Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

Associated Press
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On this day in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The famed scholar and co-founder of the NAACP contributed to our magazine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here’s an excerpt from his 1897 essay “Strivings of the Negro People,” two years after becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. 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 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.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

Two years later he wrote “A Negro Schoolmaster in the South” for our January 1899 issue. His personal essay ends this way:

My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, and Life and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?

Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car.

Du Bois went on to write three more pieces for The Atlantic:

  • The Freedmen’s Bureau” (March 1901): He surveys the successes and failures of post-Civil War efforts to aid the freed slaves.
  • Of the Training of Black Men” (September 1902): He argues that blacks should fully develop their talents and should have the opportunity to earn college degrees.
  • The African Roots of War” (May 1915): After Belgium, France, and Britain carved up Africa among themselves, Germany felt the need to catch up. Du Bois saw this competition for colonies as an underlying cause of the war. (Full essay in PDF form)

Six months before Du Bois’s death in Accra, Ghana, on August 27, 1963, Ralph McGill, the anti-segregationist editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, spoke with Du Bois at length. McGill wrote about the encounter for our November 1965 issue:

The frail body of the ninety-five-year-old man lay stretched on a sofa. He wore trousers, a soft white shirt, and socks and slippers. His mustache and goatee were carefully trimmed. He had been asleep when we arrived. We had waited perhaps half an hour for him to awaken and then be dressed. Neither illness nor a prostate operation in a London hospital some months before, where Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, had insisted he go, had reduced the fire of his mind, though he said his memory was not as quick as before.

There was a lot of history in the slender, sick, and slowly dying man. At ninety-four he had become a citizen of Ghana, where he had resided since 1960. Three years before, he had requested membership in the Communist Party, because he had ceased to believe, he stated, that any other system, would produce the sort of world he wanted. But in keeping with his controversial past, he denounced the U.S. Communist program to set up an all-Negro state somewhere in the South. The idea was repellent to him.

Always the fiercely independent, sensitive intellectual, he had been for more than fifty years a passionate fighter for full civil rights and equality of citizenship for the Negro. This placed him in opposition to Booker T. Washington well before the turn of the century. He had helped found the NAACP but had broken with it in 1948 because of its “timidity” and his own growing obsession with Communist causes and ideology. …

[Du Bois died on the eve of] the march on Washington, the largest demonstration for civil rights ever held. One could not help experiencing a feeling of destiny linking both events. The man who for many years had spoken with the loudest and most articulate voice was now silent while his objectives were being realized.