W.E.B. Du Bois and Liberation Journalism

W. E. B. Du Bois circa 1907. (Wikipedia, Library of Congress)

“A literary and news journal must be free and uncontrolled,” stated 83-year-old Black scholar and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois in March, 1951. “In no other way can it be virile, creative, and individual.” Du Bois’s comments recalled the nearly quarter century, between 1910 and 1934, that he edited The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In Editing The Crisis, Du Bois proudly looked back on the publication's goals, which focused on “provoking thought, stimulating argument, and attracting readers.” As an editor, Du Bois fiercely preserved an independent editorial voice.

Du Bois insisted that The Crisis must publish adversarial journalism – bold and confident research-based reporting that centers on the liberation of Black people. This journalism should highlight innovative stories that depict African-descendant people as full human beings. It should showcase thoughtful, provocative writing that vigorously holds society’s institutions accountable for buying into white supremacy’s anti-Black propaganda in efforts to reverse inequality. This confrontational reporting should, to adapt a phrase from anti-racist writer Tim Wise, speak treason fluently against the deadly lie of whiteness.

The recent relaunch of The North Star has re-inscribed a strand of Black-centered adversarial journalism. Its re-emergence invites reflection on the longer history of adversarial reporting that centers the experiences of marginalized populations and, in turn, humanizes people of African descent. This re-launch sits at the juncture of so-called fake news, the fascist practice of silencing dissent, the intrusive reality of the surveillance state, the human rights crisis of the prison-industrial complex, anti-Black police violence, virulent white nationalism, and the overall economic precarity of many in American society – especially among people of color. Examining Du Bois’s journalistic production in The Crisis and other Black, progressive, or radical publications offers a wide-angle historical view that richly contextualizes some of the work being carried out in the contemporary era.

A chronological chronicle of Du Bois’s work as an adversarial journalist provides tools for the collective pursuit of economic democracy, racial justice, and political equality today. It also recovers the intellectual breath and cultural importance of Du Bois’s journalistic efforts during his 80-year public career.

As a teenager in the mid-1880s, Du Bois wrote columns in T. Thomas Fortune’s New York Globe newspaper and reported on local happenings in his hometown. While a college student at Fisk University, Du Bois worked as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Fisk Herald.

Before beginning his editorial work at the NAACP in 1910, Du Bois founded and edited The Moon Illustrated Weekly and The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Although The Moon folded under financial and political pressures in 1906 after a 1-year run, the periodical reported on Black social, political, and cultural life. Beginning in January 1907, The Horizon covered the political activities of the Niagara Movement, a pre-NAACP civil rights campaign with which Du Bois was involved. The Horizon also introduced new stylistic conventions that featured artwork as a visual complement to its literary aims. When The Horizon ceased publication in 1910, Du Bois started working for the NAACP as director of research.

The Importance of Propaganda

As Crisis editor, Du Bois possessed sole curatorial power over the magazine. Like previous periodicals on which he worked, The Crisis reported expansively on aspects of Black social, political, and cultural existence in the United States and across the world. As a “record of the darker races,” the magazine’s protest and propaganda documented African American life visually and artistically.

Du Bois often described his Crisis work as “propaganda,” a necessary tool in the war against white supremacy – especially since white supremacists produced such injurious anti-Black propaganda themselves. He addressed propaganda’s aesthetic dimensions in his 1926 Crisis article “The Criteria of Negro Art,” the published version of his remarks at the NAACP national convention that year. Du Bois wrote that scholarship could also serve as “the propaganda of history” and reverse white supremacy’s lies that scholars trafficked. Du Bois’s propaganda and his scholarly publications shared the same goal: Black liberation.

Although Du Bois maintained editorial purview with The Crisis, Black women such as Jessie Fauset contributed to framing the magazine’s creative dimensions. Fauset edited The Crisis's progressive children’s literary publication, The Brownies’ Book, which sought to foster historical knowledge of Black culture through accessible narrative content, creative literary expressions, and positive visual images.

Du Bois and the editorial and advisory boards of the Encyclopedia of the Negro, 1936. (Wikipedia, Blackpast.org)

Du Bois often spoke fondly and wrote of his time as Crisis editor, despite his very public break with the NAACP in 1934 over the organization’s civil rights strategy of integration (he eventually adopted a position of Black-only collective action but later returned to the NAACP from 1944 to 1948 to work on international civil rights). In the March 1951 issue of The Crisis, he wrote, “I had the idea that a small publication would be read which stressed facts and minimized editorial opinion, but made it clear and strong; and also published the opinion of others.” He recalled that “well-to-do persons” read the magazine and that it also “was known to circulate among Negro workers of low income.” He also boasted that The Crisis “antagonized many white powerful interests” and that it was “denounced in Congress.”

Du Bois remained an active journalist until 1963, writing hundreds of newspaper articles for outlets such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Harlem-based Amsterdam News, and Freedom, an editorial venture of the singer and activist Paul Robeson. His weekly newspaper columns offer a fascinating chronicle of how his ideas about politics, culture, economics, and global civil rights developed during the last three decades of his life. During a teaching stint at Atlanta University from 1935 and 1944, he founded and edited the scholarly journal Phylon, which translated social scientific research on race and culture into readable content for a wide audience.

A Global View

Several of Du Bois’s newspaper columns from his latter decades illustrate a global perspective on Black freedom and anti-racism, as well as his commitment to addressing capitalism’s inequities. These writings reveal the Black radical intellectual circles in which he moved, and pinpoint the federal government’s obsession with attempting to blunt Du Bois’s expansive influence on students, workers, activists, and intellectuals across the world. The radical newspaper National Guardian served as one of Du Bois's main journalistic homes from the late 1940s until the early 1960s, and its May 23, 1960 issue featured Du Bois’s “Insanity” column (portions of which later appeared in the Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing my Life From the Last Decade of its First Century).

In this column, he decried US anti-communism, corporate control of politics, the inclination to finance endless war, the impulse to spend beyond one’s means, and propaganda peddled through the teaching of US history as a simplistic and solely triumphant road to boundless freedom. Despite such societal afflictions, he praised American students who staged sit-ins and called for renewed activist alliances in freedom and liberation struggles. “Preserve the utmost freedom for dreams of beauty, creative art and joy of living,” Du Bois urgently wrote. “Call this Socialism, Communism, Reformed Capitalism, or Holy Rolling. Call it anything, but get it done.”

Du Bois’s National Guardian article “I Never Dreamed I Would See This Miracle,” published in September 1960, reflected a global view. The 92-year-old scholar provided a brief summary of colonialism and imperialism across the continent of Africa and singled out Ghana for the “miracle” of its 1957 independence, as well as the promise it held with organized economic arrangements under the visionary leadership of Kwame Nkrumah (who was also a friend of the writer). Du Bois viewed Ghanaian independence as a successful expression of his life’s Pan-African labors.

Before Du Bois departed for Ghana in 1961 at age 93, he served as an editorial consultant to James and Esther Cooper Jackson as they launched Freedomways magazine to chronicle the domestic and international dimensions of Black liberation movements. Not only did Du Bois’s writing appear in the magazine, but Freedomways editors organized commemorative events in his honor, first in 1964 just after he died and again in 1968 to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Two months before he died, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a stirring “Honoring Dr. Du Bois” speech.

Du Bois’s late career journalism connected the dots between capitalism, exploitation, social freedom, and economic democracy. It also illustrates how he linked current events with earlier developments by condensing centuries or decades of history into accessible prose while foregrounding global connections between freedom struggles at home and liberation movements abroad.

Du Bois’s 800-page FBI file is another historical site to further explore his adversarial journalism. Although heavily redacted, they display how closely the Bureau monitored his writings, speeches, and movements from the early 1940s until his death in 1963. Regarding his March 6, 1950 essay in National Guardian titled “What We Need,” the FBI file reported: “In this article, Doctor Du Bois points out that public welfare must replace private profit as the end of effort and planned economy must bring order and justice out of the anarchy of Free Enterprise and private Initiative . . . that we need . . . socialized medicine to protect the public health . . . and encouragement of all forms of self-help, like consumers cooperation.” The Bureau records offer an intellectual mapping of how Du Bois applied his philosophy of equality to economic and social problems in the post-World War II and early Cold War periods.

Du Bois’s extensive archive within the Cold War-era surveillance state discloses the length to which the US government sought to stifle Black dissent during the mid-twentieth century. Although battered by the societal instruments of anti-Black anti-communism during his closing decades, careful reading of these records shows how Du Bois continued to reallocate his intellectual resources in support of Black liberation. His journalistic productivity document a capacious social and intellectual outlook concerned simultaneously with the present and future by looking through the lens of history.

Du Bois’s adversarial journalistic writings are a vital and often forgotten dimension of his formidable intellect. With so much of Du Bois’s writings now digitized, his work offers a broad, global view of Black history and culture, as well as the practice and possibility of interracial solidarity in the pursuit of economic freedom. His writings on the topics of labor, capital, race, culture, and freedom identify how planned, organized, and collective ventures can alter societal conditions. In so doing, Du Bois’s practice of adversarial journalism offers an intellectual and political pathway for the difficult days ahead.

About the Author

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a Sections Editor at The North Star. He is a historian who writes on race, religion, culture, and society. He teaches history and humanities at the College of Biblical Studies, a predominately Black school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. Sinitiere is the author or editor of several books including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History; Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity; and Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.