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.

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