July 10, 2014
Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander and Arnold Rampersad —
W.E.B. Du Bois & the American Soul

One of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history, W.E.B. Du Bois penned the famous line that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." He is a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the Civil Rights Movement. But his passionate, poetic words speak to all of us navigating the ever-unfolding, unfinished business of civil rights. We bring Du Bois' life and ideas into relief for the 21st century — featuring one of the last interviews the great Maya Angelou gave before her death.

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was a poet, educator, and activist. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000. She is most well-known for her series of seven autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Her most recent book of poems is Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010.

is emeritus professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Selected Writings

A Deep Dive Into the Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois

On Being producers traveled to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to explore the W.E.B. Du Bois archives. We gathered enlightening correspondence, seminal essays and exchanges, photographs, and ideas for a deeper and broader exploration of Du Bois' legacy for the present. This is part of a series funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dear Dr. Du Bois: Letters with the Greats

Du Bois corresponded with many leading intellectuals of his day. See some of our favorites, along with images of his letters.

» Albert Einstein
» Mahatma Gandhi
» Martin Luther King
» Langston Hughes
» George Foster Peabody
» Jane Addams

Highlighted Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois

A collection of essays on the spiritual, political, and social thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois. In lyrical, magnetic prose he writes here on the color line, double consciousness, and more.

» "Credo"
» "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
» "The Talented Tenth"
» "Of the Training of Black Men"

Letters: The Church and the Color Line

In 1929, W.E.B. Du Bois was invited by the Reverend A. J. Helm to speak at Bethel Evangelical Church, the former pastorate of Reinhold Niebuhr, on "Religion on the Color Line." This series of little-known letters displays in painful detail the embattled conversation on racial integration and the white church in the early 20th century.

Selected Poems

Prayers for the Worship of the Darker Americans

A gallery of eighty handwritten prayers W.E.B. Du Bois wrote for his students at Atlanta University, which he called "Prayers, A Litany and Diverse Prayers Set Down for the Worship of the Darker Americans."

First Person

Inspired by Du Bois

Many count W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal text The Souls of Black Folk as a formative influence in their lives. We ask for your stories about W.E.B. Du Bois and the impact of his writing on your life. Read others' stories; we'd like to hear yours as well.

Maya AngelouKathleen CleaverCory BookerElizabeth Alexander

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Funding was provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Articles have me thinking that an update of the Mr. Dubois' quote might be, ". . . the lines." It seems that as the 50 or more year paradigm shift from clearly defined group morality to individualism; modernism to post-modernism has taken us to 'lines' drawn in the concrete! Absolutism. From individuals we have absolutes! It is some kind of protectivism, I suppose. But it certainly makes it even more interesting when some people gather around a person or idea and act like a community. Beauty and chaos! And - lines that divide! Actions that unite! What a time to be alive!

Thanks, Nadine. I'm half asleep so just absorbed rather than any attempt to analyze your comment. Love C G Jung's word, "individuation" as the goal of life. Being who one is or was supposed to be. Difficult since as a Buddhist I don't reallly believe in a "self", whereas Jung sees the Self as the center of the mandala with shadow anima and animus swirling around it. I like it .IT being IT, not God, A God or The God. So much sexism comes from superior "maleness". Rape and physical domination. At the absolute center of self is the heart of emptiness. Not exactly the same as nothingness, but not far either. Neti Neti Neti. Not this not that not he, not she, not it. There we have the ability to be free of all. I've experienced a few times alone, meditating or in nature. From the Christian inquisition, came religious freedom for women. St Teresa of Avila, was descended from Jews. After their conversion or hers, not sure, she was free to live alone. Cloistered. To see God as the lover. Had she remained a Jew, she would at best brought food to leave on the steps of the hall where Hassidic men danced with God's song. They sang. She drew exquisite mandalas.Quite similar to Buddhist mandalas. Was there a physical connection. Or did a flame leap from one soul to another? Meister Eckhardt says "When the soul and God become one, Both the soul and God disappear and there is only a vast desert."
Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.
We are blessed.

This program was so well done and helpful. Please continue to do these in depth profiles of great thinkers and leaders who lift the spirit with their courage, passion and insight.

This was a wonderful protrayal of Du Bois with experts, throughtful and heartfelt parallels with life in the modern world. I listen devotedly to each of your Sunday broadcasts. They provide knowledge, and inspiration at a wonderful Sunday morning hour at home.
I salute your innovative technology support on the web and on mobile devices. Your program is sanctuary in my pocket.

I find it disturbing that you heap uncritical praise on W.E.B. Du Bois.

He was an elitist who held himself above all in a "region of blue sky" and held "all beyond it in common contempt". He insisted even his friends address him as "Doctor Du Bois." While extolling the virtues of higher education for a select few blacks, Du Bois showed little faith in the capacities of ordinary black people. He stated “the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northern laborers” and cited the need for college trained “thinkers” to guide the “black lowly” and provide “careful personal guidance and group leadership to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty”. He talked of selection of “the personnel of the successful class…by intelligent culling” and of acceptance of race prejudice in the South as a fact for “several generations” until “whites can be brought to assume that…self-sacrificing leadership of the blacks which their present situation…demands.”. He felt the need for “economic and spiritual guidance for the emancipated Negro” and was willing to “admit…if representatives of the best of white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding powers” conditions would be better.

Du Bois lamented the loss of social contact between the races before the Civil War “when all the best of the Negroes were domestic servants in the best white families, (and) there were bonds of intimacy, affection and sometimes blood relationship”. He added “Nothing has come to replace that finer sympathy and love between some masters and house servants which the radical and more uncompromising drawing the color-line in recent years has caused almost completely to disappear”.

He called for universities “whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers” to send “a few white men and a few black men of broad culture” to give this “squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace”. He ends "The Souls of Black Folk" with a hope that the "Eternal Good...in His good time. shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free”.

The problem of racial prejudice in America was (and remains) much more than a "squabble" that could wait for a "good time". Nor was it "men broad culture" who led the way in the Civil Rights struggle. The real struggle was led by common people (or as Du Bois would say the "black lowly"), with uncommon courage. People like John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders, the many unnamed black men and women who risked their lives to register to vote in Mississippi, and many more. By giving credit uncritical praise and credit to W.E.B. Du Bois in his lofty "region of blue sky", you disparage the real heros of the Civil Rights Movement who risked life and limb on the front lines of racial prejudice.

Hello Rick -

You certainly did an excellent job misinterpreting Du Bois visions for his race. Much of what was written applied to the times in which he lived. As a personal friend of a few of Du Bois living family members in NJ, I can attest that he is regarded as a caring individual of family and race, among them.

Now... let’s consider one of your agreements... you quoted: “the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northern laborers” and cited the need for college trained “thinkers” to guide the “black lowly” and provide “careful personal guidance and group leadership to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty”.
Does this not have merit? Many colored in the North lived within a freer domain that those in the South. They read more frequently, opportunities to interact with those of diverse cultures (even if only in white homes) were more prevalent, they lived and travel between Canada, were more successful in acquiring businesses and becoming entrepreneurs, etc..
With the extreme limitations afforded to the Colored in the South, if one were to learn, who then would teach them? Their white counterparts.
I am a child of integration, at age 10 in a divided Southern town I became one of small number of Colored children whose family elected to send their children to the white school as soon as the doors were made open. We fought regularly in that white school, primarily over being called "nigger"; amidst an all-white teaching staff I received my first "F". In reading - however, my grade of "A" in science contradicted what one teacher attempted to perpetuate as a fact. More than half of the Colored children were held back in their grades, indicating that they were not smart enough to merit their education levels.
Through the years it was books like Souls of Black Folks, Black Boy, Manchild in the Promise Land that gave me the courage to think at a higher level of self. These valiant writers, along with others like them were the Genesis of a “new free world concept for Colored”. Especially a little Colored “gal” being "told" that she could not read.
So I ask again, please consider the times, it is that which influences and shapes the attitudes of many. During his era, Du Bois gave of his best to make “our world” known others. It was in frustration that he elected to live the remainder of his life in Ghana.
Let me suggest that you take the energy used for resentment and focus it on things that you have the ability to influence.... as the time you "live" in possess new challenges for the now "black" race.
Let me add a Du Bois quote you neglected to highlight....
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois


I read his autobiography in translation to Russian in 1970. I remember the unusual feeling of freedom emanated by text. I learned the view of the life from a Human. He was certainly a world leader in initial meaning of this word. It was feeling from the program that he was privatized by “leaders of one minority”, & they picking up from his writing the things that they only like. I am sorry this situation, it is a lost for humanity.

Open a space for comments/reflections on DuBois' double consciousness (33:38). It's an intergenerational diaspora teachable moment worth sharing insights. Zadie Smith in conversation with Chimamda Adiche @ NYPL/Schomburg also addresseed this provocative question/struggle.

I listened to the uncut interviews underlying this show as I was driving from Philly back to North Carolina, and feeling myself falling back into the South as I drove and listened. Several times Krista asked interviewees for a refresh on Du Bois' comment about the problem of the 20th century being the problem of the color line. Given what I've learned from the thought and leadership of women of color, particularly queer women of color, I'd say the refresh would have something to do with intersections: of deepened pain and wisdom in the lives of people multiply oppressed, and of expanded possibility and hope as our consciousness of these intersections become places where we can connect and coalesce.

In the folds

of this

European civilization

I was


and shall die,

imprisoned, conditioned,

depressed, exalted,

and inspired.

I flew

round and round

with the zeitgeist

waving my pen

and lifting

faint voices

to explain, expound, and exhort,

to see, foresee, and prophesy

to the few

who could

or would