You are here

W.E. Burghart Du Bois
With a new Introduction by George Shepperson
New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. pp. xxv, 157.

William E.B. Du Bois

African travellers, explorers, missionaries, etc., [wrote J. H. Van Evrie in 1868] ignorant of the ethnology, of the physiology, of the true nature of the Negro, and moreover, bitten by modern philanthropy, a disease more loathsome and fatal to the moral than small-pox or the plague to the physical nature, have been bewildered, and perverted, and rendered unfit for truthful observation or useful discovery before they set foot on its soil or felt a single flush of its burning sun. With the monstrous conception that the Negro was a being like themselves, with the same instincts, wants, etc., and the same (latent) mental capacities, all they saw, felt, or reasoned upon in Africa was seen through this false medium, and therefore of little or no value  1.

In a similar but somewhat more paternalistic vein, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School, wrote in 1890 of the Africans:

The moral status of these people is exceedingly primitive. While they are less cruel than most men of their general conditions, the sympathies are not much developed; they are limited to a moderate devotion to the chief in which fear plays the largest part; and to a love of their children. Friendship between equals, which is the flower of a higher civilization is unknown. All the negroid races are rudely polygamous, and the wife has not risen above the grade of a chattel. The result is that there are no enduring families
with their store of traditional pride, which has done so much to promote the advance of the races where marriage has a higher form. The general tone of the people is shown by the fact that cannibalism is rather common among them ... .[This fact is of] value to us in our inquiry only for the reason that it shows how near the negro of Africa is in his motives to the elementary man 2.

Such was the state of mainstream fin de siècle ethnology, anthropology, and sociology. The more objective works of Frobenius and Casely-Hayford notwithstanding, this is what W.E.B. Du Bois had to contend with when he wrote The Negro in 1915. Less relevant than that Du Bois was innocent of any first-hand experience in Africa is the fact that a black scholar had taker it upon himself to single-handedly attempt to divest Western scholarship of tendencies which, to be most charitable, were highly ethnocentric. The hoary perceptions of Africa as terra incognita were in their heyday. Colonialism, although plunging wildly toward global conflict, was still smitten with the smugness and self-righteousness which provided it with the principal license to rule “lesser breeds without the law.” For any single scholar to attack the rampant myths was courageous; for a black scholar to do so was positively heroic.

As a social, political, and historical treatise, The Negro admittedly has its limitations. Du Bois was still in the courting stage of his love affair with Africa, and the book is less important as a work on Africa than as a milestone in the scholarly career of Du Bois. The substantive merit of the book can be called into question, but most of these are reducible to the state of the art at the time. Du Bois' figures on the number of Africans enslaved and taken to the Americas is somewhat inaccurate when judged against the more precise analysis undertaken by Vansina and others. His unquestioning use of the term “Kaffir” is a galling one inasmuch as he did not refer at all to its foreign and pejorative nature. By the time his 1946 work, The World and Africa, appeared, the word was thankfully absent. As George Shepperson points out in his introduction to The Negro, Du Bois used the unusual term “La Bantu” when making a generic anthropological reference. He was clearly unaware of certain etymological knowledge when he wrote the book, but again, this was remedied in later works.

Aside from errors of usage and limitations of existing knowledge, the book is neither quaint nor obsolete. Stylistically, The Negro is quite palatable to contemporary tastes and as a broad overview could be quite acceptable. There is not all that much available, even today, which deals with black life in all regions of the world in manageable survey form. His section on reconstruction after the Civil War is perhaps one of the more lucid summary treatments of the subject. His prescience in predicting racial strife in South Africa is startling in its exactitude. His vision of a third world, then very much in its incipient stages, is quite compelling.

Those of us in the field of African or Afro-American studies have recently been surfeited by anthologies, compendiums, and readers, all of which purport, by selection or excerption, to distil the essence of three hundred years of black experience and pan-racial phenomena. Much of this, regrettably, falls into the category of instant books concocted by scholars-on-the-make. Forgotten and obscure books have been resurrected, have had updated prefaces added, and have been trotted out before the public and the academy by well-meaning or predatory promoters. This has inevitably led to charges of faddism in the area. It is tragic that the resurrection and recognition of the accomplishments of black men and the contributions of Africa should have been attended by such frenzied commercialism. What is even more tragic, perhaps, is that the hope raised by the recognition of the legitimacy of black studies has now tended to be bogged down in administrative inertia and marginal commitment in many universities. In an atmosphere such as this, works like The Negro tend to be submerged in a deluge of materials which possess considerably less merit.

What is striking about The Negro, and what sets it apart from the facile and crassly opportunistic material is its valiant attempt to arrest and reverse a trend, then current, to belittle and minimize the achievement of black men.

Du Bois wrote his little book without benefit of lush foundation support. He wrote it in the absence of supportive public concern; indeed, in an atmosphere of apathy and despair. Yet Du Bois wrote with an overall master plan, and his vision of the future was characterized by a transcendent clarity about what the world of the future would be like. He set this forth as early as 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk when he stated, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, -the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” 3 The Negro is the work of a mature scholar, a man who had behind him several significant works of scholarly merit. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, was published in 1896. His superb sociological treatise, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, was published in 1899 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. In 1903, The Souls of Black Folk was brought out by A. C. McClurg. His career as a distinguished teacher of sociology at Atlanta University was also well along.

In terms of his organizational and journalistic life, long strides had been made.

Fully six years before the appearance of The Negro, he was a founding member of the National Negro Committee which was to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the following year. In 1910 he became editor of Crisis, a post he would hold until 1934. Politically, his eclecticism had already manifested itself by his adherence to the Socialist Party in 1911. Yet, as The Negro demonstrated, he still had much to learn. The book represents an expansion of his interests to the problems and promise of the universal black man.

It is always somewhat difficult to contemplate Du Bois, this man of the century. As much as he had behind him by 1915, there was still so much to come. There would be:

  • the Pan-African Congress in 1919
  • his battle with Marcus Garvey
  • his estrangement from, and ultimate repudiation of, the NAACP
  • the enunciation of the “economic cooperative commonwealth” — a forerunner of Black Power

A contemporary of both Booker T. Washington and Kwame Nkrumah, he bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus.

It may be, as Harold Cruse has suggested, that Du Bois was unnecessarily bitter and uncharitable to Booker T. Washington and was a “bourgeois, radical intellectual whose 'Talented Tenth' bourgeois elitism was nothing but a philosophy representing his tactic in an inner-class struggle for leadership.” But as Cruse himself admits, “Du Bois' elitism was no more to be deplored or upheld than Washington's bourgeois economic nationalism. Both tactics had positive features.” 4

The important thing to remember about Du Bois is that he chose his own arena in which to fight for black advancement and recognition. His audience, unlike that of Garvey or Washington, was the intellectual one, and his clientele the American intelligentsia —both black and white.

The enormity of the oppression of men of color in both America and Africa was such that it was impossible for any one man to confront all of its manifestations. Perhaps one can be critical of Du Bois for his tendency to posit exclusivist solutions which admitted of no rivalry. It may also be that he played the gadfly. But smiting racism root and branch, especially in the 1920's and 1930's, was a challenge that taxed even his intellect. Was it better to assert ethno-cultural equality and dwell on the grandeur of the past, thereby attacking academic and intellectual racism, or was it preferable to propound economic solutions? Was it more desirable to cultivate a black intelligentsia or establish a firm economic footing for the masses? Could one, in fact, approach American racism with a view toward remedies and reforms or condemn it out-of-hand and resort to separatism? If separatism was the answer, did one pursue it in Africa or within the confines of the United States. Did one cast his lot with white radicals and posit a proletarian revolutionary paradigm or allow the cleavage lines of conflict to separate the races? Du Bois explored some but not all of these options, but more important, he essayed them, he did not fall back upon fantasy and intellectual isolation. Du Bois was surely the living embodiment of Shakespeare's observation that “each man, in his time, plays many parts.”

In terms of The Negro, one is inclined to evaluate Du Bois' challenge to the intellectual shibboleths of his day as being among the most important of his functions. In 1915, as today, the task of debunking racism and crypto-racism is a necessary and worthy one. Ethnocentrism and intellectual distortion of the essence and nature of Africa is still with us. We are still bombarded by residual racism in the journals of our own day. It has been said of Africa that it

produced no maps. With eighteen thousand miles of coast, it produced no oceangoing ship, no navies or navigators. It sent no trade missions or emissaries around the world, of which it knew -and contrived to know —nearly nothing. Indeed, before the pan-Africanizing experience of colonialism, each tribe was ignorant of almost all African lands except its own, and those of its neighbors and present or past enemies. A female continent, Black Africa was to be “discovered”, penetrated and dominated by others. There were few exceptions to this image of passivity 5.

Such is the view of a “reputable” journalist in a “respected” journal. There is no mention of the trans-Sahara trade, the fortress of Zimbabwe, the libraries at Timbuktu, the extravagantly beautiful plastic arts, and the massive historical kingdoms whose dimensions exceeded those of their European contemporaries. Books such as The Negro, for all their imperfections, represent an order of scholarship and objectivity far in advance of many contemporary works . With less accumulated scholarship and research, with fewer institutes and academies in the field, and with more limited resources, Du Bois stands heads and shoulders above many of the journalistic lightweights and para-scholarly dilettantes of our own day.

Ross K. Baker
Rutgers University

1. J. H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (New York, 1868), 49.
2. Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, “The Nature of the Negro,” The Development of Segregationist Thought (Homewood, Ill., 1968), 57.
3. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, 1968), 23.
4. Harold Cruse, Rebellion or Revolution (New York, 1968), 223.
5. Russell Warren Howe, “Man and Myth in Political Africa,” Foreign Affairs (April, 1968), 585.