“Discovering W. E. B. Du Bois: Poetry and Activism in the Civil Rights Era”
By: Shankar Chawla
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) is often regarded as a fundamental figure in the worlds of both activism and literature. Although he sparked much controversy for his far-out ideologies on Pan-Africanism, his accomplishments and monumental contributions to literary activism should not be discounted. After becoming the first black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895, Du Bois set out to shape the world of activism. He played an integral role in the creation and growth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a prominent civil rights organization more commonly known as the NAACP, founded in 1909, and went on to publish an abundance of papers on race, freedom, inclusion, and civil rights. Indeed, one of his most influential writings, The Souls of Black Folk, provided the very foundation for the NAACP’s mission.
Despite his many achievements, Du Bois stands distinguished from other civil rights activists of his time due to the immense creativity he utilized to express his ideas. His works of poetry regarding racism, human rights, and life as a person of color proved truly revolutionary as even a century later, his work is still held in high regard by the voices of today. Modern literary activists and acclaimed authors such as Clint Smith alike name Du Bois a great inspiration.
Popular poetry by Du Bois includes My Country ’Tis of Thee and The Song of the Smoke, in which Du Bois’s imagined ‘Smoke King’ actually symbolizes the entire African American population in both a physical and figurative manner. Most significantly, Du Bois embodies a disheartening yet moving connection by implying that the smoke which represents African Americans arises as a byproduct of the metaphorical fires of injustice, the United States’ hatred, and the nation's shameful past of exploitation and slavery. The writer composed the lengthy poem from the perspective of a king, aptly highlighting the frequent injustices and suffering endured by African Americans.
In My Country ’Tis of Thee, Du Bois explores the complexity existing between American problems and American progress, commending America for its abolishment of slavery at the same time that he exhibits his disappointment at the dearth of authentic freedom still felt within the nation among his people. Du Bois was not only instrumental as a champion of inclusion and a pioneer of poetic activism during the Civil Rights Era but also as a creative in a world hungry for humanity. The prolific writer and activist sought to promote a worthy cause through the intricate, elegant poetry that remains legendary to this day.