Du Bois was born in the small New England village of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, three years after the end of the Civil War. Unlike most black Americans, his family had not just emerged from slavery. His great-grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, and the Burghardts had been an accepted part of the community for generations. Yet from his earliest years Du Bois was aware of differences that set him apart from his Yankee neighbors. In addition to the austere hymns of his village Congregational Church, Du Bois learned the songs of a much more ancient tradition from his grandmother. Passed from generation to generation, their original meanings long forgotten, the songs of Africa were sung around the fire in Du Bois’ boyhood home. Thus, from the beginning, Du Bois was aware of an earlier tradition that set him apart from his New England community – a distant past shrouded in mystery, in sharp contrast to the detailed chronicle of Western Civilization that he learned at school.Du Bois’ father left home soon after Du Bois was born. The youngster was raised largely by his mother, who imparted to her child the sense of a special destiny. She encouraged his studies and his adherence to the Victorian virtues and pieties characteristic of rural New England in the 19th century. Du Bois in turn gravely accepted a sense of duty toward his mother that transcended all other loyalties.
Du Bois excelled at school and outshone his white contemporaries. While in high school he worked as a correspondent for New York newspapers and became something of a prodigy in the eyes of the community. As he reached adolescence he began to become aware of the subtle social boundaries which he was expected to observe. This made him all the more determined to force the community to recognize his academic achievements.
Du Bois was clearly a young man of promise. The influential members of his community recognized this and quietly decided his future. Great Barrington, like most of New England, still glowed with the embers of the abolitionist fires that had only recently been dampened with the ending of the Reconstruction in the South. Together with the missionary inclinations of the Congregationalist Church, these sensibilities manifested themselves in the community’s attitude towards Du Bois, who presented them with an opportunity to perform an act of Christian duty toward a promising example of what they considered to be the less fortunate races of the world.
Du Bois had always wanted to go to Harvard and he was initially disappointed when he learned that it had been arranged that he attend Fisk University in Nashville. But the experience changed his life. It helped to clarify his identity and pointed him in the direction of his life’s work. When Du Bois left for Fisk in the fall of 1885, it was the last time he would call Great Barrington his home. His mother had died during that summer and Du Bois entered a world that he would claim for his own. Du Bois arrived in Nashville a serious, contemplative, self-conscious young man with habits and attitudes formed by a boyhood in Victorian New England. At Fisk he encountered sons and daughters of former slaves who had borne the mark of oppression but had nourished a rich cultural and spiritual tradition that Du Bois recognized as his own. Du Bois also encountered the White South. The achievements of Reconstruction were being destroyed by the white politicians and businessmen who had gained political control. Blacks were being terrorized at the polls and were being driven back into the economic status that differed from institutional slavery in little but name. Du Bois saw the suffering and the dignity of rural blacks when he taught school during the summers in the East Tennessee countryside, and he resolved that in some way his life would be dedicated to a struggle against racial and economic oppression. He was determined to continue his education and his perseverance was rewarded when he was offered a scholarship to study at Harvard University.
Du Bois’ life was a struggle of warring ideas and ideals. He entered Harvard during its golden age and studied with William James and Albert Bushnell Hart. It was a progressive era and Du Bois was smitten with the ideal of science – an objective truth that could dispel once and for all the irrational prejudices and ignorance that stood in the way of a just social order. He brought back the German scientific ideal from the University of Berlin and was one of the first to initiate scientific sociological study in the United States. For years he labored at Atlanta University and created landmarks in the scientific study of race relations. Yet a shadow fell over his work as he saw the nation retreating into barbarism. Repressive segregation laws, lynching, and terror were on the increase despite the march of science. Du Bois’ faith in the detached role of the scientist was shaken, and with the Atlanta Riot of 1906 Du Bois with his “Litany at Atlanta” passionately sounded a challenge to those forces of repression and destruction. At a time when Booker T. Washington counseled acceptance of the social order, Du Bois sounded a call to arms and with the founding of the Niagara Movement and later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People entered a new phase of his life. He became an impassioned champion of direct assault on the legal, political, and economic system that thrived on the exploitation of the poor and the powerless. As he began to point out the connections between the plight of Afro- Americans and those who suffered under colonial rule in other areas of the world, his struggle assumed international proportions. The Pan-African Movement that flowered in the years after World War I was the beginning of the creation of a third world consciousness.
Du Bois’ style of leadership was intensely personal. He sought no mass following like Marcus Garvey, and the fierceness and unyielding determination with which he fought for his ideals alienated many who counseled less direct means of achieving limited political goals.
In the years after World War II the desperate struggles that Du Bois had waged came together in a vision that was to challenge many of the assumptions of his contemporaries. He had fought for many progressive causes but saw them consumed by a cold war mentality that silenced rational debate.
As he became more of an international figure, Du Bois was accepted less and less by his contemporaries at home. Yet when he left America to become a citizen of Ghana in 1961, he did not do so as a rejection of his countrymen. Returning to the land of his forefathers marked a resolution of many conflicts with which Du Bois had struggled all his life.
Du Bois’ mature vision was a reconciliation of the “sense of double consciousness”- the “two warring ideals” of being both black and an American – that he had written about fifty years earlier. He came to accept struggle and conflict as essential elements of life, but he continued to believe in the inevitable progress of the human race – that out of individual struggles against a divided self and political struggles of the oppressed against their oppressors, a broader and fuller human life would emerge that would benefit all of mankind.
After a lifetime of struggle, Du Bois’ last statement to the world was one of hope and confidence in the ability of human beings to shape their own destinies. “One thing alone I charge you,” he wrote:
As you live, believe in Life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the Great End comes slowly, because time is long.
–Kerry W. Buckley