Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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W. E. B. Du Bois

WILLIAM EDWARD BURGHARDT DU BOIS was born in the village of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1868. His father, Alfred, was born in Haiti, and after a stint in the Union army settled in the Berkshires, where he met and married Mary Burghardt, a descendant of a slave brought from West Africa. However, Alfred Du Bois drifted away from the family and never returned to his wife and son. Du Bois's mother, crippled by depression and a stroke, raised her son with the assistance of her brother and sisters.

Du Bois graduated from high school with honors and delivered a speech on the abolition of slavery. However, because of financial difficulties, Du Bois attended Fisk University instead of Harvard, his first choice. Du Bois later took his master's at Harvard, although by then he had shed most of his illusions about the university. He attended classes taught by George Santayana and William James and developed a close relationship with the latter. In 1892, after receiving his degree in history, Du Bois went to the University of Berlin to study. Although he had a deep distrust of orthodox religion, he nevertheless secured a position at the African Methodist Wilberforce College in Xenia, Ohio, and published his dissertation for Harvard, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896). He then accepted a position to study the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia and compiled the first sociological text on a black American community in the United States: The Philadelphia Negro (1899).

At Atlanta University, where he began to teach history and economics in 1897, Du Bois laid the foundations for the field of black sociology. He established annual conferences devoted to "efforts of American Negroes for their own social betterment," and edited its proceedings from 1896 to 1913. He also founded the journals the Crisis and, later, Phylon. This work, along with his prolific writing, established Du Bois as the leading black literary, educational, and political figure of the early twentieth century.


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