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W.E.B. Du Bois was an important figure in American civil rights history, and his idea of the double consciousness delved into what it felt like to live as a black person in a white people’s world.

Learn more about his life and works in this lesson.

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W.E.B. Du Bois: Writer, Activist, and Philosopher

Imagine growing up in a time where there were two distinct groups of people.

One group is the dominant group, and every aspect of life revolves around them: education, politics, business, religion – even the right to live. The second group has just won their freedom, literally, but still has very few societal rights or freedoms.Such is the life of W.

E.B. Du Bois (pronounced Doo-Boyss), an African-American sociologist born just a few years after the end of the Civil War. Du Bois’ career was mainly focused on creating an equal and just society for all, and he became a notable writer, activist, and philosopher. Du Bois’ work created a bridge of assisting in the struggle for a more racially equal society and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Today, he is widely recognized as a significant figure for his pursuit of social justice and for his literary imagination.

The Early Life and Education of Du Bois

Born to a poor family in Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a predominately European white community and experienced very little racism. He attended elite schools and had great support by his white educators. He attended Fisk University in Tennessee, and it was here that he first experienced what the Jim Crow laws meant to a person of color.

It was this experience of racism and inequality that would be the foundation of all his future work. He later attended Harvard University, where he was the first person of color to be granted a doctorate by the university.

The Beginning of the Fight for Equality

Du Bois became a professor at Atlanta University and believed that scholars should not only learn about social problems but also try to solve them. With this philosophy in mind, he began research on the lives of blacks in cities such as Atlanta and Philadelphia.

He began researching various social problems experienced by blacks. He looked at problems, such as educational inequality, the denial of basic rights and the practice of lynching.It was during this time that Du Bois became known on the national stage of racial progress by criticizing the works of Booker T. Washington.

Washington was the prominent civil rights thinker of the time and felt that blacks would benefit more from having a vocational education and not a degree in higher education. Du Bois, however, believed that this would leave blacks as inferior to whites and fought for full and equal rights of all members of society.

Double Consciousness

In 1897, he coined the term double consciousness. This helped to explain what it was like for blacks living in a white world. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois described double consciousness as follows: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 ever 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 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.

NAACP

Du Bois became increasingly active in organizations that went up against the status quo of society, and that pushed for equality of all men.

In 1909, he helped to begin the organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, commonly known as NAACP. Du Bois accepted the position of Director of Publicity and Research for the NAACP and resigned as a professor to move to New York. His primary duty for the NAACP was editing for their monthly magazine, The Crisis.

The magazine editorials focused on arguments against racism and for the evidence of how dangerous such could be.

Lesson Summary

W.E.

B. Du Bois was the most widely read spokesman for civil rights for a period of more than 30 years. The Souls of Black Folk was one of Du Bois’ most prolific works that both anticipated and inspired much of the black consciousness and activism of the 1960s. Today, he is considered one of the most recognized of sociologists in our history.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson should prepare you to:

  • Describe W.E.B.

    Du Bois’s life and the factors that influenced his work

  • Explain double consciousness
  • Discuss Du Bois’s work, including his book and the NAACP
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