“Phylon: Science or Propaganda” by W. E. B. Du Bois (1944)

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a prolific author, renowned editor, and arguably one of the most important civil rights activists of the early 20th Century. Du Bois played a major role in the formation of the NAACP and became director of research and editor for their magazine, The Crisis. As a national leader, his ideas have held a lasting influence, though they notably came in conflict with Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington. Whereas Washington sought to improve vocational opportunities for young African Americans through practical trades–agriculture, mechanical knowledge, and the like–Du Bois wanted young African Americans to pursue higher education so as to break into the ranks of the social elite and gain greater social influence through education. With his Harvard degree and lasting ideological influence, Du Bois’s life demonstrates the opportunities he worked to inspire others to seek for themselves. He wrote more than twenty books and helped to create four academic journals. Some of his most notable publications include The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction in America, and The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part that Africa has Played in World History. 

Essay’s Form

This essay is written from Du Bois’s perspective and employs the first person plural, implying a collective voice. Many of the issues addressed are related as “our” issues, not Du Bois’s issues or African American issues; this technique invites the reader to become an active part of Du Bois’s dialogue.

As the creator of Phylon, Du Bois has the power to decide whether Phylon will be used to incite passion or provide objective educational material. The essay presents Du Bois’s stance: if he is being accused of creating a magazine that is used as propaganda, then so be it. As long as black people became more aware of their condition, he will gladly consider his magazine a form of propaganda.

The essay is written in plain form–there are no pictures, introductions, or illustrations. Nonetheless, Dubois is very connected to the issues at hand; his passion is communicated throughout the essay. Du Bois feels that because black people form a minority and are subject to racist treatment, their roles in American history have been erased. His essay and his publication seek to correct this imbalance. The message is clear: African Americans are equals and should be represented as such, and magazines like Phylon will take the steps necessary to ensure a continuing voice for African Americans.

Essay’s Immediate Context

The essay appeared in Phylon in 1944. World War II was a difficult era for African Americans. They struggled under the repressive laws of the Jim Crow South and were denied basic civil rights. The demonstrations of the 1960s were still twenty years away, and in the meantime, African Americans were forced to segregate themselves from whites in public venues: in schools, on buses, and even in bathrooms. In some cases, their right to vote was obstructed through various means. Even the military was not exempt: black soldiers received lower pay, at times received no arms, and were still experiencing segregation.

Phylon was written by and for African Americans. Created while Du Bois worked at Atlanta University, the magazine was an outlet for expressing the racial injustice that African Americans faced and for discussing how to improve their shared future. The next issue of Phylon (Volume 6) contains works like “The Muted South” by Sterling Brown and “Men in Darkness” by Samuel Adam Lynde.

Essay’s Subsequent Appearance

Though the essay does not appear in another form or in another of Du Bois’s works, the essay has informed other work in racial studies. JB Stewart and Derrick P. Alridge mention Dubois’s “Phylon: Science or Propaganda” in The Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois for Contemporary Black Studies and The Dilemmas, Challenges, and Duality of an African-American Educational Historian, respectively. They join Du Bois in questioning double consciousness and the dilemmas, challenges, and dualities comprised within the African American national identity.

Selected Bibliography

Alridge, Derrick P. “The Dilemmas, Challenges, Duality of an African American Educational Historian.” Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <http://www.aera.net/uploadedFiles/Journals_and_Publications/Journals/Educational_Researcher/3209/3209_ResNewsComment.pdf>.

Du, Bois W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1940. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Phylon: Science or Propaganda.” JStor. Clark Atlanta University. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/272470?seq=5>.

Du, Bois W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Cutchogue, N.Y: Buccaneer Books, 1976. Print.

Text and images: Joan Cherilien and Laura Steadham Smith.