Remembering the Old Man
By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Sunday, September 4, 2016.
W. E. B. Du Bois died quietly in Accra, Ghana on August 27, 1963 at the age of 95; he had been living in Ghana for several years at the invitation of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. Du Bois’s death marked not simply the end of an era and but closure on the life of a figure who remains unprecedented in African-American life and culture. For more than 60 years Du Bois remained at the center of much of the political and social discourse that examined the life of the “Negro” in America.
Beginning with the publication of Du Bois’s groundbreaking sociological study The Philadelphia Negro, his status as a founding member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), his stewardship of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, his break with the organization he founded over its fear of radicalism, his run for the US Senate (New York) in 1950, his subsequent indictment as a foreign agent (the charges were later dropped) to his death in Ghana—the day before the March on Washington— his illustrates Du Bois’s “Forrest Gump”-like presence in African-American Life.
Born in February of 1868 in Great Barrington, MA, Du Bois graduated from Fisk University in 1888. He later attended Harvard University and after extensive travel in Europe, where he attended Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. Du Bois earned a Ph.D from Harvard in 1895, becoming the first African-American to do so. With the publication The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, Du Bois quickly became the preeminent black intellectual in the United States and a figure who is arguably peerless in that regard, John Hope Franklin, notwithstanding.
Though trained as a social scientist, Du Bois possessed an intellect that aimed to broaden the location where knowledge could be produced and disseminated. His most well known book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) provides the perfect example of Du Bois intellectual sensibilities as the books coalesces the disparate genres of music criticism, autobiography, eulogy, sociology, arts criticism and history in order to tell the story of the “Negro” only 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Souls of Black Folk, in its time, very much functioned like a mixtape, using literary collage to capture the everyday concerns of communities who defined hybridity—this is what Du Bois’s celebrated thesis of “double consciousness” is really about—a century before Barack Obama’s name could be conjured as evidence of some post-racial reality.
Published when Du Bois was only 35-years The Souls of Black Folk is often treated as the highpoint of Du Bois’s public life and his most important contribution to American Arts and Letters. The book understandably remains a staple of African-American Studies, but Du Bois would publish thousands of essays and books during the remaining sixty years of his life (with a Tupac-like work ethic) including several novels like The Dark Princess (1928) and The Quest for the Silver Fleece (1911) three autobiographies and the massive Black Reconstruction (1935) which remains his most stellar intellectual achievement.
Not one to mince distinctions between the role of the public intellectual and the activist, Du Bois found a middle ground that continues to influence contemporary Black intellectuals. More than 50 years after his death and as the first presidency of an African-American comes to a close -- a figure who Du Bois surely would have been critical of -- the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois continues to reverberate in American life.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (NYU Press, 2016). He is the host of the weekly video podcast Left of Black and curator of NewBlackMan (In Exile). Neal is Professor of African + African-American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University.