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The Harlem Renaissance was a time of mass creativity within the black community in the Harlem neighborhood in New York. Their creative abilities shown through many ways such as spoken word and poetry, writing, artistry, and music. The time period also held some great intellectuals and writers such as W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois used his words throughout the Harlem Renaissance to help the African-American people separate from the mainly white city and find themselves as a people through their passions and arts. Through his work as a speaker for the black community as well as his writing capturing the African-American experience, W.E.B. DuBois influenced the Harlem Renaissance with his powerful language.
DuBois’ full name is William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and was born on February 23, 1868. He was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. DuBois was a very intelligent and successful student from an early age and on. He went to a local high school in Great Barrington and later graduated as valedictorian 1884, making him the first black person to graduate from his high school. Later he chose to attend Fisk University in 1885 and this is also where he got his writing start as an editor for the school paper. He stayed there and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1888 then the same year, left and entered Harvard as a junior. He took bachelor cum laude in 1890 and spoke at commencement. He also sought out an education at the University of Berlin, but ultimately ran out of funding. He left without receiving a doctorate and later went back and received one from Harvard while teaching in Ohio at Wilberforce University.
DuBois’ passion for writing is made clear through his wide variety of works and positions working jobs writing. His first experience being the editor for the school paper during his time at Fisk. DuBois also worked in sociology, using his statistical findings in his works. He did a study of Pennsylvania’s Seventh Ward and published the findings under the name The Philadelphia Negro in 1896. This work consumed much of his time to the point he even missed the birth of his son. The concept was much broader than just the just the everyday life of an African-American, it consisted of all the injustices and prejudice of the black man repeatedly experienced. DuBois expresses the power that color prejudice introduces socially in Philly that most didn’t realize. Another important work of his would be Souls of Black Folk published in 1903. Often called an American classic, Souls of Black Folk “offers an assessment of the progress of the race, the obstacles to that progress, and the possibilities for future progress as the nation entered the twentieth century”. He introduces many terms, that encompass the black experience as well. One of them being the concept of the “the veil”. DuBois described the veil as an experience only had by African-Americans within which they went through oppression. For the black person it was an easy task to understand the world in the veil as well as the one outside of it, but not for white people. White people couldn’t understand the effect of the veil because they were not only unable to understand the black experience. Also they were not able to realize that the veil not only served as insight into the average prejudice black people went through, but is also another shape of oppression. African-Americans and the veil exist together, so without the black experience there would be no veil. Another key concept would be the concept of “double consciousness”. Double consciousness refers to the 2 identities that are forced onto an African-American upon being a citizen in the United States. Having to combine these two identities prove to be very difficult as one cannot be only “Negro” or an “American” especially with it not being in a land where they aren’t wanted or a land that doesn’t belong to them.
DuBois is seen by many as one of the “fathers” of the Harlem Renaissance. His arguments and political and social views helped free many African-Americans with their arts and socially. Dubois coined the phrase “The Talented Tenth” as a proposed way to improve the social conditions of the African-American people. He explains “The Talented Tenth as, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races”. He is saying that only exceptional African-American will lead their people and steer them away from the bad in everyday life. Believed that one out of every ten black men could one day be a leader by educating them, work, showing the importance of their culture, and social activism. In 1905, DuBois and another man named William Monroe Trotter started a civil rights organization after not being allowed entrance into hotels in New York a group of black business owners, teachers, and church goers gathered at Niagara Falls and that’s where the group got its name. The group’s view openly opposed those Booker T. Washington’s view of accommodationism meaning where he states that “African-Americans should accommodate themselves to racial prejudice and concentrate on economic self-improvement”. DuBois rejected this view and believed that the only way stop segregation was through gaining political power, protests to irritate, and through greater education to the African-American youth. One of the most influential and impactful ways DuBois helped change the world in the Harlem Renaissance was with his hand in the co-founding and creation of the NAACP. It was founded in New York in 1909 in response to Springfield race riot in Illinois in 1908. Many of the original members were from the Niagara movement. The NAACP quickly attached itself to DuBois’ racial pride and the right to expression in the black culture, mixing to become what is called the “New Negro Movement”. The NAACP also played a huge role helping the African-American community reach their full potential, especially in Harlem, New York. It helped push an Anti-Lynching Bill in 1918 and continued to back it through passage. DuBois even found a way to voice his political views and use the outlet promote young African-Americans through the NAACP in the form of the paper “The Crisis”. In his writings in the paper he helped black literature evolve and flourish through his writings like essays or papers. The paper covered a multitude of subjects ranging from education, labor, women’s suffrage, and war. The Crisis shared the same mission as the NAACP give people equal opportunities without discrimination based on race. This worked as The Crisis became one of the most highly read papers that spoke on social injustice for black people of U.S. history. DuBois also made vocal his political view of Pan-Africanism. To many the concept of Pan-Africanism was seen as a question proposed to each newly freed black person: to buy into and integrate in American life or get back to the “roots” of the African parts of the culture deeply embedded in them. Ultimately the goal was to bring together all of those that share the African roots if any kind under one name.
The Harlem Renaissance was a time of evolution and as a whole was more than just a time of music and art. It symbolized the start of a long journey for African-Americans to separate themselves from the white social society and create their own culture. W.E.B. DuBois realized that it was a time for change and used his political views and spoke about the involvement of intellectuals to help spur that change. DuBois used the beauty of his writing to give his voice be heard, all for the advancement of his people and those same words still hold even power even today.
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