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Epilogue: W. E. B. DuBois and the Legacy of Antislavery Verse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

When W. E. B. DuBois was looking for a title for the magazine of the NAACP, he found inspiration in James Russell Lowell's 1844 poem “The Present Crisis,” settling on The Crisis as the title for the periodical. DuBois also used Lowell's poem for an epigraph in The Souls of Black Folk. This epilogue explores how both African American spirituals and antislavery poetry helped to shape DuBois's thought and his wide-ranging influence in American thought, and it considers the value of the recovery of antislavery verse in our own time. DuBois, one of the greatest stylists of non-fiction prose in American literary history, is not often remembered as a poet, but he was the author of a significant body of verse that continues to resonate today, even as his work as a critic has been crucial in placing the African American spiritual at the center of the literary history of the United States. Although DuBois can seem to be an exceptional figure who represents a foundation for later African American literature rather than appearing as an author in conversation with his predecessors, his work illustrates and acknowledges the degree to which it is rooted in earlier antislavery verse.

In Darkwater, the volume of his work that most directly shows the influence of prewar antislavery verse, DuBois mixed prose and poetry, and the poetry bore eloquent and compressed witness to the complexities and moral challenges of the color line that he examined in his prose. In creating literary models to deal with the ongoing injustices faced by African Americans in the United States and to bear witness to the continuing ironies of American freedom and its reliance on unfreedom, DuBois drew heavily and explicitly on the existing tradition of antislavery poetry. In creating The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in November 1910, 45 years after the end of the US Civil War, and at the height of the post-Reconstruction lynching crisis, DuBois explicitly hearkened back to Lowell's 1844 poem, “The Present Crisis.” In doing so, DuBois was actually acknowledging an existing tradition within the broader African American community of making Lowell's poem a part of its own political and religious discourse.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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