Du Bois, W. E. B.

Full Name: 
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt
Date Born: 
23 February 1868
Date Died: 
27 August 1963
Place Born: 
Great Barrington, MA, USA
Place Died: 
Accra, Ghana
Home Country: 
USA
Gender: 
male
Subject Area: 
20th century; American; African diaspora; art theory
Institution: 
Clark Atlanta University
Overview: 

Art critic, novelist, journalist, and essayist. Du Bois was born to African-American couple Alfred Du Bois (c. 1835-c.1906), a barber born in Haiti, and Mary Silvina Burghardt (Du Bois) (c. 1831-1885) in Massachusetts. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Fisk University in 1888, Du Bois continued his studies at Harvard College, enrolling as a junior and receiving his second bachelor's degree in 1890, followed by his MA in 1891 and Ph.D. in 1895. His thesis was on the African Slave Trade in the United States. Between 1892 and 1894, Du Bois studied history and sociology at the University of Berlin, and traveled throughout Europe. His visit to Munich's Alte Pinakothek was his first exposure to the works of Albrecht Dürer (1417-1528), Titian (c. 148890-1576), and Raphael (1483-1520), which inspired him to give a lecture entitled "The Art and Art Galleries of Modern Europe" at Wilberforce College to the student Athletic Association. When he returned to the United States, Du Bois was appointed Chair of the Classics Department at Wilberforce College. In 1896, Du Bois married Nina Gomer (1871-1950). He also completed a sociological study at the University of Pennsylvania, and then moved to Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) in 1897, where he taught history, sociology, and economics.

Du Bois’s commitment to the visual arts began as he started searching for sources of spiritual openness in the African American community to include in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903).The book explained his theory of "double consciousness," in which African Americans experience conflicting identities resulting from their American citizenship and their African heritage. Though there were few active African-American artists at the time of his writing, he did highly praise artist Henry Osawa Tanner (1859-1937). Tanner fit the DuBoisan ideal of an educated, devout Christian who fulfilled his social responsibility to African Americans by producing cultural propaganda. Several African-American artists identified with Du Bois's book, and in this way he gained acceptance in the African-American artistic community.

Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934) founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 which was a precursor to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. Du Bois became the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. The Crisis became the cultural voice of the African-American community, where many prominent artists and writers published essays, poems, and short stories. Du Bois also used The Crisis as a discussion forum for the creation of a modern, African-American aesthetic. He, along with Howard University professor and scholar Alain Locke, routinely wrote exhibition reviews highlighting the work of African-American artists. Du Bois frequently promoted African-American creativity in his writings, and when the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the mid-1920s, his article "A Negro Art Renaissance" celebrated the end of the long hiatus of African Americans from creative endeavors. His enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance waned as he came to believe that many white people visited Harlem only for voyeurism, not out of a genuine appreciation of African-American art. In 1926, Du Bois sponsored The Crisis symposium called "The Negro in Art," in which he chastised African-American artists for not assuming more political responsibility in their work. Du Bois worked closely with artists such as Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), whom he believed would lead the movement to develop a black modernist aesthetic through a “bold reconceptualization of beauty" (Kirschke 11). He continued to help young artists through The Crisis magazine until he resigned from the NAACP in 1934. As a widower, Du Bois married author, playwright, composer, and activist Shirley Graham (1896-1977) in 1951. Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. That same year, at the age of ninety-three, he moved to Ghana, where he worked with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah on the Encyclopedia Africana, which inspired Henry Louis Gates (b. 1950) and Kwame Anthony Appiah (b. 1954) to write Africana: the encyclopedia of the African and African American experience in 1999. Du Bois’s health declined during his time in Ghana and he died in the capital of Accra at age 95.

Selected Bibliography: 
  • [dissertation:] Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America: 1638–1871. Harvard, 1895;
  • Aptheker, Herbert, ed.,Selections from The Crisis, Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1983;
  • The American Negro, Philadelphia, PA: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1928;
  • The Souls of Black Folks: Essays and Sketches, Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co., 1903;
  • American Negro Art, Baltimore, MD: The Modern Quarterly: A Journal of Radical Opinion 32 no. 6 (1925): 290, 292, 294, 296-297, 1925;
  • Criteria of Negro art. New York, NY: Crisis Publishing Co., 1926.;
  • The social origins of American Negro Art. New York, NY: The Modern Quarterly: A Journal of Radical Opinion, 3 no.1:53-56, 1925.
Sources: 
  • Foster, Frances Smith, ed. Andrews, William L. and Harris, Trudier. The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1997 pp. 237-239;
  • Lewis, David Levering, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993;
  • Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Una McGovern, ed., 1997;
  • World Heritage Encyclopedia, W. E. B. DU BOIS, http://self.gutenberg.org/article/WHEBN0000089988/W.%20E.%20B.%20Du%20Bois;
  • Kirschke, Amy Helene. “The Intersecting Rhetorics of Art and Blackness in The Souls of Black Folk.” Souls of Black Folk One Hundred Years Later. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003.;
  • Byerman, Keith Eldon. Seizing the Word: History, Art, and Self in the Works of W. E. B.Du Bois. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
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Archives: 
Contributors: 
LaNitra Michele Walker; Alana J. Hyman; Emily Crockett