W.E.B. Du Bois and the origins of the Black Aesthetic: rivalry, resistance, and renaissance construction, 1905-1926
Spooner, Joseph Carson
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My thesis reconsiders Du Bois’ role in creating a black aesthetic, challenging prevailing notions about his opposition to the New Negro Renaissance and broadening the scope of his contributions in developing an indigenous, self-determined aesthetic. Currently, Harlem-centric historiography remains over-reliant on Du Bois’ own interpretations and unconcerned about his motives for misrepresenting the catalysts and the outcomes of the aesthetic and intellectual debates that define the period. By examining aesthetic controversies outside his dominant ‘failure’ interpretation and beyond the narrow geographical perimeters of a romanticized Harlem, the vital contributions Du Bois made to an intellectual dialogue that inspired artists to articulate a black aesthetic can be recognized. While some scholars have acknowledged the history of the renaissance has been unfairly shrouded in failure, none have explored Du Bois’ role as an aesthetic visionary, a position complicated by his categorical denunciation of the New Negro Renaissance. My research repositions Du Bois as a major ideological force at the genesis of the Black Aesthetic, both as an advocate and antagonist of the aesthetic ideals that define the movement. By tracing his intellectual evolution throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century, my thesis identifies how ideological conflicts within the NAACP and intellectual rivalries with Marcus Garvey, Charles S. Johnson, and Alain Locke impact Du Bois’ vacillating beliefs, and how his writings about art and his leadership as editor of The Crisis define the intellectual foundation and embody the racial dilemmas through which New Negroes create a revolutionary aesthetic. Du Bois’ insistence that artistic decadence and deleterious white commercial interests undermine the renaissance is reconsidered, allowing him, ironically, to be recognized as the New Negro Renaissance’s most important intellectual force in defining the Black Aesthetic.