W.E.B. Du Bois: “Strivings of the Negro People” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Published in 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay “Strivings of the Negro People” reflects on the unique challenges facing the African American population at a time of dismal race relations and legally sanctioned racism. In explaining his own struggle to develop a unified identity as both a black man who experiences discrimination and an educated man who seeks and deserves equal opportunity in the world, Du Bois presented the idea of the “double consciousness” that characterized the African American experience. Du Bois also argued that African Americans should be proud of their race and culture despite the negative perception of their community by the white majority. To best fulfill that potential–and in opposition to the dominant, accepted thinking on the position of African Americans supported by Booker T. Washington–Du Bois suggested that African Americans must actively seek the liberties denied them under the contemporary social system, including educational, economic, and political opportunity.

Summary Overview

Published in 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay “Strivings of the Negro People” reflects on the unique challenges facing the African American population at a time of dismal race relations and legally sanctioned racism. In explaining his own struggle to develop a unified identity as both a black man who experiences discrimination and an educated man who seeks and deserves equal opportunity in the world, Du Bois presented the idea of the “double consciousness” that characterized the African American experience. Du Bois also argued that African Americans should be proud of their race and culture despite the negative perception of their community by the white majority. To best fulfill that potential–and in opposition to the dominant, accepted thinking on the position of African Americans supported by Booker T. Washington–Du Bois suggested that African Americans must actively seek the liberties denied them under the contemporary social system, including educational, economic, and political opportunity.

Defining Moment

Historians generally consider the late 1800s to be the nadir, or absolute low point, in US race relations. African Americans had first reached the Americas centuries before as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The colonies became the agricultural heart of the southern United States and developed a significant enslaved African population. The question of slavery became one of the dominant problems of the early US republic; the framers of the Constitution made several compromises over the institution in order to garner cross-regional support, including a ban of the mere discussion of the slave trade in the US Congress for two decades. During the early 1800s, another series of compromises allowed the nation to maintain a fragile peace between pro-slavery Southern interests and increasingly pro-emancipation Northern interests. Contention over slavery greatly contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. A Union victory allowed for the passage of constitutional amendments ending slavery and ensuring freedmen citizenship rights supported by additional federal legislation.

These legislative changes made little difference in the social view of African Americans, however. A Southern society that viewed African Americans as intellectually, spiritually, and morally inferior as a race before the Civil War maintained those views after slaves’ civil status changed. The Ku Klux Klan arose to terrorize African Americans and their white supporters. State legislatures worked to limit African American rights, with increasing success after direct federal involvement in the South ended in the late 1870s. Even in the North, prejudice and discrimination were a social norm. The situation only worsened through the 1880s and 1890s. Violence against African Americans, often in the form of murderous lynchings, increased, but the federal government remained reluctant to intervene. Southern states passed laws that essentially disenfranchised African American voters, barred interracial marriages, and legally required the segregation of the races in public places and on mass transportation. African Americans had limited educational or work opportunities.

Some African Americans, such as Du Bois, nevertheless managed to make great personal achievements. A Northerner, Du Bois received a prestigious education both in the United States and Europe and found work as a university professor after completing his studies. At a time when Booker T. Washington, the leading African American spokesperson of the 1890s, was arguing that African Americans should accept racial discrimination and put aside the immediate quest for legal equality, Du Bois was becoming frustrated by the treatment of African Americans. He experienced discrimination firsthand while teaching in Atlanta and saw the negative social and economic effects of discrimination while completing an in-depth study of the African American community of Philadelphia.

Author Biography

Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, sociologist, professor, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois emerged as a powerful voice against the policies of accommodation and gradualism supported by the most important African American spokesperson of the late 1800s, Washington. In the course of his sociological research, Du Bois came to believe that acceptance of racial discrimination was a threat to the social, political, and economic well-being of the African American community. His speeches and writings in favor of the immediate expansion of civil rights and racial equality made him a prominent Washington dissenter, and his views led him to help found the Niagara Movement and, later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his role as editor of the NAACP’s publication The Crisis, Du Bois helped set the agenda for African American protest action for more than two decades. He eventually parted ways with the organization. He died in Ghana in 1963.

Document Analysis

Du Bois opens his essay with the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This language harks back to what commentators on the African American experience at the time commonly referred to as “the Negro problem.” By stating the “real question” bluntly, Du Bois opens a discussion about what it means to characterize a group of individuals not as people but as a concept.

Much of the rest of the essay addressed itself to the response. Du Bois presents anecdotal evidence of his own experience, using stories to which his presumably educated readers would connect in order to humanize his experience as a “problem.” In describing his time as a student, he focuses on successes shared by all who have pursued an education–attending a pleasant school, achieving a top score on an examination, deciding on an advanced field of study. Yet his triumphs were weakened, he notes, by the knowledge that he was unwelcome in the very society that he sought to join. This knowledge, he explains, is not a direct knowledge of oneself, but rather a knowledge of oneself “through the revelation of the other world,” or what Du Bois calls a “double consciousness.”

This knowledge, Du Bois suggests, is the answer to his guiding question. He briefly traces the history of African Americans through the era of slavery into the complicated years following emancipation, focusing on the promise of true freedom and the failure of that promise. The writer emphasizes the immense challenge facing African Americans: “war, the terrors of the Kuklux Klan, the lies of carpet-baggers, the disorganization of industry, and the contradictory advice of friends and foes.” He contrasts the poverty and political repression of African Americans with the wealth and opportunity afforded their “rich landed, skilled neighbors.” The greatness of these struggles meant that African Americans deserved the right to solve their problems rather than accept an inferior status.

Du Bois concludes by returning the themes of Americanism and freedom introduced earlier in the essay, offering another definition in answer to his opening question–that to be a “problem” is to provide a litmus test for the ideals of liberty and justice on which the United States was founded.

Essential Themes

In this essay, Du Bois explores the concept of what he termed the African American “double consciousness,” or the experience of being simultaneously a person and, specifically, a black person, subject to the expectations of and restrictions imposed by white-dominated US society. The effects of this dichotomy on the African American psyche and experience became one of Du Bois’s key points of exploration in his later works; “Strivings of the Negro People” was incorporated with only minor changes into Du Bois’s seminal 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk.

Du Bois’s propositions of African American pride foreshadow the later black nationalist movement. Under the influence of Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, this movement encouraged African Americans to be proud of their race, support black economic opportunity, and to create their own independent nation through emigration to Africa. Black nationalism inspired African American leaders of later decades, perhaps most notably Malcolm X.

The concept of racial separation remains a discussion in modern US society. At the time when Du Bois wrote the “Strivings of the Negro People,” segregation and racial discrimination were written into state laws in parts of the United States; although those laws no longer remain, de facto segregation continues to occur across the nation. African Americans of all socioeconomic groups tend to reside in largely black neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods tend to suffer higher rates of crime and poverty along with lower access to public services. Equally, some US educators encourage African American youth to learn to “code switch,” or change their word choice and manner of speaking depending on whether they are interacting with other young African Americans or with outsiders. This type of lingual switch reflects the idea of a modern double consciousness. Thus, Du Bois’s explanation of the double consciousness remains relevant, albeit in a different political, social, and economic landscape.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Jones, Gavin. “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ W. E. B. Du Bois and the Language of the Color-Line.” Race Consciousness: African-American Studies for the New Century. Eds. Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey A. Tucker. New York: NYUP, 1997. 19–34. Print.
  • Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868–1919: Biography of a Race. New York: Holt, 1993. Print.
  • Zamir, Shamoon. Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. Print.
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