Dr. DuBois and The Harlem Renaissance

Introduction

Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois lived an intense life; the ups and downs of that altruistic life and his all-prevailing personality were all conscientiously and passionately documented by him in autobiographies, essays, notes, journal articles, and lectures through several decades.

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The Harlem Renaissance a.k.a. The Black Renaissance or the Negro Renaissance (by writers such as Milton Meltzer) was the outcome of a complex interplay of factors, currents, values, sensibilities, and of course, many remarkable men and women. Du Bois’ as a person who knew the actual pulse of the Black community, tried to collate all his thoughts on the struggles and tribulations in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk. He has tried his best to get to the root of the problems that plagued Afro Americans and at the same time, tried to offer a few workable solutions that would make them an integral part of American society.

In marked contrast to the esoteric yearnings of white intellectuals, the thinking black men and women began celebrating a new self-awareness of their community. They poignantly recalled their past, despite the ever-hurting thorn of slavery. The new self-awareness and pride did not come about suddenly. (In fact, this historical truth tells us not to try exact dates for the Harlem Renaissance.)

Facts about W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was a graduate of Fisk and Harvard Universities. He was a sort of super scholar who believed that a scientific study of the Negro race, would, more than anything else, dispel their problems. His ambitious plan of bringing the Talented Tenth – the ten percent among the black people with leadership potential – into the limelight was given up, unfortunately, because of increasingly oppressing circumstances. Besides, Du Bois’ superior intellect and extra-serious academic leanings somehow prevented him from becoming a man of the masses.

However, his strong influence over writers, artists, and social leaders cannot be overemphasized. As the radical but extraordinarily efficient editor of The Crisis,(Crisis,5) the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he initiated and nurtured many a talent. He was one of the main architects of the famous Niagara Movement, which was the forerunner of the N.A.A.C.P. It is unfortunate that he became disillusioned with the organization and left it by 1948. Yet, the African-Americans have not denied him a place of pride in their history, full of struggles as well as triumphs.

Langston Hughes’s deep impression

One of the four important people of the Black Renaissance, Langston Hughes (the other three being Countee Cullen, Claude Mc Kay, and Jean Toomer) was deeply affected by the passionate words coming from The Crisis: To promote equality of rights and eradicate case or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interests of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before the law. (Meltzer, 5)

Langston Hughes’s deep impression was reinforced by his grandmother telling him that Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was great “because he wants us to have our rights. He believes in equality and he fights for it.” (Meltzer, 5) Hughes understood the crux of the racial problem from the words of Du Bois: “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 strengths 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 old selves to be lost. He would 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 the Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, for a man to be both Negro and American, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in the face.” (Du Bois, 5)

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The Negro World

One cannot miss the touch of elitism and yet one cannot find fault with Du Bois’ passionate zeal to uplift his oppressed people. He did lack the mass appeal of someone like Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. However, it has to be pointed out here that the writings in The Crisis were like burning arrows while those of The Negro World (the powerful organ of Garvey’s movement were like mere stone bits. Perhaps Du Bois is nearer in comparison to the other urbane Negro leader Alain Locke.

The fact that Du Bois’ life came to an end in a foreign country (Ghana) could be viewed either as his disillusionment with his own ‘soul’ brothers in America or as his wider sympathies for darker races all over the world. An account of the Harlem Race is incomplete without his influence on the important figures of the movement (such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Bruce Nugent, and Gwendolyn Bennet), if not on his direct involvement in the movement.

References

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (rpt. Greenwich, Conn. Fawcett Publication, (1961), p. 25
  2. Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903. Web.
  3. Crisis.
  4. Meltzer, Milton Langston Hughes – A Biography, New York. Thomas Y. Corwell Company (1968) Pp. 14-15
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