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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

  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.

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