The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Author’s note: This part of an unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

“‘[T]he sheriff came and took my mule and corn and furniture —

‘Furniture?’ I asked; ‘but furniture is exempt from seizure by law.

‘Well, he took it just the same,’ said the hard-faced man.'”

— WEB Du Bois in Dougherty County, Georgia

Of the Black Belt,” Souls of Black Folk, 1903.’

“It’s alright now/

alright now/

I gave it over to Jesus/

And it’s alright now.”

— sung at St. Mary’s Holiness Church in Hamlet, North Carolina, May, 2002

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Before he became a scholar, activist and would-be Bismarck of his race, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a journalist. As a teenager in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, young Willie was a correspondent for the New York Globe, Freeman and Springfield Republican; at Fisk; he edited the school newspaper. After two commercially unsuccessful attempts to create his own journal of news and opinion, his Crisis magazine would be integral to the birthing of the modern civil rights coalition as well as the Harlem artistic movement of the 1920s.  After both of his departures from the NAACP, in 1934 and 1948, he became a regular contributor to several black and later, radical news organs.

The Souls of Black Folk is suffused with the best journalistic sensibilities: vivid description, pithy characterization, abundant but carefully chosen detail, and evocative narration. This, along with its seminal influence on racial thought, explains why the faculty of New York University gave Souls and his Crisis columns on race two separate spots on its list of the 100 best works of journalism of the 20th century. (NYU) Despite this, and the growing scholarly attention to Du Bois’ writings, the consideration of his work as journalism has been slight. Most of the attention that has been accorded has gone, understandably, to study of The Crisis.

Du Bois’ reporting was part of an evidentiary brief that, if heeded, would lead to greater support for the policies he advocated for black advancement: fair wages, rents and opportunities for land ownership investment in higher education, and physical safety. In using journalism as one of his weapons, he seems to have understood what media scholar Michael Schudson meant when he declared of 20th century reporting,

“…[T]he power of the media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in its power to provide the forms in which the declarations appear. News in a newspaper … has a relationship with the ‘real world,’ not only in content, but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any conversation at all.” (Lule)

This essay will consider two journalistic essays in Souls of Black Folk. Particular attention will be given to what Du Bois saw as the proper aim of journalism, and the proper role of the black journalist. The power of Du Bois’ journalism in Souls lies in the specificity with which he placed black life in the context of the social and historical forces that shaped its essential character and defined its structures of opportunity. We get a glimpse of his nascent ability to draw out the multiplicative ways in which African Americans adapted to and agitated against their oppression. However, when viewed in terms of the evolution of racial discourse however, it may be that the most profound effect of Du Bois’ journalism was his ability to demonstrate the centrality of black labor, black culture and black action to American prosperity, identity and well-being. Ironically, we shall see that it is this example that contemporary African American journalists find themselves most challenged to follow.

In Souls, Du Bois the reporter is most evident in Chapters Seven and Eight, “Of the Black Belt” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece.” Both chapters are portraits of Dougherty County, Georgia. As works of journalism, they presage what Tom Wolfe preciously called the New Journalism of the 1960s — the blending of observation, contextual data and narrative technique. There is, however, another way in which the work has contemporary resonance: as a black journalist whose audience and markets crossed racial lines, Du Bois had to grapple with an oppressive and intricate racial ideology that constrained and discounted not only about such southern blacks as were found in Dougherty County, but also  educated northern blacks as himself.

Du Bois had to convince his readers that he was an authoritative interpreter of African American experience – a task made more difficult by the fact that his objective was to supplant what his readers thought they know about his subject. His task was complicated by several unique factors. One the one hand, he had to contend with those who would argue that Du Bois’ mixed racial background made him incapable of understanding the souls of real black folk. On the other, Du Bois faced the personal challenge of understanding people whose skin tones resembled his or his family members, but whose lives under Reconstruction and Jim Crow differed radically from his comparatively Edenic boyhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Finally, he had to contend with emerging standards both of scholarship and of journalism that discounted traditional rhetorical strategies employed by earlier black writers, such as appeals to emotion, biblical authority and first-person narratives.

If he faced unique challenges, Du Bois was also unique in the resources that he brought to the task of destroying and rebuilding the foundations of racial discourse. He could rely not only on his youthful reporting experience, expansive knowledge base and considerable literary gifts, but also the data collection that he was beginning to amass through his work for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and his direction of the Atlanta University studies. (Lewis, Biography, p. 195) Du Bois was a pioneer in the emerging field of empirical sociology, and the AU studies were part of his lifelong effort to build a comprehensive data portrait of every imaginable aspect of black life — from schooling to economic development to religion and family life. He had invented many of the fields’ methods of data collection and analysis during his first major sociological project, The Philadelphia Negro — among other things, he personally interviewed 3000 black residents of Philadelphia’s seventh ward.

According to Lewis, his principal biographer, Du Bois bragged that his knowledge came from having “lived with the colored people, joined their social life, and visited their homes.” He was particularly scornful of the “car-window sociologist,,, the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting a few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unraveling the snarl of centuries….” (Souls, p. 128) In other words, he practiced immersive reporting long before there was a name for it.

Above all, Du Bois struggled to hold to his sense of personal and racial mission. As one of a small number of African Americans who had access to an elite education, Du Bois believed fervently that the future of the race depended on the disciplined, clear-eyed leadership of liberally educated men and women. He had declared, early on, his intention to be one of those leaders. On his 25th birthday, alone in his graduate student quarters at the University of Berlin, Du Bois wrote in his journal, “These are my plans: To make a name in science, to make a name in literature, and thus to raise my race.” (Lewis, Biography, p. 135)

Du Bois was not alone in his efforts to expose the fetid underside of American industrial development. This was, after all, the era of combat between the muckraking journalists and the robber barons. Ida Wells had published her anti-lynching expose, The Red Record. Lincoln Steffens was exposing The Shame of the Cities. Ida Tarbell was publishing her voluminous analysis of Standard Oil.

In fact, Tarbell’s disclosures specifically motivated the Rockefellers to disburse millions to establish the General Education Board (GEB) and the Southern Education Board (SEB) — two foundations that, in the absence of federal involvement in public education, would dominate African American education policy at all levels for decades to come. (Lewis 265-268) Emphasizing ”scientific philanthropy,” the GEB directed most of its funding to industrial and moral education programs at schools such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The GEB was composed of some of the most powerful men in America, so their positions on black education limned the boundaries of mainstream thinking on race.

We Just Wanna Be Successful: The Shrinking of the Black American Dream

Consider two songs from two generations. One, Drake’s  “Successful, ” was one of the most popular songs of 2009, making an international rap star out of the unsigned Canadian former child actor. The other, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” was a signature hit for the songwriting producing duo of McFadden and Whitehead. Both employ narratives of aspiration and determination in the face of obstacles. But Drake’s song, produced in collaboration with singer Trey Songz is fraught with ambivalence and alienation, while McFadden and Whitehead’s anthem brims with optimism.

[Read more…]

Remembering Paul Robeson

I first learned of Paul Robeson when I was 15 years old. I was in Temple University’s Paley Library helping my father with his research, and I was looking for something to read in my free time. I found his autobiography, Here I Stand. I started asking questions in my classes about why Robeson had been blacklisted by the US government, causing my teachers some discomfort. At Princeton University, I met his cousin and had an opportunity to meet him, but I was told that his health was greatly diminished, so I declined. Even before Princeton acknowledged its native son, the impact of Robeson and his family on the town was evident. His mother’s monograph on the history of the black community of Princeton was still available, and his father’s church, Witherspoon Presbyterian was and still is and active part of the community. Through the efforts of a coalition led largely by Princeton student Adrien Wing, (who is now an internationally-renowned law professor) a street and community center was named for him.  Unfortunately, he died in 1976 without the acknowledgment that he deserved.

Although I concluded that Robeson was sadly naive about the dangers of Stalinism, I found his talent, intellect and dedication to human rights inspiring.

This isn’t my favorite documentary of Robeson – it doesn’t recognize that not all of his critics were self-serving, for one thing — but you hear his words and voice, and that’s a good thing. I was fascinated by this clip about baseball great Jackie Robinson’s testimony against Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities committee.

I am partial to the documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier that focuses more on Robeson’s stage and concert work, including his groundbreaking performances of Othello. His meticulous preparation for his performances included learning the original languages and studying the cultural context of the music he sang. I remember a clip of him explaining to an interviewer about how doing this in preparation for Othello affected his pronunciation of certain words

That film also traces his transformation of one of his signature songs, Ol’ Man River in an affirmation of the struggle for human rights:

Here he is doing that amazing final monologue from Othello

Here is Robeson in a scene with actress Elizabeth Welch, “The River of Dreams.” I don’t know the film, but I’m guessing it must have been made in England, where Robeson could escape the stereotypical parts offered by Hollywood.

There are lingering questions about some episodes of Robeseon’s life — especially, whether his reputed 1961 suicide attempt and subsequent psychiatricPaul Robeson, Jr. hospitalization was really a CIA assassination attempt. His son, Paul Jr., thinks it very likely. Here’s  a photo I took of Paul Jr when he spoke about his father at Princeton University. (I think it was during the fall semester of 1977, which would have been not long after Robeson, Sr.’s death.)


Here is Robeson, Jr. explaining to Democracy Now! why he thinks his father was most likely drugged.

Of interest: A New Sociological Critique of The Souls of Black Folk

The 1903 publication of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk is considered a watershed in the history of American arts, letters and politics. Du Bois (1868-1963), then a sociologist at Atlanta University, offered his theory of “double-consciousness” – the notion that black Americans are deprived of agency and self-awareness because survival in a racist society requires that they constantly police themselves to remain acceptable to their oppressors.

Writer W E B Du Bois


A lot has been written about Souls of Black Folk and the contemporary relevance of Du Bois’ argument. The best literary and rhetorical analysis, as far as I am concerned, is still Arnold Rampersad’s Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 1976.) Rampersad situates Souls within the context of Du Bois’ evolving framework for thinking about race, which rested on several key tenets:

  • People of African descent are one people, with great internal diversity.
  • Colonialism and slavery had a defining impact on African peoples in ways that bind them together despite their diversity
  • Contrary to Hegel, et. al, African-descended people are contributors to history (this conviction grew over time. At the time of Souls, he identified spirituals as an indication of the capacity for cultural contributions.) African-descended people have made strides in the years since slavery.
  • Strategies and policies for making progress should be built upon empirical evidence, not faith or ideology. That requires a cadre of trained and educated leaders, ergo, the “Talented Tenth

Rampersad said that if “Huckleberry Finn” is regarded as the seminal work in American literature, “Souls of Black Folk” has the equivalent place in African American literature. Subsequent generations have had good reason to use it as the point of departure from which to articulate their own views of the African American experience. Agree or disagree, one has to reckon with it.

In a new monograph, The Soul-less Souls of Black Folk: A Sociological Reconsideration of Black Consciousness as Du Boisian Double Consciousness Paul Mocombe appears to argue that WEB Du Bois’ Hegelian articulation of the black experience really was about the desire of elite black folks to be accept by elite white folks. He says Du Bois relies on essentialist biological and cultural notions of race that were prevalent among 19th century intellectuals and steeped in white supremacy. Aspects of his critique are familiar, but his analytical framework seems new and inventive.

I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Mocombe’s assertion that Du Bois was in thrall to scientific racism. I’d say Du Bois struggled with them, trying to find an alternative framework that met the scientific standards of that day. (Mia Bay’s essay, “The World Was Thinking Wrong About Race: The Philadelphia Negro and Nineteenth-Century Science” from WEB Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) speaks to this brilliantly.

Still, I’m putting Mocombe on my summer reading list, and I’d love to know what Dr. Rampersad thinks of his thesis.