Du Bois died on this day in 1963, a day before the March on Washington. He had contributed to The Nation for many decades, perhaps most notably with his essay from 1956, “I Won’t Vote,” excerpted in our recent 150th anniversary issue. The magazine first took notice of Du Bois in 1903 when he published The Souls of Black Folk, a searching and unsurpassed examination of what it means to be black in America. The Nation, founded by abolitionists but led, for most of the ensuing three decades, by men who hoped the whole question of the role of black people in American society would just go away, nonetheless gave the book a very positive review. While dabbling in obviously antiquated stereotypes and “other”-ing Du Bois to a now-embarrasing degree, the anonymous appraiser nonetheless lavishes praise on Du Bois and his work.
Mr. Du Bois has written a profoundly interesting and affecting book, remarkable as a piece of literature apart from its inner significance. The negrophobist will remind us that Mr. Du Bois is not so black as he has painted himself, and will credit to the white blood in his veins the power and beauty of his book. But the fact is, that the features of Mr. Du Bois’s mind are negro features to a degree that those of his face are not. They are the sensibility, the tenderness, the “avenues to God hid from men of Northern brain,” which Emerson divined in the black people. The bar of music from one “Sorrow Song” or another which stands at the head of each chapter is a hint (unintended) that what follows is that strain writ large, that Mr. Du Bois’s thought and expression are highly characteristic of his people, are cultivated varieties of those emotional and imaginative qualities which are the prevailing traits of the uncultivated negro mind. Hence one more argument for that higher education of the negro for which Mr. Du Bois so eloquently pleads. Such education of ten thousand negroes would be justified by one product like this….
Clearly, the burden of Mr. Du Bois’s complaint, not explicitly, but implicitly at every turn, is made more grievous by the denial of social equality to himself and his people. In the urgency of this note is there not possibly a lack of the profoundest self-respect? If Mr. Du Bois can sit with Shakespeare and Plato, and they do not wince at his complexion, why should he care so much for the contempt of Col. Carter of Cartersville [i.e. a typical white Southerner]? Why not trample on it with a deeper pride? A society based on money values may reject such a man as scornfully as one based on the tradition of slavery, but a society based upon character and culture will always welcome him though he were blacker than the ace of spades, not as showing him a favor, but as anxious to avail itself of his ability.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.