Photo by James E. Purdy (1859 – 1933). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object Number NPG.80.25.
African American, Cultural Theory, Sociology
William Edward Burghardt DuBois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was one of the most influential figures in African American studies and American history. Born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he traveled south to Fisk University, a historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned his BA in 1888. That same year, he enrolled at Harvard College as a junior, where he graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1890 and a MA in history1891. He pursued his PhD at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin with a grant from the Slater Fund. When denied additional funds for his studies, he returned to the U.S. to complete Harvard’s doctoral program in history, becoming the first Black Harvard PhD graduate (1895). As an instructor and professor, he taught Classics at Wilberforce University; at Atlanta University, he taught classes in history and economics for thirteen years. Du Bois was very politically active; alongside several Black leaders, he co-founded the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and organized Pan-African conferences. Becoming a definitive voice in literature and sociology, he served as the editor for The Crisis, NAACP’s journal, and published sociological studies, historical accounts, essays, and novels.
Du Bois’s influence extends to folklore studies. His writings highlight Black folklore and critique his era’s ethnographic practices. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), one of Du Bois’s most notable works, he underscores the complexity of Negro spirituals, demonstrates Reconstruction’s failings, advocates for social justice, and draws on Johann Gottfried Herder’s theories of folklore and nationalism. Du Bois situates African American folklore (and thus African Americans) as undeniable contributors to American culture. In this book, Du Bois adopts the role of native ethnographer, a view that enables him to describe the “double-consciousness” of African American life. Such positionality challenged the claims of scientific authority by sociologists and folklorists who studied African Americans.
Du Bois’s other works also probe ethnographic practices and assumptions about Blackness. The Philadelphia Negro (1899), his groundbreaking sociological study, highlights the heterogeneity of Black communities, and Darkwater (1920) reflects on the assumptions of native ethnography and subverts the ethnographic gaze, which was linked to a white, colonialist positionality, by discussing the construction of whiteness.
Du Bois received many honorary degrees and awards. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Du Bois’s most important works for folklore include:
The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920)