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WEB Dubois Books

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WEB Dubois Books

The Jim Crow Era was the height of institutionalised racism in the United States. It was pervasive not only throughout society, but also throughout all three branches of government - executive, legislature and judiciary.

Some of the most influential texts on race of the time were written by W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent African American intellectual and writer. So, just what were du Bois' core beliefs and arguments? Let's examine some of his crucial works.

WEB Du Bois Books List

Throughout his life, Du Bois wrote a staggering amount of books. Here is an overview of his works:

DateTitle
1896The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, 1638 - 1870.
1897The Conservation of Races.
1899The Philadelphia Negro.
1903The Souls of Black Folk.
1909John Brown.
1911The Quest of the Silver Fleece.
1915The Negro.
1919"Returning Soldiers" (an article).
1920The Comet. Darkwater: Voices from within the veil.
1924The Gift of Black Folk.
1930Africa, its Geography, People, and Products.Africa, its Place in Modern History.
1935Black Reconstruction.
1940Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.
1968The Autobiography of WEB Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of its First Century.

WEB Du Bois Famous Books

As you can see, Du Bois wrote a huge number of essays and books. Let's dive into 6 of his most famous works.

1. The Conservation of Races (1897)

Du Bois rejected the idea that divisions of race were due to biology. He argued against scientific racism, which held that African Americans' inferiority was reflected in their bodies and the colour of their skin.

However, Du Bois did not reject race categorisation completely. He wanted to conserve black culture and believed the African American community had its own unique history and traditions. Du Bois was heavily influenced by the German philosopher, Hegel, who he would have come across during his studies in Berlin.

Did you know?

Hegel believed that each distinct people had a unique folk spirit that tied them together.

Like Hegel, Du Bois argued that African Americans had a unique spirit or 'soul'. Du Bois' argument countered the prevalent white supremacist myth that African Americans had no culture outside of slavery.

2. The Philadelphia Negro (1899)

Du Bois conducted a door-to-door statistical study on the black familial and working structures of the African-American community in Philadelphia. In this study, he concluded that some of the greatest challenges for the African American community were:

  • crime
  • poverty
  • poor access to education

The theme of access to education continued to crop up throughout Du Bois's literature.

However, by 1910 Du Bois had moved away from sociological works like The Philadelphia Negro and turned to politics, literature, and philosophy. What pushed Du Bois away from such sociological works? The historian Evans wrote:

Du Bois became convinced that the amassing of accurate data was simply unable to make a dent in the deep racial prejudices of most white Americans."

- Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion1

Du Bois moved away from giving concrete evidence of African Americans' poor conditions. He moved towards understanding why racism was so powerful and what could be done to stop it.

3. WEB Du Bois The Souls of Black Folks (1903)

Du Bois' 1903 book was hard-hitting analysis of America's racism. It was Du Bois' answer to the question, 'What kind of politics should African Americans use to counter white supremacy?’

The Souls of Black Folks is known for having coined some of the most sophisticated concepts of racism, such as the colour-line, double consciousness, and the veil.

Concept

Explanation

Example

Colour line

The invisible line that separated white Americans from "darker" races.

Segregation in housing and transport. African Americans could not sit in the same carriages as whites.

Double consciousness

The contradictions African Americans could feel of being both black and American. How being American often came at the expense of blackness.

Du Bois saw double consciousness poisoning the leadership abilities of the black elite. Their inability to reconcile blackness with American-ness meant that they, according to Du Bois, were alienated from the wider black community.

The veil

A metaphor for how African Americans were relegated to the shadows of American society. But also the foresight and power African Americans held. When babies were born still in the amniotic sack (the 'veil'), European and African folklore held that they had powers to see the supernatural.

Du Bois believed that the veil gave African Americans deep insight into America's oppressive nature. The veil was both a blessing and a curse.

Here are some quotes from The Souls of Black Folk that touch on these concepts:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others... One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body."

- WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk2

Du Bois described the philosophical state of African American being. He argued that this two-ness or double consciousness was destructive and part of racism's power.

Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil."

- WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk3

The veil acted as a gatekeeper, shutting out African Americans. This theme of an exile in your own home was a common one in Du Bois' work.

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which... only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.

- WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk4

But this veil was not completely obscuring. In fact, it allowed African Americans to see clearly what was going on on the other side. The veil granted African Americans unique insights into the world while at the same time preventing them from truly participating in that world.

4. Returning Soldiers (1919)

Du Bois' "Returning Soldiers" was an article published in the newspaper The Crisis. It was published after America's victory in World War One and satirised the journey of African American soldiers returning from war.

Against the threat of German race arrogance, we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope... For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight also.

- WEB Du Bois, Returning Soldiers5

Du Bois heavily criticised America for promoting peace and democracy in Europe but failing to enforce it at home. He pointed out the lack of voting rights African Americans faced and the prevalence of lynching. He called on returning soldiers to continue fighting, just as they did in Europe, for democracy and equality.

5. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920)

Darkwater represented Du Bois' further move away from social sciences. As Du Bois himself wrote:

One could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved."

- as quoted in Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion6

Du Bois moved towards taking the reader within the veil or the world of African Americans. He wanted to reveal the souls and voices of black Americans, rather than impersonal statistics that rendered African Americans into a 'problem' to be solved. Du Bois did this through personal essays, political commentaries, and responses to poetry.

In one chapter, called 'The Souls of White Folk,' Du Bois argued that the whitewashed history and politics of America tried to:

make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man's soul."

- WEB Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil7

Du Bois flipped the 'problem' of racism on its head: instead of looking at African Americans' behaviour, he sought to examine white peoples'. Du Bois used moral psychology to understand why white folk believed they were inherently better than black folk.

6. Black Reconstruction (1935)

Reconstruction was the era right after the US Civil War, from 1865 - 1877. It was a period of huge advances in the rights of African Americans. For example, it was when the first black Senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was elected in 1870 in Mississippi.

Despite these achievements, Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow in 1877, when federal troops were pulled out of the South. These federal troops had previously ensured that voting laws were followed and prevented violence against African Americans.

Did you know?

The full title of Du Bois book was Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880.

Though brief, the 12 years of Reconstruction were important. But academic and popular consensus by 1900 had agreed that Reconstruction was a failure and that African Americans were not suitable for government or political positions. President Woodrow Wilson's own book, Division and Reunion (1893) held such a view.

WEB Du Bois Woodrow Wilson Image StudySmarterPhotograph of President Woodrow Wilson by Harris & Ewing in 1919, Wikimedia Commons

In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois countered the widely accepted narrative that Reconstruction had been a failed experiment in African American rights and leadership. Du Bois noted the achievements of African American politicians during Reconstruction, such as public health and welfare laws. Rather than African Americans, Du Bois placed the blame for the failures of Reconstruction at the Southern previously slave-owning elite, who went to great lengths to continue benefitting from cheap African American labour.

WEB Du Bois Books Summary

Throughout his life, Du Bois was a committed intellectual and writer activist. His books demonstrate not only this commitment but also Du Bois' changing ideas and opinions as his life went on.

His move away from sociology towards literature and journalism reflected his understanding of the power of persuasive writing. He hoped his works would reach a wider audience than the closed academic circles of sociology.

Later in his life, Du Bois wrote extensively about the conditions of Africa. This reflected his turn towards Pan-Africanism, the political movement advocating for African unity against foreign interference. His focus on the history and economics of Africa - its material conditions - was part of his turn towards Communism. At whatever stage of his life, Du Bois' works remain relevant for their analytical and prophetic nature.

WEB Du Bois Books - Key takeaways

  • W.E.B. du Bois' works were, and remain, some of the most influential African American works on race of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
  • His works prominently featured themes of education and sociology.
  • He moved away from sociological perspectives and towards critical commentary on philosophy and politics.
  • His works coined some of the most in-depth concepts of racial theory, such as the veil, the colour line and double consciousness.
  • He also focused on the attitudes and approaches of white Americans, in contrast to most works, which concentrated on what African Americans needed to do to counter white supremacy.

References

  1. Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion, 2008, p.271
  2. WEB Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903. You can read the chapter, originally published as an article for The Atlantic, here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. WEB Du Bois, "Returning Soldiers," The Crisis, Volume 198, 1919, p.13
  6. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion, 2008, p.271
  7. WEB Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, 1920.

Frequently Asked Questions about WEB Dubois Books

Du Bois wrote many, many books, articles, journals and essays - only a very select few are mentioned in this article.

While a very subjective question, The Souls of Black Folk is often considered a seminal work in African American literature.

The Souls of Black Folk were written 1903

His prominence in the African American community and beyond, writing many critical works on race theory and being a key member of many civil rights groups, such as the NAACP.

He wrote many great works, but his most recognisable are probably The Souls of Black Folks, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil and Black Reconstruction. 

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