Dusk of Dawn

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Published in 1940, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept is the second of four works by W. E. B. Du Bois that are considered autobiographical. A generic mix of autobiography and sociological commentary, Dusk of Dawn seeks to reclaim the social and historical identities of early twentieth-century African Americans rather than to narrate and create the life of a singular self. As Du Bois cautions in his preface, Dusk of Dawn is “the autobiography of a concept of race”, and not “mere autobiography”. That is, Du Bois subordinates his personal chronicle to the collective sociopolitical goal of exposing America's history of racism.

Comprising nine chapters, the work may be divided into three sections. The first four chapters relate personal data about the author. Like other African American life-writers, Du Bois shapes the story of his growing manhood around his attainment of education. He chronicles his life from his New England childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to his attendance at Fisk University where he embraced his African American identity, to his graduation from Harvard University, and, finally, to his study and travel in Germany. Marking the transition between Du Bois's personal autobiography and his sociological analysis is his explanation of his ideological disagreements with his literary and historical forefather Booker T. Washington, whose promotion of the industrial education of African Americans and of white patronage differed from Du Bois's vision of the “Talented Tenth” of African Americans who would become the leaders of their own community. The second section of Dusk of Dawn treats the history of the concept of race in America and its effect on both African Americans and whites. Du Bois presents race as a social construct and not as a biological certainty. Refuting the scientific definition of race, he suggests that what unifies nonwhites is not a common genetics but the social heritage of slavery and discrimination. The last section of Dusk of Dawn, consisting of the book's last two chapters, recollects public and controversial moments in the author's life, such as his founding of the Crisis and his resignation from the NAACP, and includes his commentary on current national and international trends.

Dusk of Dawn illuminates Du Bois's stance on key political issues: he promotes voluntary self-segregation as an advancement for African Americans; he clarifies that although he accepts Marx's economic analysis of society, he is not a communist; and he sees the rise of Hitler as symptomatic of the racism entrenched in Western civilization. Although Dusk of Dawn may be placed within the autobiographical tradition established by such writers as Booker T. Washington and James Weldon Johnson and by the nineteenth-century slave narrators, it departs from its predecessors in its surrender of personal history to sociopolitical analysis. It portrays Du Bois as a man in search of community in a world, an American, and an African American culture based on divisions caused primarily by racial or class differences.

Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois, 1976.W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Down, 1940; rpt 1984.William L. Andrews, ed., Critical Essays on W. E. B. Du Bois, 1985.Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1986, pp. 21–37.


Subjects: Literature.

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