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W.E.B Du Bois is one of the renowned scholars in the field of history, civil rights activism and above all, sociology. There is an interesting story of his life, deep-rooted in his well-spent years of success in the career of sociology. W.E.B Du Bois won several honors in the United States and other countries since the 1900s. His memory still lives at the University of Pennsylvania and Hampton University where dormitories are named after him. His life was marked with achievements that left him an unending legacy that would follow him to his grave even after August 1963. A sociologist’s story cannot be deemed complete if the life is not described in stages accompanied by biography to their work and contributions in their careers. This paper, therefore, discusses this sociologist, presenting his early life and education, choice of his scientific career, contribution to sociology and his influence, and the implication of his work in the contemporary society.
In Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Alfred and Mary Silvina Burghardt gave birth to William Edward Burghardt on February 23, 1868. His father, Alfred Du Bois was born in Haiti but immigrated to the United States in 1860 and later married Mary Silvina. When W.E.B Du Bois was just 2 years old, his father divorced Mary Silvina. She went back to her parents’ house where she brought him up with support from neighbors and brothers. His mother died of a stroke in 1885 the same year W.E.B Du Bois joined college. In the integrated local public school where whites attended, Du Bois received good treatment and pulled through his early childhood education amidst struggles.
Approaching adulthood, he started writing about racism. The teachers noticed his impressive skills and intellect both in and out of the classroom, and they motivated him to write even more. He figured out that he could use the skill to fight for the rights of African Americans. He did not know this skill would lead him to become a remarkable Civil rights activist in the United States. He graduated from Searles High School and joined a college in Nashville, Fisk University until 1888. Historically, Blacks mainly attended this institution and was hence known as a college for blacks. Du Bois received help from the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington and neighbors in order to pay for college fees.
His life at Fisk College and later in Harvard University was filled with racial segregation enforced through Jim Crow Laws in the Southern United States. For instance, during his time in school, Black voting was not allowed and Harvard did not offer degrees to African Americans, specifically, graduates from Fisk University. Du Bois attained his second bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard in 1890. While he was at Harvard, his passion for sociology grew under the influence of a famous American Philosopher, William James who was then his professor. He landed a scholarship in 1891 to Harvard Sociology graduate school where he studied sociology. During his three year stay at Harvard, he borrowed money from his friends and received gifts from church to pay for his tuition fees. He later traveled to Berlin, Germany in 1892 where he met social scientists such as Heinrich Treitschke and Gustav Schmoller. In 1985, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
While in Germany, he discovered something within himself, which he had never experienced in the United States. He realized that people could be equal despite their skin color. His interaction with the Germans and the way they treated him as their equal elevated his self-belief and aggravated his thirst for more knowledge about social life. His discovery in Germany was that he was “…just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank…” whom the German white folks were glad to meet and walk the world. On the contrary, the racial segregation he faced in the South and at Harvard was a blow to his belief in life. These two distinct events caused him more quest to find his inner-self and understand life in depth.
In 1894, when he started his work at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he met Alexander Crummell, an African nationalist and an ordained Episcopal priest who laid the foundation of Pan-Africanism. Crummell had also lectured about American slavery in 1848 in England. He believed morality and ideas are critical for social change. The thinking of Crummell influenced Du Bois to great extent and prompted more thirst for his sociological knowledge. Du Bois later moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1896 where he involved himself with further studies in sociological research. This research became the basis for his “The Philadelphia Negro” which he published three years later.
As history has it, his life was a misery in the hands of poverty, social segregation and oppressive laws, which were created to undermine the non-white races. As a child who grew up as an orphan and lived amongst the white population as a minority, Du Bois’ urge to understand life in depth pushed him to the limits and left him in leaning onto sociology and other social science-related fields. His experience in a society where racial and social segregation was pivoted by state laws stirred his thirst for ‘educated rebellion’. He knew the only way to destroy these vices was through education. Therefore, he purposed to reach the highest spot of social knowledge from where he could approach and reproach the state and society to do away with these social evils.
His career was influenced greatly by the life he experienced as a child, in the South and at the universities he attended. His mentors and fellow scholars also contributed to his choice of career. Furthermore, sometimes we do not choose our careers. It just falls from our interests and at times depends on the environment around which we live in. This happened to Du Bois, and he found pleasure in whatever he did, from sensitizing people on the rights of African Americans, the nuclear disarmament and his sympathy fight against capitalism. His selfless nature came from his childhood and college life experience.
W.E.B Du Bois is well known to set a foundation for the study of sociology by publishing several books on racism and oppression. His name can be adjoined to those of Karl Marx, Max Webber, and Emile Durkheim, in the list of founders of the discipline of sociology. For instance, his contributions to sociology through the development of theories of structural racism, double consciousness, and class oppression left a mark that sociologists have, and will always appreciate. His “The Philadelphia Negro”, a sociological case study on the black community in America was classified among the earliest examples of sociology as a social science. This work was his first publication, published in 1899. He combined his sociological research that he had conducted while in the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant sociologist with census data and came up with graphs that upon interpretation he showed a relationship between racism and the livelihood of people. This study concluded that racism was structural in nature and that it was a social problem affecting African Americans in most cases.
In 1903, his work “The Souls of Black Folk” was published. This was a representation of Du Bois’ own life from childhood experience. This text focused on Du Bois’ life amongst the white people to bring out the consequence of racism on individuals’ psychosocial lives. His use of “veil” and “double consciousness” concepts helped him to illustrate how black people developed a view of the world different from their white counterparts owing to the concept of racism, which forces them to believe in a falsified experience and hence take a different path of social interaction. He associates the “veil” to the black skin by remembering an incidence in his elementary school where a white girl had declined to receive his greeting card. He expressed that this experience made him believe that he was different from the white counterparts. The veil according to him prevented the blacks from perceiving their ability in the right measure and attitude.
He was against capitalism because he saw it as the origin of racism and social stratification. In the ‘Black Reconstruction in America’, a work of his published in 1935 read about class-consciousness where he explained that capitalism leads to class division and racism. He explained that capitalism drifted economic benefits towards one race and left the others suffering. As a result, class divisions were created, whereby the capitalists occupied the top level of the ladder while the rest of the society worked and suffered for the capitalists. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Du Bois was a pioneer of civil rights and his influential work on the context of slavery and racial discrimination laid the foundation of African American rights provision. One year after his death, the United States Civil Rights Act embodied several of the social reforms that he fought for in his life.
W.E.B Du Bois was born in a slightly disoriented and poor background. He observed all the miseries that the black community was subjected to in the United States. He grew up as a poor child and fought his way through the education system despite the difficulties. The hardships he went through softened his heart and when he achieved his academic honors, he used it to fight for the rights of the less privileged in the society. He was a great sociologist who before his death had laid a foundation for future sociologists, achieved great honors. He left a legacy for himself by the time he died in 1963.
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