibid., 311.

[45] Zamir, 184–186.

[46] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 4.

[47] Erica L. Griffin, compiler, “Reviews of The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 21.

[48] Ibid., 33.

[49] Megan Christine Thomas, Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino Scholarship and the End of Spanish Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 207.

[50] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 11–12.

[51] Ibid., 251.

[52] Ibid., 3.

[53] Ibid., 262.

Historical Vindication: Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 3 of 6)

Du Bois’s first foray into what would become a lifetime of writing toward this goal of race vindication came in 1892 with the writing of his meticulously documented doctoral dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. In this dissertation, Du Bois did not engage in the philosophizing and mythmaking sort of historical research which had long been popular and remained so up to his time. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s five-volume work The History of England from the Accession of James II had been read by Du Bois “with relish as a child and then at Fisk,” but Du Bois found the tendencies of Macaulay and other earlier and contemporary historians to engage in metaphysics, moralizing, and mythologizing insufficient to his task.[22] Du Bois knew the strength and popularity of the ideas that he was working to repudiate and saw that need for a purely and overwhelmingly scientific argument against them—the sort of argument that could not be refuted or rejected as mere speculation or opinion.

        Such was the power and popularity of the “pseudo-science” in history, biology, and other fields of thought which insisted that blacks were inherently unequal to whites that even former ardent supporters of the uplift of African Americans were beginning to be won over by the arguments of the advocates of racial hierarchy. As Shamoon Zamir writes,

Even [Professor Albert Bushnell] Hart [of Harvard University], Du Bois’s dissertation supervisor, proud of his abolitionist heritage and exceptionally active in his support of black advance, conceded in reviewing literature purporting to demonstrate black inferiority that “if provably, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Hart finally agreed that the argument was indeed provable and that blacks were inferior to even “poor white people, immigrants or natives.”[23]

That even someone like Hart could be won over by the arguments being advanced by the scientific racists at the end of the nineteenth century is demonstrative of the formidable task that Du Bois faced as he set out.

        In Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois chose to remain firmly in the realm of the empirical. Relying heavily upon citation of primary source material for every claim put forward, Du Bois thoroughly documented the failure of those who opposed the slave trade and of the United States as a whole to put an end to the slave trade, often in spite of its own self-understandings and promises. In four appendices spanning more than a hundred pages in the original, Du Bois provided lists of dozens of sources for his conclusions drawn from laws passed at the local, state, national, and international levels.[24] In so doing, Du Bois smashed the myths of American exceptionalism and American moral superiority, exposing the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values of freedom and equality. By all accounts, Du Bois’s dissertation was an outstanding success. It became the first published volume in the Harvard Historical Series of books.[25] As Lewis points out, “critical reception of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade had made him one of the most talked-about young scholars in the country.”[26]

        Du Bois’s first academic appointment after graduation from Harvard was as Chair of the Department of Classics at Wilberforce University. There, in nearly a direct refutation of Calhoun’s infamous pronouncement on the inability of people of African descent to understand Greek syntax, Du Bois taught not only Greek but Latin, English, and German, in addition to history.[27] He requested to teach a course in sociology as well, but was turned down by the administration. Du Bois’s tenure at as a member of the Wilberforce University faculty, however, was short-lived.

        After only two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania that afforded him the opportunity to continue his scientific investigations into the lives of African Americans and their communities. This time, the product of Du Bois’s work would be his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, “the first sociological study of an African American community ever published in the United States.”[28] Du Bois’s groundbreaking work set out to study the social conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Du Bois’s sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania initially commissioned the work in the hopes that the observations of Du Bois, undoubtedly the world’s leading black scholar already at this point in his life, would confirm what white sociologists had long claimed: that the poverty, crime, and squalid conditions of emerging African American urban communities were to be attributed to innate black inferiority. Du Bois writes in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, “The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely in the slums at the lower end of the seventh ward.”[29] Du Bois’s work, however, not only refuted but entirely upended such claims.

        “Though black and committed to social justice,” writes Keith E. Byerman, Du Bois resolved to “function as a disinterested scientist in examining black life,” certain that the facts as accurately documented and reported would bear out his belief that the poor conditions of black life in Philadelphia were not the consequence of black inferiority.[30] Just as he had in his research and writing for his doctoral dissertation, Du Bois was once again as meticulous as possible in both the research for and the presentation of The Philadelphia Negro. As Zamir writes, “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include more historical assessment of the evidence in his work.”[31] Only after carefully tracing the history of the African American community of Philadelphia and explaining the various trials it had faced from the forces of racism, economic and social exclusion, the competition for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, and the setbacks caused by the migration of African American former slaves from the South. Following this historical survey, Du Bois launched into a lengthy presentation of the sociological data he gathered by personally visiting every African American household in the seventh ward as well as others elsewhere in the city. For almost a year and a half, Du Bois himself travelled from house to house in the seventh ward with a set of questions inquiring into family life, income, employment, religious affiliation, and other facts about the household and its members.[32] For his presentation of the data he collected in The Philadelphia Negro, writes Byerman, “Du Bois fills his chapters with tables and graphs to demonstrate that his study is in fact wonderfully objective.”[33] The result is an exceedingly well-researched and well-documented study that undermines the insistence of “the city authorities” who claimed “that the city’s problems stemmed from its black population,” writes Zamir.[34] Instead, “Du Bois not only exposed the myth of black criminality, but also laid a large part of the blame for the condition of the Seventh Ward at the doorstep of white prejudice and its enforcement in both overt and hidden ways.”[35] Applying the scientific methodologies he had learned at Harvard alongside his own inclination to specificity and meticulousness, Du Bois presented for the first time a definitive and indubitable argument that historical and social factors—including especially the effects of white racism on housing and employment opportunities for African Americans—were largely to blame for African American poverty rather than black inferiority, as white social scientists and others had insisted.

        In both The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois had used the tools of historical study and scientific research as a means by which to vindicate his race before a white audience and its prejudices. With The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, he had meticulously documented the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values, calling into question the popular notion of American exceptionalism and demonstrating the moral shortcomings of the nation. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois once again called into question the assumptions of white Americans by turning a study of African Americans into a mirror through which white Americans could see their own shortcomings and the ways in which those shortcomings created the conditions that prevented African Americans from social and economic advancement. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, still his most popular and influential work and widely considered a classic of American letters, Du Bois would set out to do still more than this in his refutation of racism.

[22] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, in Writings, 199–345.

[25] Yvonne Williams, “Harvard,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, eds. Gerald Home and Mary Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 99.

[26] Lewis, 141.

[27] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections: 1877–1934, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 38.

[28]  Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, eds., Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings (Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 338.

[29] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 596.

[30] Keith E. Byerman, Seizing the Word: History, Art, and the Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 51.

[31] Zamir, 89.

[32] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 1–2.

[33] Byerman, 52.

[34] Zamir, 89.

[35] Ibid.

The Education of W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 2 of 6)

From fairly early in his childhood, Du Bois resolved to dedicate his life to disproving the popular social and scientific theories of the innate inferiority of African Americans. In his classic 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois records his memory of the incident which precipitated this resolution.[10] Du Bois, raised in the mostly white but integrated and fairly tolerant small town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, writes that in his early years he never directly encountered race prejudice. His first experience with it, he writes, came from a little white girl who was new to the town and therefore unfamiliar with its tolerant ways. One day, the boys and girls of his class in school decided to exchange greeting cards with each other. “The exchange was merry,” writes Du Bois, “till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others.”[11] Feeling suddenly excluded from the world of the other children, Du Bois writes that he felt compelled not only to prove that he was worthy of being considered their equal but sought even to excel them in every way, to prove his own superiority over his white peers. He continues,

That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way.[12]

It, in fact, became “Du Bois’s life objective,” writes Shanette M. Harris, “to win the prizes of European Americans.”[13] It was this resolution to prove his equality—even his superiority—over his white peers and so to disprove their theories of his racial inferiority that became the driving force in his pursuit of education for himself.

        Such was Du Bois’s drive to succeed that his high school principal Frank Hosmer, writes Du Bois in Dusk of Dawn, one of his several autobiographies, “suggested, quite as a matter of fact, that I ought to take the college preparatory course which involved algebra, geometry, Latin and Greek.”[14] Such a suggestion is, of course, altogether remarkable when one considers that it was made in 1880, when most universities in the United States were closed to African Americans and only a handful of colleges for African Americans existed.[15] As Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis has pointed out, such a suggestion can only be attributed to a recognition on Hosmer’s part of Du Bois’s “supercharged ambition.”[16]

It was this same supercharged ambition which would lead Du Bois, following his high school graduation, to Fisk University, a liberal arts college for black students in Nashville, Tennessee, and from there on to Harvard University and the University of Berlin as he continued to set his sights continually higher, each time with the goal in mind of vindicating his race against those who had claimed people of African descent to be inherently inferior. Du Bois would have been the first black person to be granted a Ph.D. by the University of Berlin, then universally considered the leading university in the world, had his funding not been cut short one semester short of completion by his white American sponsors who had begun to doubt the usefulness of allowing an African American to attain such a distinction.[17] Du Bois instead returned to Harvard, becoming the first black person to earn a doctoral degree at that university, though continuing to view it as a sort of second prize.

        While a graduate student at Harvard, Du Bois applied himself to courses of study which he believed would be the most efficacious in vindicating and uplifting African Americans. Initially, he was drawn to the natural sciences; Du Bois writes that he was especially “interested in evolution, geology, and the new psychology.”[18] He found it difficult to see, however, how specializing in such subjects would allow him to directly participate in the racial uplift he had set as his goal. As he explains it, while “the triumphs of the scientific world thrilled” him, “on the other hand the difficulties of applying scientific law and discovering cause and effect in the social world were still great.”[19] There was at that point, however, no Ph.D. in the social sciences available at Harvard. Du Bois instead turned to philosophy and eventually to history. While he studied under William James and George Santayana, two of the greatest contemporary philosophers of his time, Du Bois, seeing more potential for future employment and application of the subject of history, opted to write his dissertation and earn a Ph.D. in history instead. Du Bois explains, “turning my gaze from fruitless word-twisting and facing the facts of my own social situation and racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the condition and problems of my own group.”[20] In order to counter the various theories of African and African American racial inferiority, writes Du Bois, he wanted “to study the facts, any and all facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research, work up to any valid generalization which I could.”[21]

[10] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1903), 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Shanette M. Harris, “Constructing a Psychological Perspective: The Observer and the Observed in The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 243.

[14] W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept [1940], in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986), 564.

[15] W. E. B. Du Bois, “A Pageant in Seven Decades, 1868-1938,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, 7.

[16] David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009), 29.

[17] Ibid., 106.

[18] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 590.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 591.

A History of Race in America (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 1 of 6)

The span of W. E. B. Du Bois’s life runs nearly from the end of slavery in the United States to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. Born in 1868, less than three full years after the passage of the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery, Du Bois died on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. At the time that he was born, most African Americans were illiterate and lived in rural areas in the South. It was commonly assumed even by those who had been dedicated abolitionists just a few years before that these black peasants in the South were naturally inferior to whites and would be ultimately unable to rise from or to greatly improve their condition. From an early point in his life, Du Bois resolved to dedicate his life to fighting against the negative assumptions and low expectations attached to African Americans. He intended to do this both by himself becoming so well-educated as to act as living evidence against the innate intellectual inferiority of African Americans and by applying his abilities to demonstrating the real reasons behind the low social status of African Americans. In so doing, Du Bois became one of the first American American classicists, a founding figure in the then-incipient science of sociology, and a pioneer in research into African-American history.

        The idea of race has been a defining feature of American social and cultural life since long before the independence of the United States. As historian Nell Irvin Painter has noted in her masterful history of the origins and development of the idea of a white race, “most racial thought in the United States served to justify slavery,” arising, in part, as an ex post facto justification for the Atlantic Slave Trade and the subjugation of people of African descent.[1] The existence of a supposed cultural and scientific “racial hierarchy” which “placed the darkest-skinned and poorest people—Africans and Australians—at the bottom” became a standard feature in the rhetoric of the justification of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[2] 

Among the features which those at the bottom of this hierarchy were supposed to possess were low intelligence and a natural servility. John C. Calhoun, a vice-president of the United States from 1825 to 1828 and a United States Senator from South Carolina from 1832 to 1850 announced in a speech on the Senate floor that he would not “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” until he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax.”[3] Clearly, his assumption was that he would never find such a Negro. Similarly, in his famous speech proclaiming slavery and racial hierarchy to be the “corner-stone” of the newly-formed Confederate government, Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America, argued that this new government was “the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.”[4] The subordination of inferior races to superior races, he said, was a scientific truth like those discovered by the great scientists of the recent past:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?[5]

Just as Galileo had discovered the structure of the solar system, Adam Smith the laws of economics, and Harvey the movements of the heart and the circulation of blood, so the American South, says Stephens, had discovered the laws that properly govern the relations between the races.

Trained scientists among those in support of Southern slavery were eager to lend their authority to boost the credibility of such claims. In 1854, for example, George Gliddon and Josiah Nott published their Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History, which, among the other supposed evidence it provided, featured a chart of skulls which placed that of an African American between a European and a chimpanzee.[6] “Gliddon and Nott and others” like them not only insisted that people of African descent were inherently inferior to people of European descent, but went as far as attempting “to prove that the Negro was of a different species from the white man.”[7] As Robert J. C. Young points out, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Southern slaveholders and their supporters “could claim that Southern slavery was a time-honored institution, authorized by history and science alike.”[8] 

Even after the end of slavery with the passage of the thirteenth amendment in December of 1865, theories of the inherent intellectual and moral inferiority of people of African descent persisted as a means by which to justify segregation laws and the withholding of opportunity for social and educational advancement from African Americans. The groundwork of the ostensibly scientific and historical research and writing that had been laid in defense of slavery now became a means by which to perpetuate the racial hierarchy of the United States in its new segregationist forms. As Carol M. Taylor writes, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was “virtual unanimity by the leading figures in American social science” as well as among “biologists, psychologists, and sociologists” on the subject of “the inherent and immutable inferiority of the black race.”[9]

[1] Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011), 190.

[2] Ibid., 180.

[3] Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2016), 10.

[4] Alexander H. Stephens, “‘Corner Stone’ Speech,” Savannah, Georgia (March 21, 1861), (accessed March 28, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malamud, 179–181.

[7] Alexander Crummell, “The Attitude of the American Mind toward the Negro Intellect,” in Destiny and Race: Selected Writings, 1840–1898, ed. Wilson Jeremiah Moses (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 292.

[8] Robert J. C. Young, “The Afterlives of Black Athena,” in Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynon, eds., African Athena: New Agendas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 182.

[9] Carol M. Taylor, “W. E. B. Du Bois’s Challenge to Scientific Racism,” Journal of Black Studies 11, no. 4 (June 1981), 449.