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Battling with Du Bois


William Edward Burghardt Du Bois looms over the study of African-American life like a cathedral over its close. He wrote in almost every conceivable genre—autobiography, biography, criticism, drama, essays, fiction, journalism, poetry, reviews—and was a scholar in a variety of disciplines. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, he became, at the age of twenty-seven, the first African-American doctoral alumnus of Harvard University. He was also one of the first black people to hold the university’s bachelor’s degree, though his Harvard baccalaureate degree was his second—the first came from Fisk, the black university in Nashville.

Granger Collection
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1904; photograph by J.E. Purdy

His graduate education continued at the University of Berlin, where the modern doctoral program was invented. He took a Ph.D. in history; his first academic position was as professor of classics, and one of his earliest major books, The Philadelphia Negro, was a substantial contribution to sociology. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays he published in 1903, was commended by Henry James as “the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction pub- lished for many a year.” He was a founder of the NAACP, and created and edited The Crisis, its journal, for almost a quarter of a century; he was a pioneer in the writing of African history; and he was the dominant voice of the global pan-African movement for nearly fifty years. Robert Gooding- Williams calls his book of essays on African-American political theory In the Shadow of Du Bois; it is a title you could borrow for studies in most areas of African-American cultural life.

But prophets are defined by who they are not, and one reason for Du Bois’s continuing significance is his very public conflict with Booker T. Washington, who was, at the turn of the century, the most influential black figure in our country. For many, the conflict dramatized a choice facing black America. Du Bois summarized their dispute in the essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” in The Souls of Black Folk:

Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things,—
First, political power,
Second, insistence on civil rights,
Third, higher education of Negro youth,—
and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South.

People like Du Bois, however, “feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation” exactly the opposite: “1. The right to vote. 2. Civic equality. 3. The education of youth according to ability.”

Booker T. Washington stood for separate development. He intended to build an independent, prosperous black community, and defer social integration and civic equality. The main task, he thought, was to train black men and women for practical affairs, to get them ready for business. By contrast, Du Bois’s recommendation was, in the words of his disciple, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah: Seek ye first the political kingdom. To do that, you needed leaders with wide education and learning—civilized, educated men and women, who could lead the struggle and expose the lie of black inferiority.

In the year The Souls of Black Folk appeared, Washington boasted, in an essay on “Industrial Education for the Negro,” that Tuskegee taught

thirty-three trades and industries, including carpentry, blacksmithing, printing, wheelwrighting, harnessmaking, painting, machinery, founding, shoemaking, brickmasonry and brickmaking, plastering, sawmilling, tinsmithing, tailoring, mechanical and architectural drawing, electrical and steam engineering, canning, sewing, dressmaking, millinery, cooking, laundering, housekeeping, mattress making, basketry, nursing, agriculture, dairying and stock raising, horticulture.

No mention was made of classics or philosophy or sociology or history or literature—any of the fields that Du Bois taught or contributed to.

The very best service which any one can render to what is called the higher education,” Washington maintained, “is to teach the present gen- eration to provide a material or industrial foundation.” Evidently, there was little need for more people with the education of Dr. Du Bois. As a result of this well-known battle, siding with the Bard of Great Barrington over the Wizard of Tuskegee has long been a way for black intellectuals to indicate their social and political priorities.

This picture of what divided Booker T. Washington and Du Bois is far too simple. Over the past decade or so, scholars have devoted a great deal of close attention to Du Bois’s work and intellectual milieu, and one useful result has been to complicate the received account. But there are obstacles in the way of our reading. Du Bois’s orotund prose flows through his many volumes in a torrent, his distinctive voice recognizable from the first sentence of his most famous book: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” More than fifty years later, in his ninety-third year, Du Bois published the last volume of his trilogy The Black Flame; it ends with these words: “Over his dead body lay a pall of crimson roses, such as few kings have ever slept beneath.” It is the same high Victorian fustian.

Du Bois’s longevity—he lived on until the very eve of the March on Washington in August 1963—may have left us with an image of him as more modern than he really was. It’s worth bearing in mind that when Khrushchev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior. If Du Bois sometimes sounds old-fashioned, it is because his fashion was set in the nineteenth century. His contemporary readers must be able to distinguish between period commonplaces and points of genuine novelty.

A second obstacle is a kind of piety. African-Americans, like everyone else, seek heroes, men and women to look up to with pride. In the realm of the intellect, Du Bois is the preeminent candidate, in part because he accumulated so many of the formal signs of intellectual respect: the Harvard degrees (BA, MA, Ph.D.), the professorships, the prizes, the honorary degrees from universities in Accra, Berlin, Moscow, and Prague. Criticism of heroes like these can get you into trouble, especially when there are so many settled notions about what they stand for. It calls for tact.

Robert Gooding-Williams, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago, charts a course around both obstacles. He sets out to give Du Bois’s writings the same sort of judicious close reading that was on display in his earlier book on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, exploring the great man’s position respectfully, and then articulating alternatives that allow him often to draw his criticisms out of the mouths of others. Lawrie Balfour, a political theorist at the University of Virginia, chooses to focus on what she thinks Du Bois was right about, while admitting that there is much about which he was wrong. One unavoidable conclusion is that there are penalties as well as benefits to being in Du Bois’s shadow.


According to Gooding-Williams, Du Bois’s conception of politics had three core elements. First, it is the exercise of command over a community. He had no interest in the participatory conception of politics that Hannah Arendt later described as “action in concert with others, shaped by debate and deliberation.” Du Bois’s vision of politics was distinctly top down. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” he wrote in 1903.

The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

Yet Du Bois did not believe, as Max Weber did, that political rule was about hard power. Du Bois had heard Weber lecture in Berlin in the 1890s and had a great deal of respect for him. (The respect was mutual. Weber wrote in 1910, “I wish to state…that the most important sociological scholar anywhere in the Southern States in America, with whom no white scholar can compare, is a Negro—Burckhardt Du Bois.”) But where Weber thought that political rule was defined in part by the control of others through the use or threat of force, Du Bois sought to ground it in quite another mechanism, what Gooding-Williams terms “political expressivism.”

By attending to Du Bois’s relations to thinkers like Weber, Gooding-Williams helpfully places this American thinker against the background of the education he received in Berlin. Fittingly, he shows that Du Bois’s “expressivist” answer to the question of how black leadership could gain legitimacy is also squarely in a German tradition, this time the philosophical romanticism that runs back through Hegel to Johann Gottfried Herder. Du Bois thought that leadership acquired its authority by expressing a people’s spirit or soul (what Herder and Hegel would have called its Geist). That is why The Souls of Black Folk—which argues that the black soul finds its fullest expression in the spirituals, or “Sorrow Songs”—is a contribution to political theory: it aims to characterize the African-American Geist.

The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams, that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.”

There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”

Douglass, in Gooding-Williams’s account, was the great democrat of black political thought: politics for him was exactly the “action in concert with others” that Hannah Arendt was to speak of a century later. Furthermore, Douglass was skeptical that such a politics had to rely on a unitary black identity, a shared black Geist. “If African American political solidarity is a function of concerted speech, action, and mutual commitment,” Gooding-Williams writes, “then it does not require the existence of an antecedently given, biologically defined racial identity.” Black folk, in Douglass’s view, could work together without appealing to what their souls had in common. (The extent to which Du Bois was a racial “essentialist” has been widely debated in recent years, and Gooding-Williams’s book analyzes in some detail an early essay of my own on the topic.)

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