Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

1868-1963 / Scholar, novelist, essayist, editor

As founder and editor of The Crisis, the flagship publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), W. E. B. Du Bois helped publicize the achievements of countless African-American writers and other intellectuals. Through The Crisis, which enjoyed a readership of nearly 100,000 at its peak, Du Bois advanced his conviction that literature and art could enhance the image of African Americans. According to Du Bois, an elite group of black leaders—his so-called "Talented Tenth"—would blaze a trail to a better life for those who came afterward.

In 1896, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. The Souls of Black Folk, his essay collection published in 1903, had such an immediate and intense impact on black artists and thinkers that it was hailed as an instant classic.

"My earliest memories of written words," Langston Hughes would later recall, "were those of W. E. B. Du Bois and the Bible."

In his speeches and in his fiction, Du Bois urged young African Americans to combat racism with the written word. (Du Bois had pioneered the tactic in his first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece.) Yet he remained something of an elitist: Du Bois supported only those artworks that depicted the abilities of his ideal Talented Tenth, and he denounced the frivolity of black life that Claude McKay had depicted in Home to Harlem. Blues and jazz, Du Bois maintained, should be disregarded until they evolve into more "serious" art forms.

After scholar Alain Locke compiled the New Negro—heralding a younger generation of black voices and establishing Harlem as a cultural center—Du Bois vented his ire about the state of the arts in Harlem. At the NAACP's annual convention in June 1926, Du Bois delivered a lecture entitled "Criteria of Negro Art" in which he insisted that all relevant art should be propaganda. The lecture was later published in a special Crisis series, "The Negro in Art."