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Many Roles Of W.E.B Du Bois’s And His Journey As An Intellectual

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W.E.B Du Bois can be described as a man of many faces. During his own lifetime he is what would be described as a “Renaissance Man”, playing the many roles of the Scholar/Academic, the Writer, the Activist, the Historian, the Sociologist, the Educator, the Social Critic; the list is seemingly boundless with the things he was able to accomplish in his ninety-five years of life. Additionally, Du Bois, is in his own right, a monumental figure in American history and is indispensable in how we understand the history of race in the United States today. Through his extensive writing, speeches, and theories accompanying the subject there can be many ways that Du Bois can be interpreted by the modern population of the twenty-first century; many viewing him today in a less than flattering light due to the theory that seems to have made the most impact in the public eye even after his overarching career and I believe more substantial later works: his theory of the “Talented Tenth”. As one of the most popular and accessible of his wordy texts, it is the theory that has had the honor of branding Du Bois as an elitist, something that I believe is partially false. If solely looking at his earlier works, then yes Du BOis could be wholeheartedly identified as an elitist, but as I will be making an argument for in my paper, I believe this to be totally false. I will do this by tracking through DuBois’s life (in the years he was active in the public eye) through the historical contexts that helped to shape and change in beliefs as well as most prominent, in my opinion, books and essays during those critical time periods that display his starting thought processes and their seemingly gradual change due to his foray into Marxist theory and socialist thought.

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The first work that I will use to mark Du Bois’s journey as an intellectual will his essay, “The Conservation of Races”. This period of Du Bois’s life was dominated by the creation of his first fully-formed statement concerning the nature and significance of racial differences. Though his early notion of what he believed race to be is virtually distinguishable from the concepts and theories he has regarding race in his later periods, it sets a solid base for the beginning of Du Bois’s logical and theoretical thought. Du Bois’s earliest conception of race appears to rely on three beliefs seen present in his essay: the pragmatic notion of meaning, the primacy of the community, and lastly faith in the talented. Du Bois’s earlier concepts of race dilenates racial groups as communities or units of social action; these groups themselves have special features that allow them to functionally contribute to a definition of their goals, while at the same time having the ability of pushing toward realization of these goals. The goals that each group would view as the most pertinent for themselves would revolve around characteristics they thought of as highly refined cultural expressions, examples being constitutional law, philosophy, and art. The examples listed above would be seen as the crowning achievements of their race that could only be produced by who Du Bois believed to be talented.(DeMarco 1983)

The product of the essay heralded DuBois move from the confines of professional academia and university scholarship to the spheres of public intellectualism and race leadership. It also sets out many of the arguments about race and reform he would continue to have to expand and refine up through the early and middle decades of the next century. Early sections of the essay outline drawbacks and difficulties of scientific attempts to categorize racial groups and also trace the role of race in shaping human history (DuBois offers some evidence of the “universal prevalence of the race idea” and its utility as a means of organizing social and political relations). Moving from the historical to the sociological, he provides brief descriptions of contemporary racial groups before turning to address more specific concerns with the status of the Negro in America. It is here, in the heart of the essay, that he first explores the double-bind of African American subjectivity and raises the questions- “Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?”-that later would be enfolded into his concept of double consciousness. The remainder of the essay examines some of the problems associated with that double-bind and sets out principles of conduct and leadership as well as some practical policies that members of the Negro Academy should follow to fulfill their intellectual and artistic potential and, by extension, uplift the race as a whole In the opening paragraph-prior to the essay’s early sections on the science and history of racial groups-DUBOIS makes a claim about AA’s collective origins and ideals in the late 19th century America: he argues that they approach debates and dialogues on race with deep suspicion because past experience has taught them that such talk, especially when it addresses questions of racial difference, very often is predicated on assumptions of black inferiority. While there may be no consensus about what race comprises, there is a general argument, among AA at least, that it is most accurately perceived and understood in light of the feelings of distrust and disillusionment it engenders:“The American Negro has always felt an intense personal interest in discusssions as to the origins and destinies of races: primarily because back of most disscussions of race with which he is familiar, have lurked certain assumptions as to his natural abilities, as to his political, intellectual, and moral status, which he felt were wrong. He has, consequently, been led to deprecate and minimize race distinctions, to believe intensely that out of one blood God created all nations, and to speak of human brotherhood as though it were the possibility of an already dawning tomorrow DU BOIS explains and justifies this disenchantment by outlining at a thematic level the sentiments that characterize discussions of race from the perspective of AAs, but he also relies on a narrative approach that enlivens and amplifies those thematics for the readers by treating race as an emotional process and leading us through its affective-cognitive phases: first an “intense personal interest” in the topic (which opens the possibility of the discussion of race); then disgust with the doctrine of racial distinctions (which becomes cause for its deprecation and rejection); and finally, a passionate belief in the possibility and immediate necessity of transcending that doctrine (which then segues into an embrace of a monogenetic view of human origins). As an element of narrative, this affective-cognitive sequence allows DU BOIS not simply to identify emotions associated with problems of racial difference but also to enhance their referential capacity-in this instance, specifically for an AA audience, The affective-cognitive sequence enhances the likelihood of a positive judgement by his audience because it makes feelings recognizable in a thematic sense even as it renders them familiar in an experimental sense. Successful reception requires Du BOis to accurately mindread his black audience and offer them a narrative that interweaves raced particulars (i.e., the presumption of black inferiority) and unraced universals (i.e., the desire to believe that “out of one blood GOd created all nations”) in a way that mirrors or at least approximates their own perceptions and experiences of racial difference that can serve as a kind of affective- cognitive common ground for intraracial solidarity. Taken as a whole, the narrative suggests Du BOIS’s main goal in the introductory section is to est an emotional kinship with his readers that will, later in the essay, help establish and strengthen the intellectual links between balck author and black audienceBut Du Bois doesn’t settle for a one-way courtship: he offers his AA audience a mind reading challenge of it own as the outset of the very next paragraph, in part by directing greater attention to white readers and even more so by arguing that the affective-cognitive sequence modeled in the first paragraph results in an understandable by unsound belief in monogenesis:“Nevertheless, in our calmer moments, we must acknowledge that human beings are divided into races; that in this country the two most extreme types of the world’s races have met, and the resulting problem as to the future relations of these types is not only of intense and living interest to ush, but forms an epoch in the history of mankind Dubois’s first concern is to show that race is critical to the linear understanding of history. In other words, he pushes beyond the model of the representative man to establish the importance of racial groups in the study of human development. ANd while he notes the existence of variations between people on a physical level, he is more concerned with establishing the presence of an abstract set of differences- characteristics more apparent to the humanist than the scientist and best apprehended in emotional rather than empirical terms. We can read DU BOIS’s rejection of empirical observation as an attempt to formulate a narrative model that minimizes the emotionally limiting effects of static, physical racial boundaries but does go to far as to minimize the distinctions between and among the races Narratives of race and reform must be dynamic and flexible enough to permit not only the discussion of physical distinctions but also the exploration of shared cultural practices, desires, and ideals. Indeed it’s the concept of racialized ethics to which DU BOIS returns again and again in the remainder of the essay. His ultimate argument is not just that races and racial differences must be preserved but that such preservation must concern itself with the “ideals of life” and “deeper differences” of psyche and spirit “ undoubtedly based on the physical, but infinitely transcending them”. Finally, DU BOIS urges his audiences (black and white) to think of race as a growth process based upon the existence of transcendent (but not immutable) differences. SIgnificant racial separation occurs because groups grow in different ways according to the collective ideals of a particular racial group may shift as the race itself develops. As physical distinction lessen, says DU BOIS, differences in the ideals expressed and pursued by different races become more critical to the history of human development:“The English nation stood for constitutionals liberty and commercial freedom; the German nation for science and philosophy;the Romance nations stood for literature and art,and the other race groups are striving, each in its own way, to develop for civilization its particular message, its particular ideal. Which shall help to guide the world nearer to the perfection of human life for which we all long, that ‘one far off Divine event’” Ideals and the passion to guide the world nearer to them constitute a discourse of emotion that animates and structures the final sections of the essay as Du BOIS urges his readers to develop the ethical habits of being “honest”and “earnest” in examining their lives and adjusting their behavior with the immediate goal of self reform, and then use their intellectual and artistic abilities to cultivate and propagate those habits in others with long term goal of conserving racial distinctions while fostering collective social uplift

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Many Roles Of W.E.B Du Bois’s And His Journey As An Intellectual. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Many Roles Of W.E.B Du Bois’s And His Journey As An Intellectual.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
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