Throughout his books and other writings, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois focuses on presenting well-written, fair-handed arguments for the fair treatment of African-Americans in this country. Acknowledging the accomplishments of white leaders with sincere language and forthright structure, he also denounces them for their failure to see the logistical error of their thinking. Alternating between personal and scientific writing, DuBois successfully appeals to the white majority on the basis of facts, evidence, and sound logic even while he presents emotional outbursts at the failure of this same community to recognize the many benefits his heritage has to offer. As time progressed with little or no change in the status quo, DuBois drifted more and more toward the political left in his political life and his writings, finally crossing over to communist ideology in his later years. As he became more and more disillusioned with the American system and more impressed with the actions of countries such as Russia is trying to overcome social injustice, DuBois became more emotional in his texts and articles. This drift, as well as the differences in writing styles, can be seen by comparing two works such as “The Negro” published in 1915, with “Gift of Black Folk,” published in 1924.
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In “The Negro” (1915), DuBois presents what is commonly recognized as the first comprehensive history of African people, including those who trace their ancestry to Africa. Beginning with the lines “Africa is at once the most romantic and the most tragic of continents” (DuBois, 1915), the author examines the history of Africa from the earliest cultures into his own time.
In discussing early Africa before the influence of Western cultures, DuBois clearly demonstrates how the communities there included all the classic signs of development, including extensive agriculture, intellectual writing, ironworking, and other modern advances. However, he argues the devastation of the slave trade interrupted this progress, leading outside nations to assume the people who lived there were incapable of such knowledge. Through his examination, readers are given insights into the slave trade that have only recently been echoed in other works. Africans’ participation in the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves is also examined, with the advantage of first-hand observation of how new legislation in the American south was functioning to ensure former slaves remained suppressed. Leading into the close of the book, DuBois further discusses the idea that segregation is a matter of social class instead of having anything to do with a particular race: “In fact, it is generally recognized today that no scientific definition of race is possible. Differences, and striking differences, there are between men and groups of men, but they fade into each other so insensibly that we can only indicate the main divisions of men in broad outlines” (DuBois, 1915). Prior to having any knowledge of genetics, DuBois made the argument that segregation has absolutely no foundation in biology by enumerating the many accomplishments made by black people when they are provided the opportunity and the education necessary to achieve the goals often pursued by others.
Finally, through his discussion regarding the link between all people, DuBois seems to foresee the present-day globalization effect simply through his deductions regarding sociology, human nature, and the historical context.
In addressing such a sensitive topic as slavery at the beginning of the twentieth century, DuBois characteristically removes emotion from the issue by looking at it from a scientific viewpoint.
“The slave codes at first were really labor codes based on an attempt to reestablish in America the waning feudalism of Europe. The laborers were mainly black and were held for life” (1915, 188) shows no sign of the anger and resentment, DuBois, no doubt felt regarding the subject. A trace of pride can be seen in “the launching of the ‘Niagara Movement’ by twenty-nine daring colored men in 1905, followed by the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910, marked an epoch in advance of the Negro” (1915, 219) with the use of such language as “daring” and “epoch” but otherwise merely states the fact.
In “Gift of Black Folk” (1924), DuBois continues several of the thoughts and themes of his earlier work “Souls of Black Folk” (1903) as well as several strongly felt essays written during the course of his years as an editor for “The Crisis,” the African-American newspaper affiliated with the NAACP following its formation in 1910. Because these writings are more personal in nature, rather than addressed to a specific newspaper- or journal-reading public, the author allowed more of his own rage, sadness, and frustration toward the white-dominated world around him to show through as well as demonstrated more pride of race, joy in culture and richness in character. In this novel, he argues that the black man’s biggest gift to the nation was the act of freeing himself from the bonds of slavery. The chapter entitled “The Reconstruction of Freedom” even picks up where an earlier article left off, further arguing against the prevailing attitude of the white community that African-Americans only fought in the war for economic reasons even though slavery had been the cause of the war.
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More than just speaking on a physical level, in this novel, DuBois said it is the psychology of the black man that will help make Americans happy. It was this race of men that continued to keep their heads held high in their own minds even while suffering the disadvantages heaped on them by the dominating system. The songs and stories of the field, sung as spiritual reminders to have faith in a brighter future, were discussed by DuBois as evidence that the spirit of the black man cannot be broken in even the most trying times. Moreover, he claimed the black man has a unique perspective on life thanks primarily to the environment in which his ancestors thrived.
“… [O]nly the race which has held at bay the life-destroying forces of the tropics, has gained therefrom in some slight compensation a sense of beauty, particularly for sound and color, which characterizes the race” (DuBois, 1924). One of the few writers to acknowledge the importance of women as viable members of the society rather than the bane of a community, DuBois advocated forgiveness of the black slave concubines and enumerated ways in which the black woman should be proud of her heritage as well.
With a loosening of the strings that bound his words to such formal writing as works like “The Negro,” DuBois demonstrates much more emotion and expression in his writing style in “Gift of Black Folk.” Discussing the spirit of black people, DuBois claims their inherent nature “has breathed the soul of humility and forgiveness into the formalism and cant of American religion” (1924), allowing his pride of the spiritual wherewithal of the African-American community to shine through the language and meter of his lines.
With typical brevity, he also includes a slight slap to the white religion by using such terms as “formalism” and “cant” to suggest the essential emotional connection between the white individual and his or her religion did not exist, somehow making the white religion seem to offer less than the religion within the black churches could provide.
By using key terms such as “draft horse” to describe white laborers from other parts of the world, he subtly hints that the black slaves were somehow more human than their white counterparts simply because they could not be made into a mechanical creature but remained attuned to their own spiritual natures.
While “The Negro” presents DuBois’ historical arguments in cogent, well-outlined detail, “Gift of Black Folk” brings in a more conversational, loose grammatical style that served to bring the topics at hand to a more personal, feeling level. Perhaps, in relaxing the rigid rules of the text, DuBois was less able to restrain his emotional reaction to the subject, but the effect of this difference presents another face of DuBois – that of the frustrated black man proud of his heritage and tired of hiding it behind fancy words and well-turned phrases. By contrast, “The Negro,” perhaps because of its structure and rigidity, presents a highly praised and widely read (in its day) Africanized history book for the masses of people who did not always agree that the black man’s heritage should be celebrated, but who would presumably be forced to re-evaluate their position upon finishing the final page thanks to the evidence presented. In each novel, DuBois’ arguments are logical, well-presented, and educated, but the subject matter of each is different. While “The Negro” focuses mainly on scientific, provable details, “Gift of Black Folk” is more subjective, intuitive, and emotional. While “The Negro” shows the restraint in the literary form he’d learned in college, it lacked some of the emotional content he buried in syntax and polite objectivity.
By the time “Gift of Black Folk” was published, he’d found a way of letting some of that emotion out of the box while still retaining the literary restraint he’d struggled with early on.
By his own admission, DuBois felt his writing style in his earlier education was lacking in some fundamental way that would prevent him from being taken seriously by the educated white male public he wished to sway. “I realized that while style is subordinate to content, and that no real literature can be composed simply of meticulous and fastidious phrases, nevertheless that solid content with literary style carries a message further than poor grammar and muddled syntax” (DuBois, 1968). It was precise because of the very strict training he received at Harvard that DuBois was able to reach the literati of his age at close to equal status as an intellectual worth listening to. With correction in style from his instructors, DuBois was finally able to include the restraint and poise necessary for his later works to be recognized as the feats of science they were but lost some of his emotional connection to the work. As can be seen in his later works, this style gradually loosened, allowing more of this early emotion to shine through while still maintaining the strict discipline learned at Harvard.
In his writing, DuBois expresses himself in very educated, scientific terms to address common societal issues within the black community as it connected with (and was suppressed by) the white communities and stereotypes of the nation at large. Each novel he wrote and every article published addressed an issue that had been used as an arguing point to facilitate keeping the black man in his prescribed place in society rather than providing him with the means to escape the situations in which he found himself. At every step of the way, DuBois worked to make sure public figures and representatives answered to any sleight upon his people, including the ideas that a black man cannot be educated or that a black man cannot be intellectual. He did this by presenting logical arguments, tactile proof, and sound theories that still managed to appeal to the senses and explain why more black men weren’t found in more intellectual positions. He created a literary context that allowed him to educate and explain more than entertain but retained the interest of his readers with occasional slips of sensuality and other appeals to the senses in his writing style. In doing so, he invented an entirely new science we now call sociology that linked the study of history with the study of philosophy as it applied to mankind. In commenting on him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect the truth, and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for the truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man, and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man.”
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century.” New York: International Publishers Co. Inc., 1968. pp. 132-153.
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America.” New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.
DuBois, W.E.B. “The Negro.” New York: Wildside Press, 2005.