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.
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. Its successor W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963, 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.) Growing up in a community …