W.E.B. Du Bois: Background information when reading The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

by Honorée Fannone Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers X
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 816 pages

    May 2022, 816 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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W.E.B. Du Bois

This article relates to The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

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W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1907 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (aka W.E.B. Du Bois) was a noted author, historian, activist and sociologist as well as a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His philosophies play an important role throughout Honorée Fannone Jeffers' novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois; each section of the book begins with a relevant quote from his works, and an elderly family patriarch frequently engages in debates about the man's opinions on how to best confront racism.

Du Bois (pronounced "doo-BOYS") was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts — just three years after the end of the United States' Civil War. His father, a barber, deserted the family when Du Bois was two years old, and he and his elder half-brother Adelbert were raised by their mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt. Du Bois, who identified as "mulatto" (a person of mixed Black and white heritage, now considered an offensive term), grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and attended a racially integrated high school. His teachers encouraged him to pursue higher education after he graduated in 1884, as the valedictorian of his class and the first Black student to graduate from the institution.

In 1885, he began attending Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee. Relocating to the state resulted in the young man's first encounters with the South's discriminatory Jim Crow laws. He graduated in 1888 and applied to study history at Harvard, where he earned a second bachelor's degree, graduated cum laude and went on to earn his master's degree at the same institution. Following this, he began doctoral work in Germany at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (commonly known as the University of Berlin, now renamed Humboldt-Universität), but eventually ran out of funds and returned to Harvard, where he completed a doctorate in 1895, becoming the first Black person to earn a PhD from the school.

Although Du Bois' initial main area of study was history, he gradually became more interested in social issues, particularly those concerning Black people in the United States. While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, he conducted an extensive survey of Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, embarking on hundreds of door-to-door interviews with the city's residents in one of the earliest examples of statistics being compiled for sociological purposes. His resulting paper, The Philadelphia Negro, concluded that the greatest challenges posed to the Black community were poverty, crime, inadequate education and distrust of people outside of the community. It was in this paper that he popularized the phrase "the talented tenth," referring to the potential of one in every ten Black men to become leaders of their race. He was subsequently employed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, where he conducted similar groundbreaking studies in Virginia, Alabama and Georgia that uncovered how the legacy of slavery continued to impact Black American lives decades after emancipation.

Du Bois became increasingly well-known in the intellectual community and his influence grew. Around the turn of the century, he began a very vocal opposition to the opinions of another Black leader, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington was born into slavery and was widely viewed as the spokesperson for his generation of Black Americans, even advising Presidents Roosevelt and Taft on issues impacting the Black community. In a nutshell, his "Atlanta Compromise" asserted that vocational education was more valuable to Black people than pursuing higher education or political office. Du Bois was highly critical of this approach, insisting on a level playing field with equal opportunities for all.

In 1905, Du Bois created the Niagara Movement, which called for rights for Black Americans and opposed Washington's policies. While the group was short-lived, it ultimately provided the start for the NAACP, which Du Bois co-founded in 1909. He would eventually go on to serve as the director of research, but more importantly, he was editor of the organization's immensely popular monthly magazine, The Crisis. During his time with the NAACP, he continued expressing his viewpoints on Black society and the best ways to achieve equality for Black Americans.

As Du Bois aged, he moved further to the political left, espousing Marxist ideals through the 1940s and into the McCarthy era, when he came under suspicion for his beliefs. After running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1950, he was arrested in 1951, accused of being an agent for a foreign power. He was acquitted but became disillusioned with the U.S., eventually leaving to continue his work overseas in the African nation of Ghana. He died there in 1963, one day before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

W.E.B. Du Bois, circa 1907 (unknown photographer), via Wikimedia Commons

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. It originally ran in September 2021 and has been updated for the May 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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