Thursday, April 25, 2013
April 25, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Four
[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On three distinct and equally impressive sides to Du Bois’s journalistic work.
From 1910 to 1934, while he was writing the books featured in the prior two posts, researching and teaching at multiple institutions, helping found and run the NAACP, and doing roughly three thousand other things, Du Bois created and edited The Crisis, a magazine that engaged more fully with African American issues, communities, and voices than any other American text or conversation in the era (and perhaps since). The Crisis was particularly strong at covering and editorializing about national news stories that would otherwise have received far less attention, including the lynching epidemic, the negligence and mistreatment directed at African American World War I veterans, and the protests surrounding Birth of a Nation, among numerous other stories during Du Bois’s editorial tenure. As a news periodical alone, Du Bois’s magazine is an indispensable American source.
Like its creator, however, The Crisis wasn’t the slightest bit content being or doing just one thing. In an era that has been called the nadir of African American life and culture, Du Bois also used his magazine both to highlight existing literary and artistic voices and to encourage further cultural work in the African American community. When novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset came on board in 1919 as the magazine’s literary editor, she helped deepen and extend that artistic engagement, allowing The Crisis—despite its continuing dedication to news coverage—to rival the era’s other modernist little magazines in both the breadth and quality of its cultural work. Given that this side to Du Bois’s journalistic endeavor has been described as a vital foundation for and influence on the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, it’s hard to overstate just how significant his literary and artistic support would be in American culture and life.
Those historical and cultural components make The Crisis exemplary and seminal in early 20th century America, but it’s Du Bois’s own writing in the magazine that make me excited to include it in a course on him as an author. Just about any editorial from his quarter-century of work would suffice to illustrate that writing, but so too does the brief November 1910 column with which Du Bois launched the magazine. I give you, for example, this sentence, on why Du Bois sees his moment as the titular crisis: “Catholicity and tolerance, reason and forbearance can today make the world-old dream of human brotherhood approach realization; while bigotry and prejudice, emphasized race consciousness and force can repeat the awful history of the contact of nations and groups in the past.” Check out the parallelism and alliteration within those parallel structures alone; Du Bois could just plain write, and The Crisis reflects his own talents just as much as it does its historical and cultural contexts.
Next Du Bois readings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?