The Double Life of W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963

by David Levering Lewis
Henry Holt, 715 pp., $35.00

One sign that there has been at least some progress in black–white relations during the past half-century is the admission of a small number of African-Americans to the pantheon of national heroes and exemplary leaders. Frederick Douglass is no longer just an escaped slave who became a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, but is now seen as standing at the forefront of the antislavery movement. Martin Luther King Jr. is honored with a national holiday not only because he was an African-American protest leader but even more perhaps for his role as an American Gandhi, the prophet who showed that basic change could come through nonviolence. For scholars of American cultural and intellectual history, if not yet more generally, W.E.B. Du Bois is now recognized as one of the greatest publicly engaged intellectuals in American history, which puts him in a class with Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewey.

But Douglass, King, and Du Bois did not, and indeed could not, transcend or “rise above” race. The deep racism of American society made it necessary for them to explore and embrace their identities in order to find the inspiration and self-respect to challenge white supremacy in its varying manifestations. Some black writers have sought to be recognized simply as writers and not as black writers. But Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison achieved interracial and international acclaim by confronting the black experience rather than running away from it. Du Bois’s effort to reconcile or coordinate his multiple identities, as a descendant of enslaved Africans, an American citizen, and a cultivated and cosmopolitan citizen of the world, has made him, for some literary scholars and intellectual historians, the representative American intellectual of the twentieth century.1

Du Bois’s significance goes beyond his eminence as an American writer and intellectual. He also has an international reputation as a conspicuous proponent and instigator of Pan-Africanism and, more generally, of the uprising of people of color throughout the world against European or white domination. Such a figure deserves a deeply researched, well-written, and incisive biography, and Du Bois has received one in two large installments by David Levering Lewis. The first volume, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.2 Its successor W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 19191963, maintains its high standard.

Even a bare account of the major achievements of Du Bois’s extraordinarily long and varied career (he lived to be ninety-five) can astonish the reader. He was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868 of Dutch and French as well as African ancestry and was raised in poverty by a single mother. (Often considered a champion of unqualified blackness, Du Bois would sometimes use the term “mulatto” in an honorific sense; he believed that a salutary racial fusion had taken place in parts of Africa and was currently occurring in Brazil.3) Growing up in a community that was mostly white but was less racist than most because of the local tradition of abolitionism, he was encouraged by his high school principal to prepare for college. But the color line that existed even in the Berkshires mandated that he go to Fisk, an all-black institution in Tennessee, on a scholarship provided by the local Congregational churches, rather than to Harvard, as he wanted. He got to Harvard eventually, where he found a friend and mentor in William James.4

After distinguishing himself as an undergraduate at Harvard, Du Bois did graduate work in Germany, failing to receive a doctorate only because he did not meet a residence requirement. Undaunted, he returned to Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in history and published his dissertation as the first volume in the prestigious Harvard Historical Studies.5 Having shown impressive mastery of American history, he next became one of the great pioneers of American sociology. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, published in 1899, ranks as the first important social-scientific study of any American population group.6

Had Du Bois been white, these achievements would have led to a tenured professorship at an Ivy League university. As it was, the best academic jobs he could get were, first, teaching German at Wilberforce, a small black college in southern Ohio, and then a position teaching sociology at another all-black institution, Atlanta University, which enabled him to oversee the publication, on a very limited budget, of a series of ground-breaking empirical studies of black life in the United States. While at Atlanta, Du Bois also published his 1903 collection of reflective essays, The Souls of Black Folk, which became a landmark in African-American literature and thought. He also found the time to become active in the politics of the educated black elite, which he dubbed “the talented tenth.”

Most notably, in both his essays and his political activities, he emerged as the principal critic of the accommodationist, “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own- bootstraps” philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which had come to dominate American discussion of “the race question” around the turn of the century. In one of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk, he took Washington to task for narrowing the ambitions of black people to the hope of economic self-sufficiency and for failing to protest publicly the segregation and disfranchisement that, in Du Bois’s view, precluded advancement of any kind. In 1905, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement, composed mostly of college-educated black professionals, to combat the influence of Washington and protest Jim Crow and other racial injustices in a vocal and uncompromising fashion. In 1909 and 1910, he joined with a small number of white progressives and socialists to form the NAACP, then and now the principal organization devoted to lobbying, litigating, and agitating for the civil rights of African-Americans. As editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine, from 1910 to 1934, Du Bois served as an articulate and effective advocate of black equality. More than anyone else, he deserves credit for launching the civil rights movement that was beginning to change American life at the time of his death in 1963. By then, however, he was thoroughly disenchanted with America and with the prospect of its fulfilling the egalitarian dreams of the Declaration of Independence. Much of David Lewis’s second volume is devoted to Du Bois’s loss of faith in the kind of American liberalism that had once inspired him and the early NAACP.

In a frequently quoted passage in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois described the painful “double consciousness” of the African-American, the tension between his awareness of his African roots and his hopes and aspirations as an American. In the first volume of his biography, Lewis interpreted Du Bois’s sense of doubleness or duality not as a contradiction to be overcome but as a permanent condition that could be a source of strength and creativity. Du Bois made this clear when he affirmed that his aim was to be “both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.” Both America and the Negro have messages for the world, he contends, and there is no reason why an African-American has to become either a black chauvinist or simply a white American with a dark skin.7 The conclusion one draws from Lewis’s first volume, therefore, is that Du Bois was intent on finding a middle ground between black separatism, or what today would be called “Afrocentrism,” and straightforward integration or assimilation. In his belief that diver-sity was compatible with equality and common citizenship, he anticipated the version of modern multiculturalism that stresses permeable boundaries and interaction among different groups.

This refusal to choose between black nationalism and liberal integrationism helps to account for the controversies with other African-Americans that made Du Bois’s career so contentious between the First and Second World Wars. In the early Twenties, Du Bois carried on a war of words with Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association, which advocated the self-segregation of African-Americans, their complete identification with Africa, and their ultimate exodus from the United States to the home of their ancestors. Du Bois had his own version of Pan-Africanism, and between the two wars he led the movement of Western-educated Africans and people of African descent in the New World to establish a presence in world affairs that would promote the gradual decolonization of Africa. But he saw Garvey as a dangerous demagogue who was betraying the equally important struggle of African-Americans for civil rights within the nation in which they had lived for many generations and claimed as their own. (He found good evidence for this view when Garvey met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations to discuss arrangements for a total separation of the races.)

Lewis, who never hesitates to criticize Du Bois when he finds his judgment defective, thinks he was harsh and unfair in his denunciation of Garvey, who was, and remains to this day, a hero to many black people throughout the world for being an early and militant advocate of the liberation of Africa from European control. But Du Bois had a point when he condemned Garvey for his extreme racial nationalism and authoritarianism. Lewis is too casual and exculpatory when he makes light of Garvey’s blatantly racist appeal to blacks of relatively pure African descent to repudiate mulattoes like Du Bois, because they were too “white” to be trusted. Garvey was also a self-styled fascist and a great admirer of Mussolini.

Lewis notes that in 1923 Garvey, who called himself the Provisional President-General of Africa, “declared his admiration (as would Winston Churchill, John Foster Dulles, and Bernard Shaw) for Italy’s new dictator,” a statement which tends to exonerate Garvey by putting him in respectable company. But he fails to note that Garvey was still endorsing fascism after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936. “We were the first fascists,” Garvey declared the following year. “The black masses saw that in this extreme nationalism lay their only hope… Mussolini copied fascism from me, but the Negro reactionaries sabotaged it.”8

But Du Bois found himself on the other side of the debate over separation and integration during the early 1930s, when he fell out with the leaders of the NAACP and was replaced as editor of The Crisis. In response to the Depression, he called on blacks to secede from the American capitalist economy and form their own independent cooperative enterprises, a proposal that violated the NAACP’s strict commitment to interracialism. Economic separatism had been part of the gospel according to Marcus Garvey, but Du Bois turned to it less from a belief in nationalism than out of sheer desperation at a time of mass unemployment and privation.

The alternative—then being advocated by the socialist and Communist left—was for black and white workers and sharecroppers to come together on the basis of class, mainly by forming militant unions. Despite his growing attraction to Marxism, Du Bois believed that most white workers were deeply prejudiced against blacks and much more inclined to discriminate against them than to unite in a common struggle. A convinced socialist for most of his life, Du Bois nevertheless had great difficulty accepting the economic determinist argument that racism was simply a byproduct of capitalism that would disappear automatically with the socialization of productive property. As he explained in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, the split between white and black workers

depended not simply on economic exploitation but on a racial folklore grounded on centuries of instinct, habit and thought and implemented by the conditioned reflex of visible color. This flat and incontrovertible fact, imported Russian Communism ignored, would not discuss.9

Estranged from the Marxist left by his belief in the partially noneconomic roots of racism and from the liberal integrationists in the NAACP because of his advocacy of a self-segregated economy, Du Bois was ideologically isolated during most of the 1930s. But while he was breaking with the NAACP and returning to teach at Atlanta University, he managed to produce one of the great classics of American historiography, Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880, published in 1935.10 Up to that time, Southern racists and their Northern sympathizers had dominated the writing of Reconstruction history. They had portrayed the period 1865–1877 as a “tragic era” in which barbarous blacks and venal whites (“scalawags and carpetbaggers”) had acted tyrannically toward the decent white people of the South and engaged in an orgy of corruption and misrule without precedent in American history.

Building on his earlier essay “Reconstruction and Its Benefits,” published in The American Historical Review in 1910, and on the virtually unknown scholarship of some pioneer African-American historians, Du Bois produced a quite different history of Reconstruction, aspects of which would later become generally accepted by American scholars. What he called “abolition democracy”—a union of antislavery radicals and emancipated slaves—had attempted to turn the South into a genuinely democratic and egalitarian society. While in power this coalition had achieved much, most notably the establishment of the first comprehensive systems of public education that the South had ever seen. For Du Bois, the tragedy was not that uneducated ex-slaves had been accorded the right to vote and hold office. It was that insufficient federal power had been used to protect the young democracy from the resistance of Southerners who wished to restore white supremacy. The retreat of the federal government he attributed to the rise of industrial capitalism in the North and the changing assessment by the new American economic oligarchy of what kind of regime in the South best served its interests. Although not reviewed by The American Historical Review, the book, Lewis discovered to his surprise, was widely and favorably reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Despite Du Bois’s disagreement with Communists and socialists on the prospects for interracial solidarity in the 1930s, Black Reconstruction drew on Marxist theory. Du Bois shows the influence of “scientific socialism” on his work most clearly when he describes what was attempted in the South as a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He meant by this that the federal government between 1867 and about 1872 made a serious effort to coerce the Southern states

into accepting a new form of administration in which the freedmen and poor whites were to hold the overwhelming balance of power. As soon as political power was successfully delivered into the hands of these elements, the Federal government was to withdraw and full democracy ensue. The difficulty with this theory was the failure to realize that such dictatorship must last long enough really to put the mass of workers in power….”

The reason for the lack of perseverance that doomed this great experiment was that the government was then falling into the hands of “organized wealth,” which had no inclination to foster proletarian democracy. One problem with Black Reconstruction, as some Marxist critics pointed out at the time, is that it argued that a dictatorship for the benefit of a proletariat could have been established by a government that was thoroughly “bourgeois” from the beginning of Reconstruction to the end. Another problem that was less apparent when Black Reconstruction was published is that Du Bois vacillated between economic determinism and a willingness to acknowledge the autonomous effect of cultural racism. “Beneath the race issue, and unconsciously of more fundamental weight, was the economic issue,” he wrote of events in South Carolina during Reconstruction. But in explaining poor white support for the Jim Crow system after Reconstruction, he called attention to the way in which white workers, although poorly paid, were “compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white.”11

Du Bois seems to have believed that there was in fact a period during Reconstruction when white and black “workers” might have come together on the basis of a colorblind proletarianism. But the cultural depth of white racism that he affirmed in the passage I have quoted from Dusk of Dawn and elaborated in his concept of a “pub-lic and psychological wage” resulting from racial hierarchy suggests a non-economic explanation of why such interracial solidarity would have been highly unlikely, if not impossible. It must be conceded, however, that Du Bois’s successors have yet to resolve this central problem in interpreting Southern history. The relationship between economic and psychocultural factors in the history of white–black relations in the nineteenth-century South remains a murky and contentious question.

Du Bois’s approving use of the term “dictatorship” reveals more than an affinity with Marxist historical analysis. Despite being at odds with American Communists on the possibility of working-class solidarity across racial lines, Du Bois strongly admired the Soviet Union when he visited Russia in 1926 and his admiration was not diminished by Stalin’s rise to power or by any of his actions thereafter. His devotion to Stalin and Stalinism became one of the unwavering commitments of his later life and survived the death of the Soviet dictator and his repudiation by most of his former supporters after Khrushchev’s revelations of 1956.

Lewis does not attempt to justify this tolerance for the ruthless exercise of power in what Du Bois felt was a worthy cause; but he might have reflected on it a bit more, especially in light of what he reveals about Du Bois’s views on world affairs in the late 1930s. Du Bois refused to condemn Japanese expansionism and militarism before Pearl Harbor, and he even had some good words to say about Hitler’s ability to control the market forces in Germany. Authoritarianism or “dictatorship” of one sort or the other, he seemed to be saying, was a necessary response to the conspiracy of private capital to dominate the world. His sympathy for Japan also drew on the deepest passion of his last three decades, the defense of colonized people of color against Western or white domination. As much as anyone else in the 1930s, Du Bois anticipated the anti-Western ideology of the post–World War II “third world.” That Japan in the late 1930s was invading another non-Western nation, China, mattered less to him than a belief that Japanese power offered a potential challenge to “white” hegemony throughout the world.

For Du Bois the principal exponent of that hegemony was the United States. He made his attitude clear in Black Reconstruction when he described the long-term consequences of the failure of Reconstruction. “The United States was turned into a reactionary force,” he wrote:

It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism on a world basis; and it has not only brought nearer the revolution by which the power of capitalism is to be challenged, but also it is transforming the fight to the sinister aspect of a fight on racial lines embittered by awful memories.12

The ideology that Du Bois advocated from the 1930s on might be described as a color-coded form of revolutionary Marxism in which, for most purposes, the white race as a whole (except for Communists) becomes the bourgeoisie and virtually all people of color represent the proletariat. It is not therefore surprising that after World War II, the elderly Du Bois would give up on the civil rights struggle in the United States, join the Communist Party, and become an expatriate in Ghana, where he died in 1963.

Lewis recounts in detail Du Bois’s brief reaffiliation with the NAACP in the 1940s, his second break with the mainstream civil rights movement over whether to support Truman or Wallace in 1948, the persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era, and his ultimate acts of defiance—openly joining the Communist Party and settling in Ghana. But is it true, as Lewis claims in justification of Du Bois, that Harry Truman “bamboozled the NAACP” into supporting him in the election of 1948? Some historians would contend that Truman became a genuine proponent of racial justice and equality, who risked more politically than he might have expected to gain when he endorsed civil rights legislation and ordered the integration of the armed forces before the election. Although Truman failed to bring about other large changes, the civil rights movement gained much in the long run from its affiliation with the liberals in the Democratic Party. Du Bois’s repudiation of interracial liberalism seemed to many of those active in the American freedom struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s to be untimely and premature.

In general, the aging and increasingly doctrinaire Du Bois of Lewis’s second volume seems a less appealing figure than the younger and more pragmatic subject of the first. From the 1930s on, at least, there was a rigid and dogmatic quality in Du Bois’s thinking that can be off-putting to anyone who is not a true believer in the far-left position that he consistently supported. Some of Du Bois’s defenders would argue that his embrace of coercive and totalitarian solutions to the real problems of predatory capitalism and international white supremacy is more understandable when we recall that the cause of racial equality in the United States failed to make significant advances for the first eighty years of his life.

Similarly, the decolonization of Africa and Asia did not begin until Du Bois had spent the same eight decades contemplating the brutal and seemingly unending exploitation of the world’s “colored races” by whites or Europeans. The younger Du Bois was more hopeful and, despite his “talented tenth” elitism, more committed to the imperfect practice of democracy than to its Utopian incarnation as something to be achieved only after an indefinite period of “dictatorship.” It is a tragedy that Du Bois lost faith in procedural democracy and in the promise of America, a tragedy partly explained by the fact that it took far too long for African-Americans to gain access to American politics and some protection for their basic rights as American citizens.

As for Du Bois’s personal life, Lewis is frank in showing that he neglected his wife and daughter and did not have a happy domestic life until, after the death of his first wife, he remarried a much younger woman in 1951, when he was well over eighty.13 Lewis suggests, mostly on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that he had extramarital affairs and that he may have been high-handed in his treatment of some of the young female staff members at The Crisis. But one also senses that most of the women he was involved with admired him as the great man he was.

Unfortunately Lewis’s second volume does not stand on its own. There is no summary of Du Bois’s career before 1919 and few backward glances; hence one cannot fully appreciate The Fight for Equality and the American Century without having read Biography of a Race. Lewis has also dispensed with numbered annotations, which reduces the book’s value for scholars or serious readers, who may find it difficult to run down sources from the phrase-based references in the back. I also find the coinage “Aframerican” for African-American or Afro-American jarring, if not unpronounceable. But taken together, as they have to be, Lewis’s two volumes make up one of the finest biographies that this country has produced.

  1. 1

    Du Bois is the central figure, for example, in Ross Posnock’s Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Harvard University Press, 1998).

  2. 2

    Also published by Henry Holt.

  3. 3

    See especially W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Negro (Henry Holt, 1915), pp. 23–24, 33, 165–166. This volume is being reprinted by the University of Pennsylvania Press and will be available in May 2001.

  4. 4

    The extent to which Du Bois may have been influenced by James’s philosophy of pragmatism is the subject of a lively debate among historians. Lewis, in Du Bois: The Biography of a Race, denies the influence but Posnock in Color and Culture strongly affirms it.

  5. 5

    The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (Longmans, Green, 1896).

  6. 6

    Republished in a centennial edition by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1999.

  7. 7

    See Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, pp. 281–283.

  8. 8

    Quoted in E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), pp. 198–199.

  9. 9

    Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (Harcourt, Brace, 1940; Transaction, 1984), p. 205.

  10. 10

    Touchstone, 1995 (reprint of 1935 first edition).

  11. 11

    Black Reconstruction, pp. 428, 700.

  12. 12

    Black Reconstruction, p. 631.

  13. 13

    His second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a significant figure in the black cultural left between the 1930s and 1950s. She is the subject of an excellent new biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (New York University Press, 2000). Perhaps one problem with Du Bois’s first marriage was that his wife could not provide the intellectual companionship and stimulation that he craved. Lewis tells us that his presumed affairs were discreet and tended to be with highly intelligent and well-educated women.