The chatter in the media these past few days seems to have borne out a W.E.B. DuBois observation — “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Indeed, it seems that the scholar’s remark may well describe the central problem of the twenty-first century as well. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, was one of the most influential intellectuals of the modern era, who not only promoted cutting-edge solutions to deal with “the Negro problem,” but translated many of these ideas, through his own efforts, into real-life accomplishments that still reverberate throughout American society today.
Historian David Levering Lewis notes, “In the course of his long, turbulent career, W. E. B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism — scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, and third world solidarity.”
I could imagine this forward thinking African American icon fitting right into the broadband age. The University of Massachusetts has gone me one better — they have actually begun digitizing their Dubois collection, which includes many of his papers and research, in order for his work to become more accessible for academic research and the public good.
I only know this because I happened to be flipping through the latest issue of The Crisis the other day. The Crisis is the magazine Du Bois founded and edited, which functioned as the house organ of the then nascent civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples.
Subtitled A Record of the Darker Races, The Crisis appeared at the ideal “psychological moment,” the editor wrote later. “Its success was phenomenal.” And phenomenal it was, with circulation rising from several thousand monthly to 50,000 by 1917, peaking finally at slightly more than 100,000 in 1919, a bonanza figure that placed the magazine well ahead of the new New Republic and The Nation. The range of subjects was almost always impressive, and, often enough, dazzling: Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas on racial typology; African influences in the ancient world; the rise of Japan; organized labor; Pan Africa; Intermarriage; “Men of the Month”
Always willing to assert forcefully that he was an intellectual force to be reckoned with, W. E. B. Du Bois was seen as an aberration, first by mainstream America, and in then in his later years by much of black America as well. Refused a renewal of his U.S. passport, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana during the later part of his life, where he continued to pen provocative polemics, some of which can be found on-line in the Dubois collection.
[The American Negro] wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has 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 having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
W.E.B. Du Bois