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W. E. B. DuBois—On the Sociology of American Blacks

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Portrait of W. E. B. DuBois, c.1900

W. E. B. DuBois received graduate training at Harvard and the University of Berlin in history, economics, and sociology. Early in his career he focused on empirical sociology, committing himself to the study of black culture in the United States. After teaching classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio for two years, he was hired in 1896 by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a sociological study of blacks in Philadelphia. The results of his research were published in 1899 under the title The Philadelphia Negro. In 1897 he accepted a position in history and economics at Atlanta University, where he took over the responsibility for the Atlanta Conferences.

The Atlanta Conferences were devoted to conducting systematic sociological studies of the conditions of blacks in the United States. The results of these studies, edited by DuBois, were published in sixteen annual reports (1898–1914). These reports represent the most systematic sociological research of that period dealing with blacks in America. In an article published in 1904, DuBois explained:

The object of the Atlanta Conference is to study the American Negro. The method employed is to divide the various aspects of his social condition into ten great subjects. To treat one of these subjects each year as carefully and exhaustively as means will allow until the cycle is completed. To begin then again on the same cycle for a second ten years. So that in the course of a century, if the work is well done we shall have a continuous record on the condition and development of a group of 10 to 20 millions of men—a body of sociological materials unsurpassed in human annals. Such an ambitious program is of course difficult to realize.

DuBois was acutely aware that the sociological studies he was undertaking were limited by the newness of sociology as a field—one in which the work was "always wearisome, often aimless, without well-settled principles and guiding lines." At the same time, he was sensitive to the need to develop new methods and techniques that would expand sociology as a science:

The present condition of sociological study is peculiar and in many respects critical. Amid a multitude of interesting facts and conditions we are groping after a science—after reliable methods of observation and measurement, and after some enlightening way of systematizing and arranging the mass of accumulated material.

DuBois felt that conditions in the United States provided a particularly exciting environment "for observing the growth and evolution of society."

For a true science of sociology to successfully develop, DuBois argued that it would be necessary for researchers to limit themselves " the minute study of limited fields of human action, where observation and accurate measurement are possible and where real illuminating knowledge can be had."

For DuBois, the "careful exhaustive study of the isolated group" was ideal. From a thorough study of such groups, it would be possible to develop "cautious generalization and formulation." In his mind, there was no better or more interesting group to study than American blacks:

I think it may safely be asserted that never in the history of the modern world has there been presented to men of a great nation so rare an opportunity to observe and measure and study the evolution of a great branch of the human race as is given to Americans in the study of the American Negro. Here is a crucial test on a scale that is astounding and under circumstances peculiarly fortunate.

Black Americans were isolated as a social group because of "color and color prejudice." They represented a group in which  "the peculiar environment, the action and reaction of social forces are seen and can be measured with more than usual ease." By studying the African-American experience—by interpreting blacks' social condition—DuBois believed that he could address questions such as: "What is human progress and how is it emphasized? How do nations rise and fall? What is the meaning and value of certain human actions? Is there rythmn and law in the mass of the deeds of men—and if so how can it best be measured and stated?"

As a sociologist, DuBois was motivated to understand the consequences of "eight million persons of African descent" living in the United States. He felt that the African-American experience had been neglected because of the sensitivity—both black and white—to color-mixing.

DuBois stated: in America we have not only the opportunity to observe and measure nearly all the world's great races in juxtaposition, but more than that to watch a long and intricate process of amalgamation carried on hundreds of years and resulting in millions of men of mixed blood.

In 1897, the same year that he went to teach at Atlanta University, DuBois delivered an address before the American Negro Academy, an early black scholarly organization, entitled "The Conservation of Races." In this address, DuBois argued for American blacks to act as the "advance guard" in black racial development throughout the world:

...the advance guard of the Negro people—the 8,000,000 people of Negro blood in the United States of America—must soon come to realize that if they are to take their just place in the van of Pan-Negroism, then their destiny is not absorption by the white Americans. That if in America it is to be proven for the first time in the modern world that not only are Negroes capable of evolving individual men like Toussaint, the Saviour, but are a nation stored with wonderful possibilities of culture, then their destiny is not a servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly follow Negro ideals.

DuBois maintained that American blacks were Americans not only by birth and citizenship, but also in terms of religion, political values, and language. Yet, he also saw blacks separate from their American experience:

...members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forests of its African fatherland. We are the first fruits of this new nation, the harbinger of that black to-morrow which is yet destined to soften the whiteness of the Teutonic to-day.

DuBois argued that in order for American blacks to become a vanguard of this "new nation," they would need to establish race organizations, black colleges, black newspapers, black business organizations, black schools of literature and art, and an intellectual clearing house for all of these activities—a "Negro Academy."


Copyright © 2005 by Facts On File, Inc., and Eugene Provenzo.
African-American History & Culture Copyright © 2005 by Facts On File, Inc.