For Black History Month, each weekday, we feature American and Haitian contributions to the advancement of people of African descent. Each feature pairs two leading figures from similar professional backgrounds.
The educated men of the past… were primarily men of action. — Jean Price-Mars
The Race Man Stands Up For Black Souls
Born in the small European-American town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois faced little racism as a child of Dutch, West African and Haitian ancestry. Experiencing the realities of racism during his travel from New England to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University (a historically black college) and his residency in the South, birthed Du Bois as a “race man.”
After becoming the first black person to earn a PhD from Harvard University, Du Bois was hired as an assistant instructor in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. There he conducted sociological field research in Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods which was later, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study – the first that detailed and comprehensive case study of a black community.
In August 1897, during his tenure as a professor of history and economics at historically black Atlanta University, the Atlantic Monthly (now the Atlantic) published Du Bois’ essay Strivings of the Negro People. In the provocative piece, he spoke of a black double consciousness, where “two warring ideals” exists in “one dark body” causing blacks to wish for the merging of their “double self” into a identity that would “make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” The famous passage was later republished, with revisions, as one of the 14 essays in Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ seminal work in black history, literature and sociology.
Souls of Black Folk challenged Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, an 1895 agreement between black and Southern white leaders that Southern blacks would not seek equality and integration, given that they were guaranteed basic education, due process in the legal system and economic opportunities. Du Bois argued that blacks should fight for full civil rights.
Opposing racial disenfranchisement, in 1906, Du Bois and several other black activists incorporated the Niagara Movement, an organization intended to advocate for civil rights. Although the movement was short-lived, it became the predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Du Bois co-founded. He served as director of publicity and research, a member of the board of directors, and editor of the organization’s journal, The Crisis. Utilizing Crisis’ as a platform for racial justice, the NAACP waged a campaign against lynching that included Du Bois’ editorial demanding that the federal government enact an anti-lynching legislation and an eight-page report on the lynching of Jesse Jackson, a mentally impaired teenager in Waco, Texas. The piece included graphic photographs of Jackson’s charred body.
In 1945, Du Bois was a member of a NAACP delegation that attended the United Nation’s founding convention. Two years later, he presented the UN Division on Human Rights with an “Appeal to the World” — a petition concerning discrimination against blacks. The petition, and others like it, influenced the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) to create the We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People. The document accused the US government of sanctioning genocide against blacks.
In October 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to commence work on the Encyclopedia Africana, a new encyclopaedia of the African diaspora. On August 27, 1963, he passed away in the city of Accra. The day after his death, hundreds of thousands rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington.
Less than a year after his death, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination against, racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women.
The Humanity in Black Language, Culture and Religion
Jean Price-Mars was one of foremost intellectuals in the African diaspora. As a member of Haiti’s establishment, he consistently challenged the affluent class to acknowledge the culture of Haiti’s masses. Price-Mars played a major role in the global Negritude movement, and Haiti’s literary renaissance after the American occupation. His 1928 ethnological study, Ainsi parla l’oncle, was a tour de force — it was a definitive argument for the nature and African origins of the Haitian identity.
Price-Mars was born on October 15, 1876 in Grande Rivière-du-Nord, Haiti. He was raised by his religious Catholic grandmother, and a tolerant Protestant father. Mars took charge of his son’s elementary schooling and instilled in him an appreciation for Haitian folklore, told in the mother tongue. For secondary education, Price-Mars attended Lycée Grégoire du Cap-Haïtien and Lycée Pétion in Port-au-Prince. In 1899, Price-Mars received a scholarship to study medicine in Paris (which he would finish 22 years later). He studied social sciences at the Sorbonne, Collège de France and Musée du Trocadéro.
Soon thereafter, he became a diplomat for the Haitian government. It was then he began to use “Price” in honor of Haitian poet Hannibal Price. His numerous missions in Europe would enable him to study African traditions, and engage in passionate race theory discussions with other black intellectuals and writers from the Negritude Movement — and it’s American wing, the Harlem Renaissance.
He began to manifest a loathing for the Western ideology and excesses of Haiti’s elite, in first major text, La vocation d’elite (The Vocation of the Elite), published in 1919. Then in 1928, he produced the ground-breaking tome, Ainsi parla l’oncle (So Spoke the Uncle). It was first ethnological study of the broader Haitian population’s culture and language. Written in eloquent historic prose, Ainsi parla l’oncle affirmed that Haitians were not “colored French people” — they had a distinct African heritage and black identity. His work, written during the US Occupation (from 1915 to 1934), had a profound impact in the development of a nationalist agenda and Haitian pride.
Price-Mars played a major role in developing the study of the humanities in Haiti. In 1941, he founded the Institute of Ethnology, where he served as chair of sociology and Africana studies until 1947. On the global stage, his work resonated with other leading black figures, like Aimé Césaire and W.E.B. Du Bois, seeking to dismantle the structures of racism in their home countries. In 1956, Price-Mars was unanimously elected as president of the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Paris — that same year, he became the president of the Society of African Culture, founded at UNESCO. And in 1966, Price-Mars was invited to Senegal by President Léopold Senghor, where he received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Dakar.
A man before his time, Price-Mars remains just as relevant today. He blazed trails for the scientific study and complete embrace of black cultures, as a model for understanding all cultures. And he advocated we did so, using our language, practicing our religion and telling our stories.
“…Nothing can prevent tales, legends, songs come from afar or transformed, created by us, from being a part of ourselves revealed to ourselves…They constitute in a surprising and remarkable way the fundamentals of our spiritual unity. Where, therefore, can one find a more authentic image of our society?”
Editors’ Note: Several scholars contributed their insights and expertise to the research for these profiles — Millery Polyne of New York University, Mark Schuller of Northern Illinois University, Patrick Sylvain of Brown University and Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan University.