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Who Was W.E.B. Du Bois?

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National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource
W.E.B. Du Bois; detail of a drawing by Winold Reiss, circa 1925

W.E.B. Du Bois’s very long life coincided almost exactly with the period in African-American history between slavery and citizenship. Du Bois was born, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and, as he liked to point out, almost exactly coincident with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which ushered in “Radical Reconstruction,” the brief experiment with civil and voting rights for former slaves in the former Confederacy.

He died the day before the 1963 March on Washington—the last of his copious writings was a telegram of support to the organizers of the march—and he would have been surprised that the enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments in the South, which ended in 1876, was just on the verge of resuming. He spent most of his life looking for some other solution to “the problem of the color-line”—his resonant phrase—than the one the civil rights movement achieved.

Du Bois was almost unbelievably prodigious. He was a, or maybe the, pioneer elite black academic, with a master’s degree from Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Berlin and a Ph.D. from Harvard, and he was also one of the most influential figures in the constrained world of black higher education, and a passionate chronicler of the lives of the black rural poor. He was a founder of the NAACP and editor of its “record of the darker races,” The Crisis, which in its heyday had a larger circulation than The Nation or The New Republic.

As a writer he made pioneering and enduring contributions to sociology (with The Philadelphia Negro in 1899, possibly the first full-dress work of urban ethnography), history (with Black Reconstruction in 1935, which predated by decades the revision, in a positive direction, of the Reconstruction era), and the public-facing, issue-defining extended essay (with The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, his most widely read book). He helped start the anticolonial pan-Africanist movement, and died in Ghana. At the age of ninety-three, following an extended period as a staunch Stalinist, he joined the Communist Party USA, confirming the long-held suspicions of the US government, which had denied him passports for years. He dabbled in poetry, drama, fiction, and memoir. As his major biographer, David Levering Lewis, reminds us in a new essay in The American Scholar, besides his many published works, Du Bois left behind 357 boxes of papers, which demonstrate that there was almost no controversy he ignored and nobody he didn’t know.1

Because for American Negroes (always his preferred term) the main goal was elusive all through Du Bois’s life, his career was centrally one of protest. His argument with Booker T. Washington, the most celebrated black American of his young manhood, over whether to accept or resist segregation was the central debate within black America in the early twentieth century. As a matter of principle, Du Bois fought constantly against all forms of imposed inferiority for blacks; personally, he fought with many of the leading figures in what was not yet called the civil rights movement, usually over what he saw as their accommodationism and excessive patience. He led a life of feuds, firings, resignations, and ruptures. He wasn’t an easy man.

Levering Lewis remembers meeting Du Bois as a boy—Levering Lewis was the son of a dean at all-black Wilberforce University, in rural Ohio, and Du Bois once came to dinner. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his short new book about Du Bois, notes that Du Bois met his father, Joe Appiah, a young member of the African independence movement, at a Pan-Africanist conference in Manchester, England, in 1945. Anthony Appiah is named after his father’s mentor Kwame Nkruma, the first head of state of Ghana, at whose invitation Du Bois moved there in his nineties; in the 1990s, with Henry Louis Gates, Appiah coedited the Encyclopedia Africana, a project Du Bois tried unsuccessfully to launch for decades and was working on when he died.

There’s so much of Du Bois that everybody gets to produce a custom- tailored version of him. Levering Lewis, who calls himself “a pure member of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth,” subtitled the first volume of his life of Du Bois “Biography of a Race.” Appiah, younger than Lewis and the product of a different era in African-American intellectual life, finds in Du Bois a pioneering figure in working out his own distinctive preoccupation, how to square a distinct racial identity with an equally deep commitment to cosmopolitanism. Both Levering Lewis and Appiah have lived lives far less limited by law and custom than Du Bois’s was. Perhaps for that reason, both write about Du Bois in a far more amiable voice than Du Bois ever used in his own writing.

Appiah spends about half of his short book—an extended version of the W.E.B. Du Bois lectures he gave at Harvard in 2010—arguing persuasively that the way to understand Du Bois is as a product of the German academic training of his young manhood. Du Bois, who grew up in an educated but working-poor family in Great Barrington, had two undergraduate degrees, the first from Fisk and the second from Harvard. Before entering Harvard’s doctoral program in political science, he spent two years in Germany, which was then the unquestioned world capital of serious, scholarly social science—as Appiah puts it, “a German degree was the ironclad credential” in those days. It’s a much-noted irony that his studies were financed by a grant from a fund controlled by Rutherford B. Hayes, the former president who was able to assume that office because of a political deal that Du Bois devoted much of his later career to condemning: the Republican Party’s agreement to stop enforcing former slaves’ civil and voting rights in the South, in exchange for the White House.

Appiah argues that the sight of Emperor Wilhelm II riding on horseback in a parade in Berlin inspired Du Bois to copy, for life, the emperor’s tidy mustache and goatee, and that his somewhat dandified manner of dress was an adoption of the German academic-bourgeois style of the moment when he was there. Germany in the early 1890s was intensely working out the meaning of what Appiah argues were the master themes of Du Bois’s life: nationalism, race, folklore, culture, community, the role of intellectuals and academics in society, the contours of the modern welfare state.

I don’t know whether there’s a direct line from Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to the emergence of terms like “soul brother” and “soul music” late in Du Bois’s life, but Du Bois certainly deserves credit for associating the word “soul” with African-Americans. Appiah argues that “soul” is a translation of Geist, as Du Bois absorbed it specifically from the work of the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Thus, in The Souls of Black Folk “he is showing his readers the Geister (this is the plural of Geist) of a black Volk.” Even more counterintuitively, Appiah traces the origin of Du Bois’s famous formulation of “double consciousness” as the heart of the African-American mentality to Goethe’s Faust, whose main character proclaims: “Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast.”

The idea that Du Bois came of age intellectually in an atmosphere in which the fundamental concepts of modern society were in formation in European and American universities helps explain, Appiah argues persuasively, why he always thought that contradictory impulses being held in balance was a normal, desirable state of affairs. Having used Du Bois’s time in Germany to establish this, Appiah spends the second half of his book describing Du Bois’s views on what race meant—a complicated matter, because his views changed over time and no phase he went through was simple and easy to describe.

To Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave and spent his whole life in the South, the idea of a separate, self-contained, self-sustaining Negro society came naturally; to Du Bois it always grated. He was absolutely unwilling to accept legal segregation in any form, but he was never an assimilationist. Racial pride and racial identity meant everything to him. All of his major works were on racial themes. He expected the Talented Tenth of Negroes to devote itself to the welfare of the other nine tenths, as he had done, rather than melting into a nonracial national elite.

Although Appiah doesn’t discuss it, Du Bois’s relationship with Marcus Garvey, the founder of the first mass black nationalist movement and an advocate of a return to Africa for the Negro diaspora, wound up being as hostile as his relationship with Washington, and for some of the same reasons. Du Bois simply couldn’t accept the idea of blacks inhabiting their own realm. He believed, as Appiah puts it, in “moral universalism with special devotion to a group.” In the “double consciousness” passage in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote:

One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Appiah presents this sentiment as being far less unbearable than it may sound on first encounter.

To spend a lifetime exploring the meaning of being a Negro and an American of course entails defining “Negro.” Appiah reminds us that Du Bois’s education, in Berlin and at Harvard, took place when race science was coming into vogue. In 1897, in “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois himself enumerated a scheme of eight “distinctly differentiated races,” although even then, Appiah says, he was “resisting the biological model” by insisting on a definition of race that encompassed a shared history and culture. In 1906, Du Bois invited Franz Boas to Atlanta University, where he was teaching, to give a speech. Boas argued against the then-ubiquitous view of Negroes as biologically distinct and mentally inferior, and this had the immediate effect of moving Du Bois one notch further away from conceiving of race biologically. By 1920 he was writing, “There are no races, in the sense of great, separate, pure breeds of men, differing in attainment, development, and capacity.”

Saying this, for Du Bois, meant redefining, not renouncing, the concept of race that was central to his life. He initially settled on the idea of what Appiah calls “race as an effect of social practices,” as in a passage, from a 1923 essay (in The Smart Set, of all places), that Appiah quotes: “The black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” Du Bois declared that his deeply mourned only son, Burghardt, who died at age two of diphtheria, had been essentially raceless—“he knew no color-line”—because he was too young to have felt the effects of racial categorization by others. Of course that defines race negatively, even if not genetically. The way Du Bois found to a more affirmative way of thinking about what it means to be a Negro was through studying Africa—“his second front in his struggle to define the Negro.”

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Jeff Roberson/AP Images
A long-exposure photograph of protesters marching in Ferguson, Missouri, August 20, 2014

The supposedly scientific way of thinking about race predictably went along with the idea that Negroes were genetically inferior; and another part of this package of received wisdom a century ago was the idea that Africa had no history or culture. That helped make Europeans comfortable with colonizing Africa, as they were then doing. Du Bois was brought up short by Franz Boas’s assertion, in his speech in Atlanta, that Negroes should study African history, since he had been educated to believe that Africa had no history worth studying. He began writing sympathetically about Africa, and finally, in 1923, he traveled there. Appiah quotes Du Bois declaring after that visit: “The spell of Africa is upon me. The ancient witchery of her medicine is burning in my drowsy, dreamy blood.”

An important reason for the power of the spell, Appiah argues, is that, as well traveled as he was, Du Bois had never been in a place where what it meant to be black wasn’t defined by whites. If nearly everybody is black, then nobody is black, if that means being part of a highly visible minority relegated by the majority to an inferior position. As Appiah puts it, for Du Bois Africa was “the land of no Negroes.” And if race wasn’t biologically determinative, then the way to understand Africa’s colonization was as a form of economic exploitation—hence, to Appiah, encountering Africa helped start Du Bois on his journey to communism.

Using an image that Du Bois used himself, and that Martin Luther King used on the last night of his life, Appiah compares Du Bois to Moses: the leader of a people who died in view of, but not resident in, the promised land. What Appiah means by this is that Du Bois, in his opinion, was never finally able to figure out just the right definition of race: “He could not quite gain the upper hand” on it. The reason, Appiah says, was that for him, race was too deeply grounded in oppression. It served as a kind of identity placeholder “until freedom and justice reigns on earth”; “it strives, ultimately, for its own disappearance.”

Appiah himself has a well-worked-out schema for how race should be conceived in people’s minds, and he presents this as the solution that Du Bois was not able to find. It has three aspects. Race is a social identity, a way of defining oneself; this gives it a life that doesn’t require the ongoing presence of racial oppression. Appiah admits that racial identities are imprecise and “often contested at the boundaries,” but

to say that the boundaries are contestable isn’t to say there are no clear cases. If, once the evidence is in, you judge that Barack Obama isn’t a man and Denzel Washington isn’t an African-American, we will have lost our semantic bearings altogether: there can be clear answers to questions about the ascription of concepts with fuzzy edges. This acknowledged contestability, built into our use of the terms, is suggestively like the essential contestability of many normative concepts.

Identity is normative in the sense that a racial identity implies signing on to a set of beliefs and practices. Appiah gives these examples of what he means, while stipulating that these norms are only expectations, not inviolable orders, and that he could not give “full-hearted assent to any” of them:

Negatively: blacks ought not to embarrass their race; Jews and Muslims ought not to eat pork. Positively: gay people ought to come out; blacks ought to support affirmative action.

And identity is “subjective,” in the sense that the core of its meaning sits inside one’s own head, as a form of consciousness, not in rules set by society. One might say to oneself, Appiah says, “I’ve a reason to do A because I am an X,” but in that case, if one actually does A, it was a personal choice, though one connected to a voluntary group identity.

In Appiah’s definition, there is not a bright-line difference between race and other forms of identity—African, for example—that operate similarly; conversely, the idea that the hoped-for social end-state is renouncing all forms of identity and participating in a “color-blind” society is pallid and unrealistic. In that sense, one might say that we are all Negroes now. And identity is in no way personally limiting; it doesn’t work against Appiah’s ideal of cosmopolitanism, which, by way of describing Johann Gottfried Herder’s influence on the young Du Bois, he explains, in a dualistic way that typifies his own and Du Bois’s way of thinking. It is, he writes, both a requirement “that we must recognize how different the inner life of different people is,” and also “the idea that all human beings are, in some sense, fellow citizens of the world.”

One can use one’s identity as an anchor in a fluid, globalized world. Appiah himself, having spent his early career as a professor of Afro-American studies, has just joined the faculty of NYU because, he has said, it is redefining itself as a “global network university.” No doubt this will not entail his ceasing to think of himself as African.

Appiah is claiming Du Bois as a forebear, but in a careful way: he’s saying there is a clearly marked road, though one with a lot of twists and turns, leading from Du Bois’s idea of race to his own idea of identity as a concept that will succeed Du Bois. He argues with so much charm, and musters so much evidence from the cornucopia that Du Bois left behind, that while reading Lines of Descent one can forget how dominated Du Bois’s own life and consciousness were by a distinctively American racial order.

The idea that during his own early childhood African-Americans had briefly had civil rights, voting rights, and a measure of political power, only to see them snatched away after 1876, never ceased to gall Du Bois. The tendency of national mainstream thinking and politics to efface, ignore, and excuse this appalling history, or even to glorify it, was always present in his sense of what it meant to be an American. He thought about all the parts of black America—the leadership, the agrarian peasantry in the South, the educational system, the city ghettos—against the background of a persistent denial of full citizenship. Socialism and communism’s appeal to him were intertwined with his sense of the intractability of the Jim Crow system. In this sense he was a Moses who had an idea of what the promised land might look like but never got to go up to the mountaintop and have a look at it.

The attractiveness of replacing race with identity and nationalism with cosmopolitanism—personal identity not necessarily dependent on ethnic group—is obvious. As Appiah says, it permits a more positive, more flexible, less oppression-dependent version of what it means to embrace whatever identity or identities call to you. But it has disadvantages too. The killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent demonstrations, provided a vivid example of the continuing need for a politics of racial protest, of the kind that Du Bois engaged in for his whole life. Appiah is right that protest against oppression is unnecessarily constricting if it’s the only available form of racial identity, but it has to remain available as one of the forms.

The situation in Ferguson is an illustration of something broader. At the level of law and policy rather than incident, there’s a similar point to be made. Most people in the world still live under the rules of national governments, and the number of nations where racial and ethnic matters have become the subject of public policy debates seems to be increasing, not decreasing. If one were to assert—shifting Du Bois’s famous formulation forward in time—that the color line is the problem of the twenty-first century, one would not be obviously wrong. “Moral universalism with special devotion to a group”—the legacy that Appiah finds in Du Bois—isn’t an ideal basis for asking for something from a particular state, if asking for something is called for.

The recent writings of black intellectuals like Randall Kennedy (in defending explicitly race-based affirmative action) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (in calling for government reparations for African-Americans) are also in a direct line of descent from Du Bois—Kennedy published a book recently with the Du Boisian title The Persistence of the Color Line 2—but they are much less clearly connected to the argument about Du Bois that Appiah is making.

African-Americans have voted for Barack Obama for president pretty close to unanimously. Very few developments in American politics made W. E. B. Du Bois happy, but Obama’s election probably would have. Obama himself, however, illustrates the limits of post-racialism. The major theme of his autobiography is that, as the son of a black father of the African nationalist generation and a white mother, raised by a white family in a mainly white community, he still had to find his way to a black (specifically, African-American) identity as an essential part of coming to adulthood. And his silence, most of the time, about race as president looks like a sign that race is on his mind a lot, rather than that he has somehow transcended it—he seems very careful, and the passion on the occasions when he does discuss race is obvious.

When he was making the brief public remarks that were his official personal reaction to the events in Ferguson, however, he was almost robotic—expressionless, distanced, and pointedly noncommittal about how we should think about Michael Brown’s death and the unrest that followed it. It looked as if he were making a great effort to keep the lid on. And the few times he has let us see how he might really feel about the persistence of racial oppression, he has been supremely cautious, or (in the case of the “beer summit” with Henry Louis Gates and a Cambridge police officer) has found a way to demonstrate that he isn’t really angry.

Obama’s being president demonstrates how far the country has come since Du Bois’s long heyday, but his conduct as president demonstrates that, at least if you’re a politician heading a national government, racial-identity-plus-cosmopolitanism isn’t yet a completely comfortable mantle to assume. It seems to require some considerable degree of self-suppression of feelings that one senses many whites just don’t want to be exposed to. Two-ness, as Du Bois conceived it, may now apply to more than just black folks, but at least in the United States it still applies to black folks most intensely, and entails the most difficulty.

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