“Foundations and Beginnings”: W.E.B. Du Bois Posing as a Dandy

by Horace D. Ballard


This essay brings a critical and contextual focus to W.E.B. Du Bois’ youth by exploring how the young Du Bois used dress and comportment to pass as a dandy in order to negotiate and refuse norms of race and class during the Belle Époque period. Photographs of a young Du Bois from his family’s photo album are both the archive and the expository engine that drives our inquiry. I argue that before Du Bois became a “race man,” he was acculturated into the intellectual discourses of Aestheticism and assimilated himself to the modes of dress and behavior befitting German and English traditions of the well-dressed dandy. I argue that Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness owes much to the way he understands dandyism’s theoretical and cultural machinations of self-respect, self-governance, and intellectual attainment. I draw upon the critical theory of the Bildung to posit that in lieu of a comprehensive autobiography of Du Bois, we must read the poses of the photographic portraits in order to elicit the clearest understanding of how Du Bois’ posing references a conscious passing between burgeoning constructions of private, public, white, black, male, and female space in an effort to position his body and his intellectual becoming as a model of attainment for other men of color at the turn of the century.

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