In the years 1892 to 1895, while completing research and studies at Harvard and the University of Berlin, which would eventually appear as his doctoral dissertation, W.E.B Du Bois boldly projected the possibility of subjecting to scientific scrutiny the problem of race in the modern world. To achieve this end he would have to confront not merely race but power. He would be compelled to rethink the language of social science as well as its methods. How, he would ask, to communicate with diverse and at times antagonist racial audiences about race? What discursive and linguistic strategies should be deployed? And finally, most significantly, how to dislodge, or at least weaken, racist domination over intellectual and social scientific discourse. In the course of his long and creative career Du Bois addressed these issues leaving to us a profound legacy upon which to build. One which not merely challenges race as a conceptual category and thus a mode of discourse, but race power and the discourse that flows from it. Hence, the Du Boisian approach is the inverse of the post modernist. It looks at reality as the context and foundation of discourse. Therefore, the point is not first to change discourse, but to change reality. This paper will explore Du Bois’ path to an empowering African American/African centered social science discourse. One that challenges the twentieth century and leaves us the task of challenging the twenty-first.

In this essay I think about science as a site of cultural communication, with distinct codes and modalities of knowing. I argue that Du Bois in attempting to construct a science of race and race relationships sought to introduce new modalities of scientific communication; both within the social scientific community and among the general public. I also attempt to show that Du Bois ultimately understood that knowledge is inevitably interconnected with power. That is, those who control social and cultural power decide what is considered scientific knowledge. Hence, the Du Boisian intervention into extant scientific discourse can be considered part of an attempt to construct a trans-cultural discourse. On the one side the culture of the white male scientific community, on the other the culture of Black thinkers, who were marginalized and excluded from the institutions of cultural power and the instruments of knowledge diffusion and legitimation. However, through his sociological laboratory at Atlanta University and the Atlanta University Conferences Du Bois began to develop what I consider an alternative scientific discourse about race, and thus redefine sociol scientific discourse. In this sense, it was a distinct scientific culture that was developed at Atlanta University. A discourse, which he hoped, could possibly resonate on both sides of the color line. Yet, and this becomes the specifically scientific aspect of his enterprise, to equip the social sciences with new linguistic tools, cultural codes and theoretical conceptualizations. The Du Boisian enterprise in this respect is viewed as transgressive, even disruptive, of existing relationships of cultural and scientific power.

In large measure by looking at Du Bois’ work as part of the sociology of scientific knowledge production, I at the same time contextualize his project as one of communicating to both the powerful and the powerless; speaking through science to both sides of the color line. His achievement, then, seems far more significant than just to empirically explain the plight of Black folk. It was to radically alter the culture of the social sciences. This project, located in Black, Africana and Afro-American Studies departments and programs continues to this day.

He, unlike most of the white founders of academic sociology, would contend, more forcefully over succeeding years, that the central object of a uniquely scientific American sociology would be the study of race. This, of course, would radically separate the American and European social scientific and intellectual projects. Turner et. al. (1995:1) make clear that sociology, and the social sciences generally, emerged in the nineteenth century as intellectual endeavors to make sense of historical developments in Europe. “Sociology” they remind us, “was formed from theoretical questions about the European historical experience.” Modernity, science and reason became central issues for it to explain. Class, social status, prestige, the relationship of the individual to society and the state emerged as dominant themes. The social universe was viewed as being exclusively European. To be human, and thus worthy of scientific consideration, meant being European. European social scientist sought in the 19th century to organize themselves as branches of science and to model the social sciences on one of the natural sciences. In this respect positivism, in the Comtean sense of metaphysical or general statements being tested against carefully collected facts, increasingly defined what it meant to be scientific in the social sciences. Du Bois sought to apply scientific methods to the study of the African American people, with the intent of upsetting the prevailing notions of race superiority and inferiority.
While not immediately transparent, Du Bois’ project challenged a fundamental assumption of Eurocentric social thinking; the idea that only Europeans and only European societies were worthy of scientific investigation. In 1897 Du Bois declared before the American Academy of Social and Political Sciences, the Negro “is a member of the human race, and as one who, in the light of history and experience, is capable to a degree of improvement and culture, is entitled to have his interests considered according to his numbers in all conclusions as to the common weal.” And he concluded, “The American Negro deserves study for the great end of advancing the cause of science in general. (see Dusk of Dawn: 60, 61).” On this point he became more tough minded over the years.
Africans, in the European mind, were objects of history and had not emerged beyond the state of nature. Social science, as a study of human agency was, by definition, not concerned with Africans. Biology or anthropology were considered the appropriate fields of study of Africans. Du Bois challenged these assumptions from the start of his career. Science, in the post bellum United States was the new intellectual fad. In the Progressive Era it was being touted as the answer to most of the extant problems of white civilization. Du Bois (1940:50) speaking of his education at Fisk, Harvard and Berlin said, “The main result of my schooling had been to emphasize science and the scientific attitude.” While the natural sciences were well on their way into the twentieth century, the social sciences, Du Bois observed, “ were engaged in vague statements (1940:51).” Herbert Spencer’s ten volumes Synthetic Philosophy (the final volume, Social Statics, was published in 1896) reflected the intellectual and scientific style of the age. Spencer sought to use biology as a methodological analogue for society. He agreed with Darwin that evolution is a process of adaptation of organisms to their environment. The mind, he argued, was a part of natural evolution. And as biological evolution had produced superior and inferior species and intelligences, social evolution had produced inferior and superior societies, races and classes, with distinct moral, physical and intellectual capacities. William James, Du Bois’ professor and friend at Harvard, passionately disagreed with Spencer’s social Darwinism; opposing him from a Darwinian standpoint. James believed Darwin’s theory implied that the mind’s job is to select aspects of the world important for us to act on and thus assist in our adaptation to the world. James recognized that the core of Darwin’s theory was the idea of local adaptation to specific conditions, rather than a grand theory of “progress” predicated upon a linear notion of stages of development, wherein each succeeding stage is considered superior to what preceded it
The biological analogy, while striking for its bold generalizations, would have to await Francis Galton’s discoveries in statistics to be translated into what would pass for a scientific research program. Galton’s contribution to positivist social science was in inventing techniques that could measure social Darwinian principles. Statistics were his method of proving that through selective breeding a superior racial stock could be created. In 1869 he published Hereditary Genius, designed to convince the skeptical public of the superior hereditary endowments of certain eminent British families. Smedley (1993:266) indicates, “Arguing that there is a physiological basis for psychological traits, he invented techniques for measuring what he thought was intelligence, along with the bell shaped curve for demonstrating its ‘normal distribution.’” Du Bois had experienced an even more lethal form of social Darwinism in Germany in the classes of the German ultra-nationalist and racist Heinrich von Treitschke. For along with normal social Darwinism, German academics combined it with the Nietzschean concept of the superman. This was the 19th century’s legacy to the 20th on race; extending the positivist philosophical bent to measurement of human genetic inheritance.
Du Bois, the young positivist, evidenced a profound opposition to social Darwinism. He recognized, as he indicates that a real situation presented itself for him, and he hoped for the social sciences. He would use science against scientific racism in the interest of reform and uplift, “but nevertheless, I wanted to do the work with scientific accuracy (1940:51).” Du Bois subsequently turned his “gaze from fruitless word-twisting and fac[ed] the facts of my own social situation and racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the conditions and problems of my own group (1940:51).” Du Bois earnestly sought to discover and then to equip the social sciences with methodologies appropriate to its object of inquiry. Yet, in so doing he rejected both the lures of reductionism, solipsism and the pure objectivism of positivism. This, in the end, placed Du Bois in an irreparable conflict with Spencerian social Darwinism and the hereditarian research program that accompanied it. For most white Americans these views expressed both common sense and experience. They became the dominant ideological and research paradigms on race matters within Anglo- American social science and research of the time. Each actively supported racism, class subordination and were strongly anti-immigrant. Social structure and social behavior were viewed as the consequences of inherited genetic characteristics. As the official scientific explanation of their age, they dominated political and social discourse. A problem, which Du Bois early in his career attributed to society’s lack of scientific knowledge, which he traced to the conceptual and methodological poverty of the social sciences. A situation he hoped to change.
What he failed to see early on in his career was that rather than science, this research program was ideologically driven. Race and white supremacy were for it what Bourdieu (1977) calls structuring structures. Which is to say, white supremacy shaped the intellectual space within which Anglo-American social thought and research operated. In the end, the irreducible element in the equation, ordering white intellectual space and operating as a springboard for shaping and reshaping its geography, was white supremacy. Race and white supremacy were elemental to the configuration of capitalism itself. Social Darwinism and the hereditarian research program, therefore, while constituting a “science” of race, were ideologically linked to capitalism and its relationships of production. Race, as an ideological category was a decisive part of the ideological production of the social structure based on race and class inequalities.
When sociology appeared as an academic discipline in the1890’s there was no rush to examine the race problem. Early white academic sociologists wrote no books on it and only a scattering of articles. McKee (1993:28) points out, “a few brief comments on race appeared in some books such as those by Franklin H. Giddings, E.A. Ross, and Lester F. Ward.” Furthermore, little concerning race appeared in the first five volumes of the new sociological journal The American Journal of Sociology. Ross (1991:95) indicates that American social scientists of this era viewed themselves as an intellectual gentry. Coming from upper class families, they were more concerned with the rise of working class militancy and the specter of socialism. They saw class conflict as a threat to the Gilded Age’s notion of American exceptionalism. Class, not race, was viewed as the problem of the age. As a result of vast social and economic changes occurring in the 1890’s, Ross (1991:50) points out that “many social scientists revised the idea of American exceptionalism. They argued that realization of American liberal and republican ideals depended on the same forces that were creating liberal modernity in Europe, on the development of capitalism, democratic politics, and science.” The Schwendingers (1974:97) view these theorists as transitional thinkers, whose ideas manifested the transition from free market to monopoly capitalism. Whether in their laissez faire or monopoly capitalist expressions, the founders of American sociology adhered to the essentially conservative idea that social science had the object of finding the natural laws of social behavior necessary to integrate and stabilize society. These laws revealed themselves, the Schwendigers (1974:97) suggest, in “Ward’s conception of genetic evolutionary processes, in Ross’ assertion that inequality is functionally necessary for the survival of society and in Small’s conception of interest group relationships.” Each of these thinkers drew upon ideas developed by French reformers, going back to August Comte, and the German “socialist of the chair”. The white founders of American sociology, moreover, agreed with the substance of social Darwinism, especially as it related to race. However, Ward, Giddings, Ross and Cooley were what has been described as reform social Darwinist. Theirs was a modified racist view, which believed in guided, or managed, social evolutionary change, to quicken evolutionary social developments in a reputedly “enlightened manner”. Their views, while racist, still understood the central problem of American society to be social class and not race and what they viewed as industrial violence.
The great gulf between their understanding and reality is recognized when one looks at the age objectively and certainly, as Du Bois must have. The era began with the destruction of Reconstruction and the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, followed by the Supreme Court’s declaring the equal accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional (1883) and reaches its high point with the Plessy v Ferguson (1896) decision. Rayford Logan refers to this period in African American history as the nadir. Class conflict was a crucial part of this moment, however, the race issue and its complex relationships to the entirety of class, gender, social and political issues would prove to be the overarching and central question.
In larger historical and political economic contexts, the period 1896 to 1914 (the period when Du Bois produced his main sociological research) was a glorious period for world imperialism and racism. Between 1859 (when Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species was published) and the Boer War of 1902, white Western men conquered, explored, fought over and partitioned among themselves all of Africa south of the Sahara desert. In 1895 when Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Harvard Ph.D., The Great Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, died and The Great Accommodator, Booker T. Washington, delivered his Atlanta Compromise speech. These events occurred at the very moment when Black leadership was passing from the revolutionary democrat Frederick Douglass to the politician of compromise Booker T. Washington. Of Douglass Du Bois said, “in his old age, (he) still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood—ultimate assimilation through self assertion, and on no other terms.” Of Booker T. Washington he declared, “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission.” And his program “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races (Souls: 44, 45).”
Du Bois began his teaching and public careers at a time when the forces of reaction had achieved political, ideological and cultural supremacy. He chose a path based on scientific rigor and an unbending partisanship to the cause of African American equality. In the process he would redefine the social sciences, creating a new paradigm of race and race conflict. Du Bois’ literary and research production is massive. Herbert Aptheker (1989) says it is on “a Dickinsian scale”. Du Bois published books and essays in magazines throughout the world. He edited or wrote for The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Historical Review, The American Sociological Review, Fisk Herald, The Moon, The Horizon, The Crisis, The Journal of Negro History and Phylon. He, as well , contributed weekly columns to newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender (see Aptheker, 1973).
I will in the remainder of this paper demonstrate the dimension of the Du Boisian episteme by presenting how it was worked out in several of his major works I will look at The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), “On The Conservation of Races” (1897), The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), John Brown (1909), and Black Reconstruction (1935) as models. I will indicate the form and substance of a Du Boisian method of conducting social science.
As Du Bois strode from Harvard to assume his place in the world, perhaps his motto would be that of a fellow alumnus of Berlin University, Karl Marx, “Until now philosophers have only explained the world, our task is to change it.” Du Bois was convinced early on that sociology must develop methods suitable to what was then considered scientific standards; methods that would allow that social knowledge be deemed scientific. He was, however, dissatisfied with the ways that the natural and social sciences were discussing race. He would, in order to alter this situation, invent a unique science of race. He explored, in this respect, a wide and complex philosophical terrain. His Harvard and University of Berlin training had allowed him to become conversant in, and acutely sensitive to, the contending philosophical camps of his day. He intellectually engaged the competing claims of pragmatism and European epistemology. Scholars differ about where Du Bois came down philosophically. Robert Gooding-Williams (1991), David Levering Lewis (1993) and Shamoon Zamir ((1995) argue that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind exerted a strong and enduring influence upon him Arnold Rampersad (1976) and Cornel West (1989), on the other hand, claim that Du Bois remained a Jamesian pragmatist. As Rampersad(1976:30) contends, “the overall impact of William James was preeminent.” Du Bois’ sociological and historical studies demonstrate, however, what I consider a synthesis of several philosophical and methodological stances. He, nonetheless, brought a specific philosophical and methodological attitude to the understanding of race; one which acknowledged the plebian and existential orientation of pragmatism as articulated by Emerson and William James, along with its sense of contingency and specificity, the phenomenology and dialectics of Hegel and the inductivist methods of his German professors of economic history Adolph Wagner (1835—1917) and Gustav von Schmoller (1838—1917). Du Bois, at the same time, remained committed to a version of positivism; which is to say, he did not abandon either in sociological or historical research hard data, be it from official censuses, government documents, specific studies, or his own carefully gathered information, most time through well constructed and executed surveys. Du Bois was, at the same time, a masterful ethnographer. Through his ethnographic work he sought to discover that uniquely human dimension of behavior and society; the non-material, the psychological and , if you will, spiritual, dimensions. This would bring him into the domain of anthropology and cultural studies. Yet, Du Bois constructed not merely a distinctive methodological approach to the problems of race, but a distinct episteme, a way of knowing, and for him, changing the world of race relations. Thus, his intellectual commitments can be best understood as deeper then merely methodological, but as epistemic commitments.
To understand these commitments it is necessary to go beyond his academic influences. Alexander Crummell, his mentor in the American Negro Academy, is one such influence. Crummell was an Anglo-African nationalist. Moses (1978: 59) locates Crummell’s Anglo-African nationalism in commitments to Christianity, the destiny of Africa, an authoritarian political style and belief in Black separate institutions. While Du Bois, unlike Crummell and later Marcus Garvey, was not an Anglophile, he, like they, believed in a single destiny for Black folk in Africa and the US. In his 1897 paper before the American Negro Academy “On The Conservation of Races” he argued that Blacks must operate as one union of “200,000,000 black hearts beating in one glad jubilee” and that Negroes in the US should take their place in the vanguard of Pan-Negroism. Present throughout Du Bois’ work is discovered a deep respect for the Haitian Revolution, the slave uprisings of Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner, and significantly mid-nineteenth century nationalism. To this must be added his identification with Frederick Douglass’ call for constant struggle. Here rests the ideological foundations of his theoretical and research projects. His identification with not just Blacks, but the Black struggle, sets boundaries for the manner that he conducted scholarship and thought about the world. This radical politics is asserted forthrightly by Du Bois throughout The Souls of Black Folk, but especially in the chapter “Of Booker T. Washington and Others” (see pp. 42—44).
In large measure the disputes about where to place Du Bois intellectually and politically emerge from the fact that most commentators have failed to examine his effort in epistemic terms. Thus, without coming to terms with epistemic issues and perspectives inherent to his scholarship and political activity it is not possible to accurately locate him and his project. Du Bois’ episteme, in its broad outlines, is holistic—which is to say it was non-reductive and sought to arrive at global or general principles to explain specific events. Hegelian concerns with world history are combined with an acute awareness of contingency, and a sense of the significance of day to day events. This synthesis was first revealed in a paper, “The Large and Small-Scale System of Agriculture in the Southern United States, 1840—1890”, done for Schmoller. He believed it would become the thesis for a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin. The paper looked at the land tenure system in the US South from the bottom up. What we see here from a methodological and philosophical point of view are the influences of the German school of historical economics (headed by Schmoller and Wagner) which according to Du Bois’ class notes, “tries as far as possible to leave the Sollen [should be] for a later stage and study the Geshehen [what is actual] as other sciences have done” (see Lewis, 1993: 142). This view that large patterns emerge only after determining the pattern of particular events mirrored what Du Bois had heard at Harvard from his professors William James and Albert Bushnell Hart.
On the political side Marable (1986) contends Du Bois was a radical democrat. Moses (1986, 1996) and Outlaw (1996) are also right in recognizing Du Bois’ nationalism and Afrocentrism. While Omi and Winant (1986) incorrectly locate Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk in cultural nationalism, thus limiting the range his of nationalist concerns to cultural restoration in the tradition of Edward Wilmot Blyden. Which is not to say that his nationalism did not have a definite cultural, and perhaps more accurately, a civilizational dimension. His sense of culture and African centrality, in significant ways, departs from modern day Afrocentrism in the tradition exemplified by Molefi Asante (1988). Modern day cultural nationalists and Afrocentrists like Asante and West (1995) see Du Bois as a liberal cosmopolitan and integrationist unable to appreciate or understand black nationalism, while liberal integrationists like Appiah (1992) see him as a racial essentialist and narrow nationalist. In some senses, all sides can find in Du Bois the Du Bois they wish to see. If one deconstructs the whole and separates the parts and the whole from their social and historical contexts, it is possible to come up with whatever one pleases to.
Du Bois in the late 1890’s evidences an effort to combine often conflicting views of radical democracy, Black Nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism. He was, though, in the process of development; a process not unconnected to the real world of ideas and Black oppression. It was, after all a period of profound racism and reaction, when the social sciences were that only in name, with very little to say to the nation or Black folk. Du Bois came into the twentieth century with a plan to change that. It is, however, with The Souls of Black Folk that Du Bois, the full and mature intellectual arrives.
Du Bois’ philosophical sensibilities were firmly demonstrated in a term paper titled “The Renaissance of Ethics: A Critical Comparison of Scholastic and Modern Ethics” for a course with William James at Harvard in the academic year 1888-1889. The paper demonstrates extraordinary sophistication and was a harbinger of his future philosophical orientation. It shows common elements to the paper in Berlin, especially in handling the philosophical issues surrounding the mind-matter duality. It, furthermore, suggests that Du Bois and his idol William James diverged sharply on philosophical matters. Rampersad (1976:25) contends “The Renaissance” “is by no means a mature work.” “Du Bois tried to be coherent and methodical” Rampersad argues, “but certain passages show an unsure grasp of his material, as well as attempts to conceal his uncertainty by bold assertions and ambiguous suggestions (1976:26).” Contra Rampersad, I would suggest, that when working out complex problems, uncertainty need not be a curse, but can be a blessing. Rampersad would have had Du Bois affect a certain pose more characteristic of certain modern academics, who act like they know what they see only through a glass darkly. Or to do what logical positivists have perfected, the rush to reduce knowledge to logical statements, and on this basis declare them truth. Du Bois , even as an undergraduate, had better instincts then to make either of these mistakes, and would avoid them for most of his life. Zamir (1995:59) believes the strength of the work is in its attempt to resolve the late 19th century dualism of psychology of mind and science by historicizing ethics and ethical choices. He sees Du Bois drifting from Jamesian ethical relativism to historicism. Du Bois , thus combines a sense of agency, with a beginning recognition of its restraints by history. David Levering Lewis indicates that Du Bois approached the perennial mind-matter problem in a way not unlike Marx in Kapital and Engels in Anti-Duhring. He (1993:95) argues, “Marx and Engels maintained that the structure and laws of the world became revealed through the manipulation (engagement) of the forces of nature. Essentially, ‘The Renaissance of Ethics’ waveringly arrived at the same conclusion: ethical imperatives arose out of the interaction of mind and matter, as both became transformed and purposive through willpower.” James commented upon the thesis of the paper that he (James) believed there was an unbridgeable chasm between facts and ethical beliefs. David Levering Lewis (1993:95) insists, “the philosophical distance between James and Du Bois would grow as the latter soon became committed to a program of finite investigation, incremental accumulation of data, and confidence that unity of knowledge and the discovery of truth, behind or beyond mere contingency of which he wrote in his Philosophy 4 essay, was with perseverance and intellect, possible.”
To understand Du Bois’ approach to the social sciences and the methods he used in The Suppression of the Slave Trade, The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk and in constructing the department of sociology at Atlanta University, these intellectual foundations are vital. In a certain way they made his approach to the discipline profoundly unique. He throughout his sociological research asserts that right and wrong are involved in social matters and that scientific knowledge is a method of their discovery. The activist manner that Du Bois framed and conducted the research for The Philadelphia Negro, his belief, as stated there, that knowing should lead to action and public policies to correct wrongs, in important ways can be traced back to his stated beliefs in “The Renaissance of Ethics”. Indeed, there remained throughout Du Bois’ sociology this uniting of research, theory, public policy and practice. We discover, as well, in his work the notion that research should be purposeful and knowledge construction and research be part of social transformative activity. That the social scientist is engaged and must be so, is because of the nature of social science. And thus the sociologist is by the nature the discipline compelled to a certain amount of intellectual engagement. Moreover, his intellectual practices are as significant as the texts themselves. And certainly the “The Renaissance of Ethics” informed an intellectual practice that produced The Suppression and The Philadelphia Negro. The practice of engagement, therefore, was certainly not rooted in either pragmatism, or Kantian rationalism and its transcendental approach to discovering ethical principles. Du Bois throughout his life would assert a praxis of mass involvement and a commitment to the African American people.
His most important works, moreover, have that rare quality of being paradigmatic; that is, setting the broad philosophical and conceptual outlines of disciplinary research. In this respect, his work in both sociology and history established an alternative research program to the dominant ones in the US academy. His scholarships in history, sociology, social history, political economy and his artistic production in his novels, plays and poems have that quality of taking on fundamental questions in a scientific and courageous manner. This gives a timeless quality to his most important work and many of his historical predictions. Of this kind is Du Bois’ brilliant prediction at the beginning of this century that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. The lasting significance of this prediction is that in making it, Du Bois did not absolutize the issue of race by suggesting that it would be the only problem of this century, nor did he separate race from the manifold problems that emerged in the twentieth century. He throughout his life continued to evolve and expand the notion of the color line. What his scholarship and research did was to verify the interactive relationship between race, class and the multi-level configurations of the social structure of modern society. Of deep significance is how Du Bois conceptually arranged the race-class-social structure problem. His causal sequence places race in a determining position with respect to class and social structure. This in its development would constitute a major break with previous social theoretic constructions of the problem. Furthermore, Du Bois articulated race in a global context. He connected it to the colonial and the world economic systems. He insisted the twentieth century could not be understood unless the issue of race was understood.
Whereas modern European social theory associates modernity variously with new class arrangements (Marx), the rise of new relationships of status, prestige, state and bureaucratic arrangements and the centrality of the individual (Weber) and the appearance of anomie and normlessness (Durkhiem), Du Bois contended that the central feature of modernity is race. He is , thus, the only major theorist of modernity to come to grips with race and race oppression as overarching and overdetermining in the formation of the modern world.
Du Bois’ skills as a researcher in sociology and history were magnificent. These were no where better
demonstrated than in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard and The Philadelphia Negro. Few sociologists would deny that he is one of American sociology’s major pioneers. However, his place as an innovator and a full recognition of the enormity of his contribution has not yet occurred. In a sense, sociology has only dealt with him in passing and his contribution only superficially.
Green and Driver (1980:39) insist, Du Bois rightly deserves a place among the giants of sociology for his work during the years 1896-1910, when sociology was being established as an academic discipline. Along with establishing a department of sociology at Atlanta University, he created a sociological laboratory, instituted a program of systematic research, founded and conducted regular sociological conferences on research, founded two journals (Crisis and Phylon: A Journal of Race Relations), attempted to organize a sociological society in 1897, or eight years before the American Sociological Society. Moreover, he established a record of valuable publications which has rarely been equaled by any sociologist.
Du Bois’s department at Atlanta University was the second to be established in the US. Albion Small set up the first at the University of Chicago in 1892. The sociological laboratory and the Atlanta University Conferences he directed made his department unique. The Atlanta Conference met annually between 1896 and 1914 and produced The Atlanta University Publications, consisting of 18 monographs. Stark (1994:27) points out that,” [f]rom 1896 through 1914 Du Bois published a book based on his sociological research every year and wrote many articles and gave many speeches as well.” But unlike other sociology department Du Bois’ was centered upon Black people and a strong anti-eugenics and anti-hereditarian program. In 1898 in an article entitled “The Study of the Negro Problems”, printed in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, he wrote, “The present period in the development of sociological study is a trying one; it is the period of observation, research and comparison—work always wearisome, often aimless, without well settled principles and guiding lines and subject ever to pertinent criticism 1973:70).” He was convinced that the Negro was a worthy subject of serious sociological inquiry. He dreamed, as Lewis (1993:219) indicates, of a laboratory that could inform the wider public of the conditions of a “concrete group of living beings artificially set off by themselves.” He anticipated that the Atlanta Conferences would bring together the best minds in the world and his students, in the manner of a University of Berlin seminar, would devour bibliographies and data on the Negro. This annual meeting turned out some of the most influential research of its time and attracted the likes of Max Weber and Franz Boas.
The research Du Bois headed was rigorous and based on the best scientific methods of its time. As he put it, “the Atlanta Conference sought to apply to the study of the Negro problem the methods of sociological inquiry which the trained experience of the world has found most successful, and it seeks to interpret the results in the light of similar data obtained by students the world over (1985:70).” In retrospect, Du Bois’ scientific effort has prevailed over the research program of scientific racism. This in spite of the fact that scientific racism continues to rear its ugly head, as revealed in the publication of The Bell Curve. Du Bois’ emphasis upon race, class and social structure as primary causal factors of social behavior, social action and social conflict subsequently propelled a tradition in American social science that stretches from Franz Boas, to the Chicago School of Sociology and up ‘till the present. Professor E. Digby Baltzell (1967:xxvi) argues that Franz Boas in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), was echoing the findings of Du Bois when he wrote that “the traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and his social status … without falling back upon the theory of hereditary inferiority.”
In a profound sense American sociology still has not caught up to Du Bois. It remains a child of its Gilded Age beginnings and it reluctance to face head on the issue of race and of the complex interactions of race, class and social structure. Nor has it successfully challenged the strictures of pragmatism and positivism. Du Bois’ German education, especially Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and the political economic methods and theories of his German professors Scmoller and Wagner, along with his life long studies of the Black Belt South, gave him a strategic advantage over most sociologists of his time and even of ours.
The Suppression of The African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, according to Herbert Aptheker (1989:11) is “the first full-length product of Afro-American scientific scholarship; as such it is the seed.” It, furthermore, has not been supplanted. Like The Philadelphia Negro that was to follow it, Suppression adheres closely, as Zamir (1995:81) indicates, to the empirical realism of Smoller’s idea of the social sciences and the methods Du Bois had encountered through Hart and others at Harvard. Suppression, Du Bois tells us is “a contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro”, based on “a study of sources, i.e. national, State and colonial statutes, Congressional documents, reports of societies, personal narratives, etc (1896:3).” Zamir (1995:81—82) argues, “It is this emphasis on the centrality of primary documentation and the rigorously localized focus that put Du Bois’s work at the forefront of contemporary developments in American historiography rather than with the more outmoded literary tradition of nineteenth-century historiography represented by figures like Macauly (whom Du Bois had read with relish as a child and then at Fisk), Carlyle, or the American George Bancroft, whose History of the United States from the Discovery of America (1834—87) was informed by a nationalist mythology of heroic achievement and progress buoyed up with inflated liberal and nationalist sentiments.” While seeking to adhere as closely as possible to what seems to be positivist methods, it is clear the work is subversive of American racism and its myth of racial progress. Rather than a narrative about the triumph of liberty, the history of the slave trade is narrated as a series of failures and of the triumph of self-interest over law. He points to the consistent failures to enforce the 1808 act outlawing slave trading, the subsequent growth of the trade, especially after 1820 and he noted the continual calls for the revival of the slave trade. Du Bois attacks America’s continual bargaining and compromising with slavery. In the end, he offered a stinging rebuff to the normal view that American colonial and revolutionary history represented the rise of liberty and democracy. “No American,” he would insist, “can study the connection of slavery with United States history, and not devoutly pray that this country may never have a similar social problem to solve.” He would continue, with a forthright challenge to the ideology of American exceptionalism and progress. “We have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us. Consequently we often congratulate ourselves more on getting rid of a problem than on solving it (1896:197).” In The Suppression Du Bois evinces an approach to history writing that does not exclude advocacy or partisanship. For instance, in it Du Bois commented upon Charles A and Mary R. Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization. In their work, he argued, the impression is left ” that nothing right or wrong is involved”. Their approach manifested a strict historical positivism, which Du Bois would flirt with but rejected. In Suppression Du Bois indicated that two antagonistic systems had developed in the North and South and “they clash, as winds and waters strive”. Du Bois disputed the Beard’s “mechanistic” approach to history, which failed because human experience is not machine- like and humans are not machines. The slave trade and slavery were not inevitable. They manifested actual political and economic interests. These interests were regional , national and international, connected to a world system of capital, slavery and commerce in cotton. Du Bois (1896:153) would contend, the “fatal rise of the slave labor large-farming system, which before it was realized, had so intertwined itself with and braced itself upon the economic forces of the industrial age” would determine the course of US history. This system in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, had changed from “a family institution to an industrial system.” And it would take a “vast and terrible civil war” to displace it. Du Bois, already in his dissertation indicates a point that he will more fully develop in Black Reconstruction, that the slaves were in fact workers, whose conditions of work after 1820 were of an industrial type. This would lay the foundation for his concept of the class struggle as the central dynamic of the anti-slavery struggle. However, he saw the class struggle as being shaped by race and slavery. This view, as we will later show, represented a profound inversion of Eurocentrist Marxism. What is significant for what will become a Du Boisian explanation of US history and society is his concept of the centrality of race to the formation of class and class relationships in the US.
The book was widely and favorably reviewed in among others the Nation, The American Historical Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. According to Aptheker (1989:8), “One of the most discerning reviews … came from the pen of H.T. Kealing of Philadelphia, the editor of the A.M.E Church Review…” Kealing called the book “epochal” and drew attention to its emphasis upon the role of Toussaint, leader of the Haitian revolution. Kealing found its emphasis upon slave militancy and rebellion valuable. Kealing’s review contained the hope, with which most of Du Bois’ work was received by the African American public, that it would help bury “the almost antediluvian conceit of exclusive Caucasian scholarship”. The Suppression was out of print for some fifty years, although it was cited thousands of time. At the same time, relatively recent works like those of Staughton Lynd (1967) and Ronald Takaki (1971) which though covering the same terrain as Du Bois’ Suppression, and while not superseding it totally ignore it. On the other hand recent scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade like that of Joseph Inikori (1986), Ronald Bailey (1992) andClarence Munford (1991) have taken account of the work of Du Bois. Its republication was in 1954 by Social Science Press headed by than doctoral student Eugene Genovese. In this edition Du Bois included a “postlude”–“a short explanation of the omissions in the book”. Of these were what Du Bois considered a certain naivete with respect to human psychology, “which reflected he felt, the pre-Freudian epoch of the book’s production”, and the other weakness which he gave greatest weight, “namely, that of the Marxian analysis”. Du Bois acknowledged the existing economic emphasis in the book, but indicated the absence of the concept of class domination of the State, class struggle and class interest as basic to the historical process. In 1954 he evaluated the book as a good one, which represented a conscientious effort.
Between the publication of Suppression and The Philadelphia Negro, and while polishing the research and language of PN, Du Bois delivered a paper before the American Negro Academy, entitled “On the Conservation of Races”. It can be viewed as a prolegomenon to a general theory of race. It seeks to provide a general concept of races; uniting the general concept of races , or large populations, with the particularity of the African or Negro race. The work proceeds from two compatible, yet not fully worked out notions: first a populationist definition of races, i.e. that races are large groups of people united on the basis of culture and phenotypical characteristics; and secondly, a geno-geographical definition, which suggests gene populations occupy, generally, certain geographic regions of the planet and that language and culture correlates with geno-geographical populations. Both definitions are suggested in the work and provided a foundation for later conceptualizations of race as seen in Dusk of Dawn (1940) and The World and Africa (1947).
Suppression and PN provide enormous empirical and historical data to demonstrate the reality of race, “Conservation” seeks to generalize upon that data. In a concrete sense we witness Du Bois working from the concrete to the general, from specific knowledge to general explanation. Races as he articulated them are constituted on the basis of geography, genes, history and culture. Race is a type of supra-national community of people. The object of the paper, however, was to assert the civilizational equality of the Negro race, with other great races. Africans were one of his eight major races. The paper was to become the basis of scientific research and political agitation for civil and political rights. It used as its foundational assumption that Africans were civilized and more than that Africa was where human civilization originated. He would insist that African Americans, only a little over thirty years out of slavery, still brought much to the table of human culture. From the standpoint of the Du Boisian oeuvre this paper should be viewed as an initial approximation to a more general theory of race and race construction and not his final statement. “Conservation” helps us understand Du Bois’ oeuvre generally, and to understand how each work was a further approximation to a deeper understanding of social complexity. His life’s work should be viewed as a series of approximations, amendments, additions, revisions and rethinkngs, as new evidence and new arguments and explanations come forward. And yet, he would always attempt to empirically verify the categories of his thinking. This paper was, however, given the time, competitively plausible and generally progressive. It, like all of his scholarly and intellectual work, was profoundly political. Du Bois was responding to the racist and colonialist notions of world history. It was a call for Pan African unity. He declared, “We believe that the Negro people as a race have a contribution to make to civilization and humanity, which no other race can make.”
The reactionary political and racial climate which made such a work necessary is suggested in Dusk of Dawn (1940:98). This context helps explain its political and intellectual strategy. It assumes a militant nationalist voice, not heard in either The Suppression or PN; explained, certainly, by its audience, a Black Nationalist led group. In The Souls of Black Folk the militant and political tone in “Conservation” reappears. Du Bois proposes a conceptualization of races which views them as culturally and historically distinct, while each, and significantly Negroes , have contributions to make to civilization. In the graduate schools at Harvard and Berlin race became a matter of culture and cultural history. The history of the world was paraded before the observation of students, Du Bois tells us in his Autobiography. Comparative history was done for the sake of determining superior and inferior races and peoples. The white race, of course had history, and thereby civilization. There was some mention, Du Bois continues, of Asiatic culture, “but no course in Chinese or Indian history or culture was offered at Harvard, and quite unanimously in America and Germany, Africa was left without culture and without history (Dusk of Dawn: 98).”
What most commentators have missed in assessing the paper is that Du Bois was arguing for the conservation of races and peoples as distinct cultural entities, but not in a separatist, insular or invidious ethnocentrist manner. What he was demanding was recognition of both the flowering of and pride among races and peoples, on the one side, and their coming together to form a better humanity on the other. Hence, revealed in Du Bois’ thinking is recognition of a two sided historical process among races, cultures and peoples. A stance that he would champion throughout his life.
But in Black Reconsturction he would define race and the problem of race in far more radical terms.”[H]is fight is a fight to the finish,” he says of the African American struggle. “Either he dies or he wins.. He will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West (1992:703.” In Dusk of Dawn he looks at African American raciality in robust cultural, historical , political and ideological terms. He says, “But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery, the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the south Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa (Dusk of Dawn: 117).”
The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the first major work of American empirical and urban sociology and remains unsurpassed in its methodology, research design, conceptualization, scope and rigor. It should be viewed as the masterwork in the field. Although basically ignored by most scholars it is the preeminent model in urban sociology. With it Du Bois initiated the field. Zamir (1995:89) argues that “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include a more historical assessment of the evidence in his work .” A survey of the urban sociology literature from the Chicago School in the 1920’s to the present indicates an enormous debt to Du Bois. In an appendix to his famous study of the American race situation, An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal, in discussing the need for further research on the Black community stated, “We cannot close this description of what a study of the Negro community should be without calling attention to the study which best meets our requirements, a study which is now all but forgotten. We refer to W.E.B Du Bois’ The Philadelphia Negro…(see Batzell, 1967:ix)” The Philadelphia Negro can be considered part of a larger scientific project, which included Du Bois’ Atlanta Studies. Following his fifteen-month work on The Philadelphia Negro Du Bois was hired as a professor at historically African American Atlanta University. What links Du Bois’ sociological work between 1896 and 1910 (which includes the research on The Philadelphia Negro and the Atlanta Studies) is its empirical orientation, combined with an up close, in the trenches ethnography. Anderson (1996) argues that The Philadelphia Negro is perhaps the first major ethnographic study of an urban population, and that its ethnography, is its highpoint. Green and Driver (1980:37) say “He was firm in his commitment to the use of sociological measurement to describe and delimit social phenomena.” Moreover, “Implicit in this belief was a more general belief in the worth of quantitative, empirically based sociology which, if properly practiced, would form the foundation of social policy.”
The Philadelphia Negro emerges out of the social reform movement of the late 19th century. Du Bois’ scholarship became a central part of that movement. The Settlement House and Social Gospel Movements in the US stimulated early empirical sociological research. Reform minded and activist women like Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, Vida Scudder, Ellen Gates Starr, Dr. Jane Robbins, Susan Wharton and Isabell Eaton were leaders of these early “uplift movements”. The University of Pennsylvania sponsored Du Bois’ research. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis contextualized the intellectual and social situation that Du Bois found himself in.
Du Bois knew his sponsors held a theory about the race to be studied. The city was ‘going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens.’ ‘Something is wrong with a race that is responsible for so much crime,’ the theory ran, and ‘strong remedies are called for.’ Another junior academic (and a minority scholar at that), given the chance to impress rich and pedigreed sponsors for future assignments and fellowships, might have been conscientious about fleshing out the data but neutral or even collusive about their implications. To believe Du Bois, however, he ‘neither knew nor cared’ about the agenda of the reformers. ‘The world was g wrong about race, because it did not know.’ He would teach it to think right. The task was ‘simple and clear-cut’ for someone with his cutting-edge training in sociology. He proposed to ‘find out what was the matter with this area and why’ and he would ask ‘little advice as to procedure’. It was an opportunity-a mandate really–whose scientific and racial implications made the politics behind his appointment unimportant (188-89).

Du Bois’ anti-hereditarian beliefs defined and shaped not only the design of the study, but the fact that he set out to show that social conditions and previous servitude best explained the behavior and social situation of Blacks. As Du Bois states, “The final design of the work is to lay before the public such a body of information as may be a safe guide for all efforts towards the solution of the many Negro problems of a great American city (1899:1).” In 1896 Du Bois understood what many conservative and liberal sociologists have yet not digested, that ghettoization and poverty are not the creations of the poor, but are the result of processes controlled by economic and political forces far removed from the ghetto and the poor themselves. Du Bois argued that poverty, ghettoization and crime were, finally, symptoms of institutional and structural racism. There are present in this work data and analysis, which counter the “culture of poverty”, and social pathology arguments which blame the poor for poverty and which have been reinvented in the 1980’s and 90’s to justify conservative social and economic policies. Du Bois considered the situation of Black folk in Philadelphia “a disgrace to the city–a disgrace to Christianity, to its spirit of justice, to its common sense”. His judgement remains valid.
There is the belief found here which is also found in “Conservation”, that the African Americans are part of the great Negro race based in Africa. And that African Americans exhibit cultural and behavioral patterns found in Africa. For instance, in the section of The Philadelphia Negro devoted to the Black Church he observes that in its organization it repeats the communal feature of African village life (201). The idea of African survivals in the African American community, later asserted by Boas and Herskowitz and disputed by E. Franklin Frazier, has its roots in Du Bois’ engagement with 19th century Black Nationalism. It was his way of arguing that Blacks should not be expected to behalf like white Americans, while he would uphold a certain behavioral norm appropriate to civil society.
Elijah Anderson (1995) indicate that the work anticipates the research of the Chicago School of urban sociology headed by Robert Parks and was preceded by the works of Charles Booth and Jane Addams. Anderson (1995:xviii) points out that “the work of these authors probably served as models for Du Bois.” Du Bois used the same methods as they, including maps, census data, descriptive statistics and in-depth interviews. Because Charles Booth’s influence spread beyond London to New York, Pittsburgh and Chicago and “the works of the Westside Studies and the Pittsburgh Survey, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1914, resemble those of Addams and Booth as well as those of Du Bois. In this perspective, Du Bois may be viewed as a link in the empirical chain engaged in the central social scientific, if not ideological, work of the Settlement Movement (Anderson, 1995: xviii).” However, besides an ideological link that Du Bois had to Hull House and Booth, that link possibly also leads back to mid 19th century Marxism. Aptheker (1989: 17) indicates that the radical critique of Marx and Engels propelled the reformist works of Jacob Riis in the United States in the 1890’s and Samuel A. Barnett and his Oxford and Cambridge colleagues in England a decade earlier. The efforts of Barnett et. al. resulted in the founding of Toynbee Hall (1884) and the Fabian movement that led to the studies of Charles Booth, especially The Life and Labour of the People of London (1889—1891) that eventuated in a massive seventeen volume study completed by 1903. Among the researchers assisting Booth was the young Beatrice Potter (later Beatrice Webb). Jane Addams was a friend of Beatrice Potter, who visited London to observe Booth and his colleagues and was impressed with the work of Toynbee Hall. The Settlement House movement in Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and therefore, traces its roots to Toynbee Hall and Fabian socialism. Thus, reformers and Fabian socialists shaped a significant part of the intellectual environment that Du Bois worked in. Environmental factors that help explain aspects of the work.
Du Bois’ study also parallels Engels’ The Conditions of the Working Class in England. (1845). The Philadelphia Negro’s ethnography and advocacy has much in common with Engels’ work. Du Bois, like Engels, examines the formation of a distinct urban population, for Engels the working class, for Du Bois Philadelphia’s Black community. Engles points to profound demographic changes that flow from changes in technology and class relationships; Du Bois sees the Philadelphia Black community as a distinct population that grew as slavery grew and later declined. Both Du Bois and Engels advocate on behalf of those that are the object of their studies. While Engles calls for socialism and militant class struggle, Du Bois was probably at this point a reformist or Fabian socialist.
Du Bois’ concept of class in PN is racial, social, economic and cultural rather than only economic. Classes are defined on the basis of occupation, education, income, values and behavior. In some ways his concept is of a type of eth-class or race-class that was later articulated by certain sociologists of race and ethnicity. The top tenth were the educated elite, whom he felt were obligated to serve and lead. At the bottom were what he called the “submerged tenth’. This was a declasse stratum. However, all classes among Philadelphia’s Black community were shaped by, and determined on the basis of race oppression and discrimination. Classes are then race-class categories, rather than purely economic classes. However, one finds a sense of the dialectic of race and class as well. The race class phenomenon would repeatedly appear throughout his work. No scholar has so consistently explored this problem as Du Bois did. It would come close to a final resolution in Black Reconstruction.
In spite of his marvelous achievement (The Suppression and The Philadelphia Negro were finished by the time he was thirty) Du Bois a generation later in a favorable review of Harris and Spero’s The Black Worker (1931) critiqued his Philadelphia Negro for a certain “provincialism” which tended to view the oppression of Black people “from the view of religion, humanity and sentiment.” What is undeniable is that PN was a significant contribution to the development of an American sociology. It cannot be overlooked that Du Bois operated in an intellectual environment where social scientific thought and practice were severely impoverished, lacking either methods or firm philosophical groundings to explain the American social structure which was so securely rooted in race.
Souls is a unique Du Boisian effort to philosophically address the problem of race and the failure of American pragmatism and positivism to provide a philosophical framework for a social science of race. In many respects Souls can be viewed as a narrative with Hegel, where Hegelian idealism is inverted. Du Bois’ narrative is based in action, -manifested as a striving, or struggle to achieve freedom. Freedom is understood as achieving a new stage in history. Du Bois rejects both the naive optimism of American exceptionalism and the idealism of Hegelianism. “The history of the American Negro,” he says, “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 older selves to be lost. He would neither 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 Negro blood has a message for the world.” While many Afrocentrist have viewed the Du Boisian notion of double consciousness as a capitulation to whiteness and Eurocentrism, it is in fact a recognition of the reality of being Black in a multi-ethnic state, founded on race oppression. Yet, he also acknowledges in Souls the Native American civilizational presence in America. In the beautiful and sociologically compelling last chapter “The Sorrow Songs” Du Bois speaks of Africa and America. This understanding goes quite a way in explaining how he understood double conscious, or multiple forms of social being in America. “Little of beauty has America given the world save the grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom,” he says. The human spirit as manifested in the white American “expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty.” And then the critical, yet too often overlooked sense of the principal side of the dialectic of double consciousness as Du Bois uses it; he insists, “And so by fateful chance the Negro folk song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as American music, but as the most beautiful expression born this side of the seas.” He then reminds us, “it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people (Souls: 197—198).” This music of an unhappy people, “the children of disappointment; tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” In “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” Du Bois hints at, but does not fully develop, the intermixture of African and Native American culture. “[T] here is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African (Souls: 15).” The sense, therefore, of the doubleness and what he meant by America can be found here. He did not see America as white only, but a mixture of races and cultures. He insists upon an America of Indian, African and Caucasian; and an African or Negro consciousness, expressed in the Sorrow Songs, which preceded America. Doubleness, then is even more complex than merely twoness. It seems from the ways that Du Bois unfolds the concept throughout Souls he is speaking of racial, social and cultural complexity and the forms of African American consciousness in the midst of this complexity. The painful realities of Black life in capitalist America are Du Bois’ starting point.
Du Bois in Souls starts to come to terms with pragmatism. He would not (and did not) countenance self-edifying individualism. He demanded a commitment to the oppressed Black masses. While American pragmatists and Hegelians avoid real history, Du Bois confronts it head on, and seeks to construct a philosophy of real history, and of human action. Souls when viewed in relationship to the research that preceded it is part of a Du Boisian challenge to the limits of the social sciences and philosophy of the time. How, Du Bois seems to ask, to construct a social scientific and philosophical discourse on race at the start of the 20th century. Du Bois understood that the audience for Souls was wide and interracial. However, the text speaks in specific ways to the black talented tenth. He joins the attack upon the compromise policies of Booker T. Washington. He locates the black freedom struggle in the long struggle for democracy and especially the Haitian Revolution. In drawing upon Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and adapting its categoreal grid to understanding the specificities of the US, Du Bois gives to US social science the intellectual tools to understand the complexities of race. Zamir (1995:117) suggests that Du Bois reworks Hegel’s Phenomenology. Most American nineteenth century readings of Hegel were upbeat, justifying the idea of an organically united people, with a historic mission. Du Bois’ critical reading of Hegel is similar to the one that emerges form Marx or Sartre. “What Hegel’s idealist philosophy makes available to Du Bois,” Zamir insists, “is a complex model for thinking about the relationship of consciousness and history(117).” And Du Bois makes a radical rupture with Hegel by anchoring his enterprise in actual history. Yet, like Hegel’s Phenomenology Du Bois acknowledges complexity, contradiction, striving and movement in history and day to day events.
Du Bois in Souls rejects naive psychologism. of the Jamesian and Deweyan types. His examination of the collective souls of Black folk is his way of historicizing psychology. He develops an historically contextualized and contingent notion of double consciousness and of Black strivings which suggests a social psychology which argues that Black folk emerge from a history of oppression and resistance. In the last chapter of Souls, entitled “The Sorrow Songs”, Du Bois locates the Negro Spirituals within the context of the striving for freedom and justice, and the realization of a collective self–a peoplehood. He, however, defines the Sorrow Songs as the central historical narrative of Black folk. “They are,” he tells us, “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Yet, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope–a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” And then he asks, “Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?”
This engagement with the sorrow songs and Du Bois’ locating them as the central narrative of the African American people is also part of his locating the role of the talented tenth. Chapter XII entitled “Of Alexander Crummell” develops a notion of the centrality of the Black masses. Crummell an Anglican priests and ascetic believed that the essential need of freedmen was moral uplift. Du Bois believed their essential need was freedom, civil rights, the vote and education. Crummell believed the talented tenth were a civilizing tenth, which would bring Christianity and thus civilization to the former slaves. Du Bois believed the talented tenth were obligated to serve and that the freedmen through the Sorrow Songs and the anti-slavery resistance had demonstrated they were civilized. Crummell notion of the sublime personality is thus countered by Du Bois’ notion of the sublimeness of a people , whose resistance to oppression had elevated them above their oppressors. Here Du Bois emphasizes the mass and calls upon the intellectuals to enter into an organic relationship to them. Here is found, finally, Du Bois’ belief in an activist, practical and engaged social science. Rather than an intellectual gentry, the social scientists has a moral and professional obligation to be part of the mass that he studies.
The formation of the idea for a study of Reconstruction can be traced to themes Du Bois was writing on at the close of the 19th century and especially the essay in The Souls of Black Folk, “On The Dawn of Freedom”. Of great significance to the formation of his ideas on Reconstruction was his 1909 paper presented at the American Historical Association meeting, entitled ““Reconstruction and Its Benefits”, which was published in the 1910 volume of The American Historical Review. However, I believe the roots of the analysis go back to themes he was researching at the University of Berlin for his doctoral thesis, titled “The Large and Small-scale System of Agriculture in the Southern United States 1840—1890”. The thesis written in the Department of Economics under Gustav von Schmoller, looked the farming system in the South from the bottom up; that is from the standpoint of the peasantry and slaves. Clearly, while building upon the work of Hart at Harvard, Du Bois was showing the influences of the German school of economics and history. The theories of the German Social Democratic Party and one of the many forms of Marxism whirling around him no doubt influenced him. As well, it was a response to the racist interpretation of Reconstruction as evidenced in the film “Birth of A Nation”. By 1924 in The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America Du Bois would begin to make the case that is more fully developed in Black Reconstruction; that the question of slavery and Reconstruction was in the end a question of labor. “The Negro still is the mightiest single group of labor force in the United States (64).” But he would also make the argument that the cause of the Civil War was slavery, and not as main stream historiography had argued, a regional North-South conflict.
We glimpse Du Bois’ methods of inquiry and presentation. Indeed, we get a sense of his unique scientific method. Du Bois worked collectively, actively engaging colleagues from the Niagara and Pan African Movements, as well as, fellow academicians like Rayford W. Logan and Anna Julia Cooper, principal of Washington DC’s elite M Street High School.
John Brown (1909) is an important foundational work in the formation of Du Bois’ notion of Black Reconstruction. While it is an interpretative biography of the white abolitionist who led the armed raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, it is also a study of Jacobin or radical democracy. In some ways John Brown plays a role in Du Bois’ understanding of race, democracy and anti-slavery similar to that played by Thomas Munzer, the early 16th century German peasant leader in Engels’ conceptualization of German history. John Brown and Thomas Munzer were prototypes and metaphors to explain larger historical forces. Du Bois’ study of John Brown was part of a larger research project that would eventuate in Black Reconstruction. In a sense Brown for Du Bois and Munzer for Engels were revolutionaries in what might be conceived of as pre-revolutionary times. Both were defeated and executed.
The book John Brown is what a leading Black fighter for full freedom in the twentieth century thought of the great Martyr–himself white–in the struggle for freedom in the nineteenth century. Herbert Aptheker contends, Du Bois’ “interpretation emphasizes that John Brown’s uniqueness stemmed from the reality that he was a white an in nineteenth-century United States who had consciously burned racism out of himself.” In this sense it is part of Du Bois’ larger anti-racist research agenda. Brown, himself becomes a metaphor for what was possible for white anti-racists, yet what was seldom realized. In the preface to John Brown, Du Bois states,
John Brown worked not simply for Black Men–he worked with them; and he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot- The story of John Brown, then, cannot be complete unless due emphasis is given this.

It was this identification which led him to make the supreme sacrifice. More than a record, the book is a tribute to the white man Du Bois says, “has come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk”. John Brown Du Bois believed was an exemplar of a white Jacobin tradition in US history. He saw that quality that most African Americans seek out in their white fellow citizens. John Brown was also the product of profound historical forces and the example of the individual who fights to be on the correct side of history. Lastly, Du Bois drew attention to the manner in which John Brown led his life. Du Bois insisted,
He sought them [Black people] in home and church and out on the street and hired them in his business. He came to them on the plane of perfect equality–they sat at his table and he at theirs.
Du Bois in John Brown cites what became his life’s motto: “the cost of liberty was less than the price of repression”. Du Bois praises John Brown’s guiding principles, “the Hebrew religion” and the French revolution. Moreover, according to Aptheker (1989:94), Du Bois was in this volume thirty to forty years ahead of US historiography in demonstrating the insurrectionary and revolutionary spirit of the slaves, the significance of the slaves self initiative and organization and what would later appear in Black Reconstruction, the “deepest realities of slavery, the expansionism of the slave system and the nature of Reconstruction and its overthrow in 1876.” Du Bois by examining the life of John Brown was exploring white consciousness and behavior on race. He would finally conclude that the majority of whites were not capable of such anti-racist heroism as John Brown. Du Bois’ John Brown was out of publication for over fifty years, until 1962. Aptheker indicates that the white commercial press generally ignored its republication, although the African American public warmly received it.
In Black Reconstruction, his “magnum opus”, Du Bois theoretically develops and justifies the idea of the centrality of the struggle for African American equality to American democracy. Professor Stanley Aronowitz (1981: ix) called Du Bois the “greatest” of the 1930’s Marxist scholars and his Black Reconstruction a “path-breaking historical treatment” in “the tradition of Marxist historiography”. In this book one gets a sense of the ways Du Bois conducted scholarship, of how ideas were germinated and nurtured over years and how he finally developed and presented them. We furthermore witness how Du Bois’ scholarship is connected to current social and political events. The radical tone of the work cannot be separated from the Great Depression and the radical politics of the time. In fact, the last chapter is boldly titled “The Propaganda of History”, contending that history has been used to advance certain racial and class positions over others. In many ways Black Reconstruction can be compared with Frederick Engels’ The Peasant War In Germany. Both are shaped to address politically pressing questions of the moment from the standpoint of an analogous political moment. For Engels the German peasant uprising of 1525 was used to explain the German revolution of 1848—1850. Du Bois used the civil war and Reconstruction to indicate the direction of US history and to assert the centrality of the Black struggle to democracy and revolutionary transformation in the 20th century.
Given the liberal tenor of the country in the 1930’s, the book received a positive reception and an enthusiastic response from Afro-American periodicals and journals. Du Bois’ long associate in Pan African efforts, the immanent historian Rayford Logan, said that Black Reconstruction revealed Du Bois “as both the merciless critic and constructive historian.” “The real value of this epoch making book” according to Logan, is that it is “the first Marxian interpretation of this crucial period.” Historian Charles Wesley portrayed Du Bois as a “lyric historian, the literary knight with the plumed pen.”
In this book, Du Bois emphasizes the momentous impact upon the nature of American society, and therefore upon world history, of the failure to democratize the South, which is what the defeat of Reconstruction, signified for him. Du Bois also sought to make clear that Reconstruction was an episode in the entire, worldwide struggle of the rich against the poor. Property and property relationships shape his thesis in the book. He emphasized not only the specifics of the land question in the South but the entire matter of property rights; indeed, he called one of the most pregnant chapters in this book “Counter-Revolution of Property”. Du Bois understood the question of property to be central to the State and democracy. “In this sense”, Aptheker (1989: 251) says, “Du Bois saw the story both of Emancipation and Reconstruction as an essential feature of the story of labor … in the generic sense of those who had to work to make ends meet.” But chattel slavery turns Blacks as human beings into property, not just their labor power. What this produces is a situation where the race struggle inevitably shapes the class struggle. Aptheker raises in this context important theoretical questions that are present in Du Bois’ effort. For instance, Du Bois’ notion of Radical Reconstruction included the possibility of a proletarian dictatorship. He later backed away from such a notion contending that the “the state of South Carolina and country was not ready for that dictatorship of the proletariat which might have come in a later development and in other surroundings.” Herein rest the important question of the relationship of the struggles for democracy to that for socialism. It might even be suggested that Du Bois conceived of Reconstruction as a continuation of John Brown’s armed activity in 1855 and raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859; perhaps assuming a generally proletarian revolutionary situation issuing out of the Civil War. What was clear is that Du Bois believed in a radical democratic, or Jacobin, solution to the race question in the South. And this undertaking Aptheker (1989:90) forcefully argues, “would almost certainly require—like the Civil War—the shedding of much blood.” Du Bois , no doubt, viewed himself as continuing in the Jacobin tradition of Nat Turner, the Haitian Revolution, John Brown and Frederick Douglass.
The theoretically most innovative and engaging chapter in the book is Chapter Four, “The General Strike”. Here Du Bois affirms a revolutionary agency for the Blacks slaves, whom he defines as workers. What must, however, be acknowledged is that Du Bois was applying his massive genius to understanding Reconstruction as part of a scientific effort to discover the foundations of institutional and legal racism in the United States and its overturn. The race and class dialectic and their interpenetration in the formation of the struggles for radical democracy are primary focuses of the work. His scientific accomplishment, therefore, should be placed in the context of his effort to define the logic of democratic transformation in the context of the race problem. Hence, this book seems to signal the full maturity of Du Bois as a theoretician of social change.
This paper views Du Bois as a seminal thinker in the social sciences. Moreover, it looks upon his development of social theory and research not as a trickle down from, or black face imitation, of white thinkers. His intellectual and scholarly practices emerge from his racial, political, professional and ideological positions within US society. The ways that he thought about the world and attempted to resolve both theoretical and practical problems cannot be separated from these relationships. His thinking emerged from an intellectually and politically hostile environment, where his status was always marginalized. Yet he was more than a leader of protest against these circumstances; he critically analyzed and constructed theories to explain them. I differ, therefore, with Elliot Rudwick (1968) and August Meier (1963) who see Du Bois almost solely as a propagandist of protest and in the process misrepresent the depth of his contributions to social theory. Rudwick (1968:49) contends that Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro and the Atlanta Studies “were lacking in systematic theory”. Du Bois’ research, he asserts, was essentially geared to propaganda. “The Atlanta studies,” he tells us, “may not have improved the conditions of the race very much, but they probably did improve its morale.” Francis L. Broderick (1959:228), however, makes one exception. The Philadelphia Negro represented, he tells us, Du Bois’ only first class scholarship. These writers exemplify the racist treatment Du Bois’ work has received from white academics.
Arnold Rampersad’s The Art and Imagination of W.E.B Du Bois (1976) takes Du Bois seriously as an intellectual, yet falls into the trap of searching out what are believed to be all of the white influences on him. Rampersad expresses the view that Du Bois, with differing levels of success and accuracy, reflects the ideas of one or another white theoretical or philosophical mentor. The Souls of Black Folk, Rampersad argues, is “The fruit of a secondary career of cultural commentary, based on history and sociology… a work of definitive importance to the future of Black culture (1976:48).” What Rampersad fails to acknowledge is that the work is foundational to the construction of a social science of race. Cornel West (1989), like Rampersad, views Du Bois as part of the history of American pragmatism. “Du Bois” West insists (1989:139) “seems to have been attracted to pragmatism owing to its Emersonian evasion of epistemology-centered philosophy, and his sense of pragmatism’s relevance to the Afro-American predicament.” He was a Jamesian organic intellectual for West. Du Bois, therefore, is a less seminal thinker then the pragmatist whom he allegedly followed. Reducing Du Bois within the frame of pragmatism or another European or Euro-American intellectual movement carries with it the idea that Du Bois was actually an intellectual utilitarian who eclectically, and without concern for their foundations, graft ideas together to make a propaganda point. Hence, he was not a serious or critical thinker. Others, such as Marable (1986) and Moses (1988) see Du Bois almost solely from the standpoint of political activism and attempt to locate him politically, failing to locate the philosophical and theoretical foundations of his politics. Adolph Reed’s W.E.B Du Bois and American Political Though: Fabianism and the Color Line (1997) attempts to locate the philosophical and theoretical foundations of Du Bois’ politics. He contends (1997:4) “little book length scholarly work has concentrated on the theoretical dimension of Du Bois’s political thought.” Yet, Reed, like Rampersad and West, believe, ultimately, that it is impossible for Du Bois to stand on his own as a thinker. And when he does he usually falls on his face. For Reed Du Bois not only operated within a certain political and intellectual context of his time, but was basically not unlike white thinkers of the period.
Du Bois, however, has to be dealt with on his own terms. His work must be judged from the standpoint of the theoretical, philosophical, methodological and ideological problems they sought to address and solve. He looked at the social universe very differently from white thinkers of his day (and of most even of our time). He saw what they did not see. But more then this he, in the process, developed a unique way of examining the world. Du Bois placed race as the central dynamic of modernity. In so doing he understood race as a set of complex global relationships, including as his studies of the US South indicate, relationships of production. This I consider to be a major innovation in social thinking. In Kuhnian terms it could be considered a paradigm shift, not alone in US letters, but in the world’s understanding of itself. This suggests that to one or another extent European social theories of modernity in one or another way express false consciousness
My basic contention in this paper is that as a thinker stands on his own. However, his innovations in thought were not just a “black thing”, they were crucial to the world’s understanding of itself. His insights, and the research program that flowed from them, developed over the course of more than seventy-five years of research, activism and reflection. In the end, what was produced was a distinct episteme, which I call a Du Boisian episteme. The Du Boisian episteme is a distinct intellectual product which cannot be accounted for merely by, as most have done, talking about where he went to school , who his professors were and how his views parallel those of dominant white thinkers. Moreover, through most of his life his intellectual audiences, scientific environments and colleagues were Black. These organic ties have been poorly researched. They are, however, decisive in explaining and understanding his thought. work Du Bois, rather than merely leaning on others, constructed an intellectual and scientific edifice upon which others are now standing.
It behooves African American Studies to examine and understand the foundations upon which Du Bois stood, because in large measure they are our intellectual foundations. We have, in the end, only barely begun to construct an organized understanding of the core of Du Bois’ intellectual vision, and that from which his thought and life radiated. This paper has been an effort to get at that core.
Du Bois’ place in intellectual and political history must also be evaluated from the standpoint of how it can shape the future geography of ideas. It should not, as Reed (1997) has done, be limited to the Jim Crow period of American history. Du Bois’ central contribution is to the conceptualization of race and modernity. His thinking constitutes a strategic break with the Eurocentric paradigm. His was a specific anti-racist episteme. One that recognized social change as being rooted in the worldwide struggle to alter relations of racial oppression. The Du Boisian episteme lays the basis of a progressive research program that should become the property of African American Studies as it prepares to enter the 21st century.
But all of this indicates a challenge to the hegemonic discourse on race as constructed by white supremacy. To traverse the paths from white social science to a social science of African American liberation Du Bois constructed an episteme, a linguistic strategy and a discourse of Black power.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
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