photo by Alex Lear






W.E.B. DuBois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was one of the most prescient American intellectuals of the 20thcentury. We know, honor and respect his achievements and are often awed by the depth, breadth and sheer volume of his work as a scholar, editor, man-of-letters and activist. Certainly his Souls of Black Folk is one of, if not indeed, the most frequently cited book published in America.


DuBois' Souls of Black Folk gave us two definitive and classic concepts: 1. double consciousness and 2. that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line.

There is no other intellectual who can match DuBois in addressing the issues and concerns germane to Black folk in modern America. Indeed, the very weight and wonder of DuBois' work contributes to a romanticizing, and often a misunderstanding, of DuBois the man. The general picture many of us hold of DuBois' personality is that of a proper, indeed almost puritanical, highly educated egg-head who was a bit aloof and even contemptuous of the common, working class African American. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and partially because of a skewed appreciation of DuBois' talented tenth formulation, we often think of DuBois as a bit of an elitist snob. Nevertheless, a close reading of DuBois reveals a man who enjoyed life and was surprisingly down to earth as well as radical in his personal views. This is the DuBois I respect and admire.

Here are a few aspects of DuBois that offer a fuller view of both the man and his views on life. Debates around sexism and gender politics continue to rage among our people today. How many of us are aware of DuBois' progressive and insightful stance on women's rights.

In his book Darkwater published in 1920, the year before women's sufferage became the law in America, DuBois' essay "The Damnation of Women" offered this radical reading of gender politics:

All womanhood is hampered today because the world on which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.

The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion. The present mincing horror at free womanhood must pass if we are ever to be rid of the bestiality of free manhood; not by guarding the weak in weakness do we gain strength, but by making weakness free and strong. [page 953]

Even in the 21st century these remain progressive positions; imagine how radical they were 80 years ago! But then DuBois was always clear that we are engaged in a social struggle and not simply an intellectual quest; education is necessary but not sufficient, we must have action.

We have all heard or read DuBois' famous propaganda quote taken from the October 1926 issue of The Crisis:

Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent. [page 1000]

I would add that DuBois understood that while all art is propaganda, not all propaganda is art. All art carries and proposes ideas and ideals, an ideology and worldview, thus, whether explicit or implicit, overt or covert, there is a propaganda aspect to all art. DuBois was a man who had been educated at Harvard and in Berlin, a refined and well bred intellectual, but he was no advocate of art for art's sake. While it is no surprise that DuBois believed in the power of art and that he favored a partisan art, what we sometimes forget is that this great educator and intellectual was above all an activist who dedicated his life's work to the cause of freedom, justice and equality.

While some choose to emphasis the propaganda element of DuBois' work as a critique, I think DuBois' emphasis on the artist as activist gives us a deeper understanding of the man—for he was no mere mouthpiece for someone else's ideology, here was a man who committed himself to creating the world his words envisioned. DuBois was then a man of praxis and not simply an intellectual who stood apart from the fray of social struggle commenting from the safety and security of the ivory tower.

A third aspect of DuBois that is fascinating is DuBois' views on sex. Listen to DuBois in his February 1924 Crisis review of Jean Toomer's book Cane—and we should remember that when Cane first appeared it was barely noticed and shortly went out of print. Cane's status as a classic required a long gestation period, and yet, DuBois early on understood the gender significance of this innovative work.

The world of black folk will some day arise and point to Jean Toomer as a writer who first dared to emancipate the coloed world form the conventions of sex. It is quite impossible for most Americans to realize how straightlaced and conventional thought is within the Negro World, despite the very unconventional acts of the group. Yet this contradiction is true. And Jean Toomer is the first of our writers to hurl his pen across the very face of our sex conventionality. [page 1209]

But wasn't DuBois "straightlaced and conventional" in his views on sex? There has been a misreading of DuBois. His views on sex when examined closely suggest a serious reevaluation of DuBois and offer us clues to reinterpret and better understand some of DuBois' reactions and positions, specifically with respect to the publication of Fire by the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance and DuBois' often ad hominem quarrels with Marcus Garvey.

Writing in his 1968 autobiography, DuBois candidly notes:

In the midst of my career there burst on me a new and undreamed of aspect of sex. A young man, long my disciple and student, then my co-helper and successor to part of my work, was suddenly arrested for molesting men in public places. I had before that time no conception of homosexuality. I had never understood the tragedy of an Oscar Wilde. I dismissed my co-worker forthwith, and spent heavy days regretting my act. [1122]

Evaluating his own sexuality, DuBois writes:

Indeed the chief blame which I lay on my New England schooling was the inexcusable ignorance of sex which I had when I went south to Fisk at 17. I was precipitated into a region, with loose sex morals among black and white, while I actually did not know the physical difference between men and women. At first my fellows jeered in disbelief and then became sorry and made many offers to guide my abysmal ignorance. This built for me inexcusable and startling temptations. It began to turn one of the most beautiful of earth's experiences into a thing of temptation and horror. I fought and feared amid what should have been a climax of true living. I avoided women about whom anybody gossiped and as I tried to solve the contradiction of virginity and motherhood, I was inevitably faced with the other contradiction of prostitution and adultery. In my hometown sex was deliberately excluded from talk and if possible from thought. In public school there were no sexual indulgences of which I ever heard. We talked of girls, looked at their legs, and there was rare kissing of a most unsatisfactory sort. We teased about sweethearts, but quite innocently. When I went South, my fellow students being much older and reared in a region of loose sexual customs regarded me as liar or freak when I asserted my innocence. I liked girls and sought their company, but my wildest exploits were kissing them.

Then, as teacher in the rural districts of East Tennessee, I was literally raped by the unhappy wife who was my landlady. From that time through my college course at Harvard and my study in Europe, I went through a desperately recurring fight to keep the sex instinct in control. A brief trial with prostitution in Paris affronted my sense of decency. I lived more or less regularly with a shop girl in Berlin, but was ashamed. Then when I returned home to teach, I was faced with the connivance of certain fellow teachers at adultery with their wives. I was literally frightened into marriage before I was able to support a family. I married a girl whose rare beauty and excellent household training from her dead mother attracted and held me. [pages 1119-1120]

Here I find the clue to DuBois' disgust with Wallace Thurman and with the journal Fire. DuBois was no prude about heterosexuality, but instead was, in his early years, intolerant of homosexuality. Furthermore, DuBois' arguments with Garvey were probably colored by the fact that DuBois had engaged in an interracial romance and thus was surely at odds with the Garvey racial essentialist position, much in the same way forty-odd years later, a number of critics were at odds with the Black Arts Movement, their opposition fueled in part by their advocacy and practice of interracial relationships clashing inevitably with the strident rejection of White women that was a sine qua non in the Black Arts Movement.

None of the above noted attributes of DuBois the man are quite as radical, however, as DuBois' stand on religion.

My religious development has been slow and uncertain. I grew up in a liberal Congregational Sunday School and listened once a week to a sermon on doing good as a reasonable duty. Theology played a minor part and our teachers had to face some searching questions. At 17 I was in a missionary college where religious orthodoxy was stressed; but I was more developed to meet it with argument, which I did. My "morals" were sound, even a bit puritanic, but when a hidebound old deacon inveighed against dancing I rebelled. By the time of graduation I was still a "believer" in orthodox religion, but had strong questions which were encouraged at Harvard. In Germany I became a freethinker and when I came to teach at an orthodox Methodist Negro school I was soon regarded with suspicion, especially when I refused to lead the students in public prayer. When I became head of a department at Atlanta, the engagement was held up because again I balked at leading in prayer, but the liberal president let me substitute the Episcopal prayer book on most occasions. Later I improvised prayers on my own. Finally I faced a crisis: I was using Crapsey's Religion and Politics as a Sunday School text. When Crapsey was hauled up for heresy, I refused further to teach Sunday School. When Archdeacon Henry Phillips, my last rector, died, I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church screed. From my 30thyear on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war. I think the greatest gift of the Soviet Union to modern civilization was the dethronement of the clergy and the refusal to let religion be taught in the public schools.

Religion helped and hindered my artistic sense. I know the old English and German hymns by heart. I loved their music but ignored their silly words with studied inattention. [pages 1124-1125] 

This short passage contains so many iconoclastic concepts that one is forced to completely reassess DuBois' character. Clearly his scholarly stint in Germany (1892-93) was critical to the development of DuBois as an intellectual "free thinker." The Germany connection helps clarify what seems to be a major contradiction. In the Souls of Black Folk, DuBois starts each chapter with a quotation of music. The book also contains the magnificent essay, "The Sorrow Songs." Souls would seem to indicate that DuBois was an ardent Christian, but perhaps it was not Christianity that DuBois was extolling but rather cultural theories exemplified by the German philosopher Herder who asserted that national cultures are based on folk culture. DuBois was celebrating the cultural mores of the folk rather than focusing on the religious specifics of Christianity.

In any case, DuBois the man was not a Christian moralist and haughty social snob. DuBois was a complex and challenging Black man who advocated and struggled for radical change on behalf of his people. DuBois was far more than generally meets the eye when we think of this great intellectual and activist.



*All quotes are from DuBois Writings (The Library of America, 1986).


—kalamu ya salaam