W. E. B. DuBois was a distinguished American black scholar, the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934, and an active and outspoken writer on black questions during long years of political reaction in his country. Yet in spite of his obvious talents as a social critic, DuBois never commanded the influence to which he aspired and he died little known to the American public and neglected by scholars. Fortunately the story of his life is now being retold, with varying degrees of success, in a growing number of books and academic studies.
Considered in retrospect, this venerable old man did more than merely redefine for blacks their role in Western history. On the contrary, as blacks began to grapple seriously with DuBois’s positions, and to comprehend the tenacity with which he held to the ideals that informed them, they recognized that he had bequeathed to them the right of intellectual independence. DuBois’s true legacy to American blacks was his intellectual audacity. Largely because of his example, a black writer could assert in 1964 that
…never, never again must the Negro people pay the price that they have paid for allowing their oppressors to say who is or is not a fit leader of our cause.
DuBois’s origins made him an unlikely candidate for the radical image that he now has. He was born in 1868 and grew up in the small rural community of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, mainly in the house of his grandfather, who had been a chief steward on steamboats, a small merchant in Springfield, a senior warden of the St. Luke’s Parish Church in New Haven. DuBois wrote of him,
Always he held his head high, took no insults, made few friends…. Beneath his sternness was a very human man. Slyly he wrote poetry. He loved much and married three wives, but he was hard and unsympathetic with his children. Some of them and their children are now “white,” but his oldest son quarrelled and ran away from home and married my brown mother.1
But DuBois’s father “early began his restless wandering,” and his mother returned with her son to Great Barrington where, as DuBois later wrote, blacks were “rare.” Only when he arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to study for an undergraduate degree at Fisk University did he begin to grasp the harsh realities of the color line in American society. What he discovered in the unreconstructed South contrasted sharply with the rather placid and accommodating racial atmosphere of western Massachusetts.
By 1888 DuBois had taken his degree at Fisk and entered Harvard for further study. From his own account, it appears that he preferred to be a lonely figure in Cambridge. He was not drawn to collegiate life and the snubs of his Harvard classmates only confirmed his suspicion that they were not his intellectual betters. Although DuBois later mentioned that Herbert Croly and Augustus Hand were among his classmates, he observed that it was the illustrious members of the Harvard faculty—William James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana—who were his friends.
So the young DuBois had a strong sense that he was a man apart, that he had a special destiny, and it was from this essentially isolated and consciously critical perspective that he learned to deal with the world. During the years that followed, although DuBois was to change his views, switch political loyalties, retreat and advance, he retained, if sometimes circumspectly, a firm confidence in his perceptions. For this persistent trait DuBois would not always be liked.
When he received his PhD in history from Harvard in 1895, DuBois was only marginally interested in political action. His main interest was in social science because he believed that rational analysis would win out against the accumulated heritage of American racial prejudice. Writing as a detached sociologist, DuBois published The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and began the Atlanta University Studies (1896-1914)—a series of monographs conceived to describe the sociology of black life in America. But it may be one of the supreme ironies of his life that, though DuBois sought to influence American culture as a social scientist, measuring “progress” quantitatively and disproving theories of black inferiority empirically, his greatest and most lasting success was as a publicist for the spiritual crisis in black America.
DuBois was drawn into public controversy in the years following Booker T. Washington’s infamous Compromise Speech of 1895. Unquestionably the most prominent black leader in America, Washington openly proclaimed in a speech at the Atlanta Exposition the intrinsic value of the social and economic separation of blacks. By the turn of the century, DuBois felt the time had come for a defense of the practical principles of democratic humanism against Washington’s view that blacks should accept an inferior social position in America and seek what opportunities they could through technical education. He conceived his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, as a vehicle for explaining his differences with Washington, apparently intending his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others” to be the central statement in the collection.
But as DuBois began putting the essays together, the project became something more than an extended monologue addressed to Washington and his followers. The book included a reflection on the death of his son and “Of the Sorrow Songs,” the first essay on Negro spirituals by a black writer, and still one of the most powerful ever written. In part Souls emerged as a lyrical rendering of a personal crisis:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question; unasked by some through a feeling of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town…. To the real question…I seldom answer a word.
The book became a passionate statement of the black condition in the Western world:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the other, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings….
Nowhere else was DuBois’s description of the Negro’s experience in American society to be given more succinct expression. Published in 1903, Souls is probably his greatest achievement as a writer. Indeed, his reputation may largely rest on this remarkable document, which had a profound effect on the minds of black people.
By 1906 DuBois made his reputation as a controversial public figure by taking part in the Niagara Movement, a coalition of black groups opposed to policies of deference to white rule. Here he found another platform from which to argue against Booker T. Washington. When the Niagara Movement broke apart he collaborated in the founding of the NAACP. When he was installed as the editor of the NAACP’s magazine in 1909, DuBois had access to a sizable audience that was to grow until 1934, when he broke with the NAACP.
But his relations with the NAACP were rarely smooth. As early as 1911, some members of the organization’s board of directors had disapproved of the editorial omniscience of DuBois’s handling of The Crisis. He was bound to embarrass the board when he criticized the honesty and efficiency of the Negro churches, to take only one example; and some of the NAACP leaders found him difficult and autocratic—a charge that recurred throughout his life. In 1919 a compromise of sorts was hammered out to give him editorial control, though his characteristic independence continued to rankle Walter White, the functional head of the organization.
During the 1920s, DuBois worked out his own theory of black nationalism—one that led him to believe that blacks should organize their own economic and cultural institutions. Though he opposed forced segregation in principle, DuBois argued that the most effective response to discrimination would be to create autonomous black institutions, rather than accept constrained and conditional participation in integrated ones. “The only effective defense the segregated and dispersed group has against complete spiritual and physical disaster,” he wrote, “is internal self-organization for self-respect and self-defense.” In 1934 when White protested the editor’s right to urge “self-segregation” in the pages of The Crisis, DuBois retorted:
In the first place, Walter White is white. He has more white companions and friends than colored. He goes where he will in New York City and naturally meets no Color Line, for the simple and sufficient reason that he isn’t “colored”…. This is perfectly natural and he does what anyone else of his complexion would do.
The NAACP’s board was outraged. Within two months, he had resigned from the NAACP and The Crisis.
There had been, of course, more important struggles during DuBois’s years on The Crisis than the final tiff with Walter White. In the 1920s he tangled with Marcus Garvey, the charismatic West Indian leader of the Negro Improvement Association, which may well have inspired the most consistently united black nationalist movement to emerge in America. However, when Garvey launched his scheme for a Black Star Steamship Line to carry blacks to Africa, DuBois attacked him for his faulty analysis of black aspiration and for his uncertain grasp of economics. Apparently DuBois was right in his criticism of the statistics Garvey used to show that emigration was a workable proposition. But it is also evident that at the root of DuBois’s dislike of Garvey lay his personal distaste for the West Indian’s flamboyance and for the bands of uniformed blacks that Garvey was able to call into the streets of Harlem.
Like Garvey, DuBois had become intensely interested in Africa; but, unlike Garvey, he was not intrigued by the idea of emigration. Rather, DuBois sought through a series of Pan-African congresses to initiate a working coalition of Third World leaders. These meetings, held in the capitals of the West, produced more inspirational rhetoric than cohesive political action. But it is not generally recognized that, even given their differences in style, DuBois and Garvey held similar views on the relationship between Western blacks and Africa. In both DuBois’s ideas of Pan-Africa and in Garvey’s emigration plan, Africa was seen as the black Zion. On this vision both men would, I think, have agreed.
If DuBois incurred the wrath of Garvey and his followers, he later infuriated the American Communist Party. Sometime between 1907 and 1910, he had become a socialist, and his interest in communism began with the Russian revolution. From 1921 to 1933, a series of editorials and essays bearing on Marxist radicalism appeared in The Crisis. 2 Nevertheless, DuBois opposed the American Communist Party vehemently and argued that Marx’s theories pertained only to the idiosyncratic milieu of nineteenth-century Europe, and not to the racial situation in America. Moreover, contrary to the party line advocating a proletarian coalition of all races, he insisted that white American workers could not be induced to cooperate with blacks.
More galling to the American Communist Party than this view of its program, however, was DuBois’s support of the NAACP’s effort to win the Scottsboro case in court during the early Thirties. With his customary vehemence, DuBois charged that the party was willing, indeed eager, to sacrifice to the proletarian cause the Alabama youths who had been indicted for rape. “If the Communists want these lads murdered,” he wrote in The Crisis, “then their tactics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action…is calculated to insure this.” Consequently, his relations with the CP remained strained for nearly thirty years. And even when DuBois finally joined the party in 1961, the act was largely ceremonial because he left America for good shortly thereafter.
It is clear now that he had his strongest influence in the black community at the time of the Scottsboro case. In the next few years, and especially after his resignation from the NAACP, DuBois came to be seen as “an old man who should be content to rest on his laurels.” From the NAACP he moved to Atlanta University, back to the NAACP from 1944 to 1948, and then to Paul Robeson’s Council of African Affairs. In 1950 he became chairman of the Peace Information Center, which had refused to register with the US government as “the agent of a foreign principal”; and in 1951 he was indicted on what amounted to a charge of treason. Though the indictment was dropped later for insufficient evidence, his passport was withheld by the State Department. In 1958 he was again permitted to travel abroad. By 1961 DuBois had fled the US to take up residence in Ghana at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah.
On August 27, 1963, one day before the Civil Rights March on Washington, DuBois died in Accra. A mourner is said to have quipped that “he couldn’t have timed it better…[he] made of even his death one last, grand protest.” In fact, DuBois might well have viewed dying at that particular time as one final protesting gesture against racism in America. His decisions toward the end of his life to become a communist and to exile himself in Africa were obviously acts of defiance.
Still, these ultimate rejections of the American “promise” resembled neither “irascible Shavian act[s] of pique,” as one critic has put it, nor infantile gestures of senility. Rather, by 1961, DuBois had traveled every available path in his struggle against what he understood to be the narrowly nativist tendencies in American society. To die grandly and defiantly in exile, to be buried in the rich soil of “Mother Africa” at a time when white America could no longer ignore the demands of a determined black population, was an act wholly consonant with DuBois’s character.
Since he had few intimate friends, and little is known of his private life, it is of interest that Shirley Graham, his second wife, has now published an account of their life together in His Day Is Marching On. Unfortunately, however, her version of DuBois’s career is perhaps more revealing of herself than of her late husband. “Women of color” have rarely had the opportunity to write about their love affairs. There are no black legends comparable to that of Heloïse and Abelard or even of Bonnie and Clyde. Mrs. DuBois (who was known as a writer before she married) seems to have wanted to fill this gap, and she assumes her romance with DuBois to be as interesting as any other aspect of his career. Her recollections, unfortunately, are a cloying intrusion into any serious effort to understand DuBois.
Shirley Graham married DuBois in 1951, when he was awaiting trial on the federal indictment. She met him as he was making his last and most provocative shift in allegiances, aligning himself with far left groups in New York during the early years of the cold war. In view of her own association with these groups, Mrs. DuBois has been forced to be extremely selective in what she relates about the awkward twists in DuBois’s career. She does not, for example, mention her husband’s view of the Scottsboro case. She remains a captive of the kind of self-imposed censorship that politicians practice when faced with political ambiguity or complex ideas of any kind. Indeed, Mrs. DuBois evades even a cursory examination of DuBois’s most jarring volte-face—his application for membership in the Communist Party. She merely notes that he had “reached another decision, a decision declaring his independence,” and to substantiate this odd statement she quotes his letter of application to party chairman Gus Hall. She then passes on to other matters, somewhat like an unwanted observer treading softly around forbidden facts.
The gaps in Mrs. DuBois’s memoir are more instructive than her recollections. She has nothing to say about the internal drama of the NAACP’s birth. She mentions DuBois’s conflict with Washington only in passing and his debate with Garvey not at all. Instead she clutters her narrative with lengthy accounts of her father’s work in the NAACP, the food DuBois liked, and the international celebrities she was able to meet because she was married to DuBois. It is not unfair to say, therefore, that Mrs. DuBois has published a book which, for all of its detail, is little more than a footnote to a serious study of DuBois.
Fortunately, Julius Lester has edited a good, two-volume collection of DuBois’s miscellaneous pieces entitled The Seventh Son: The Thought and Writings of W. E. B. DuBois. As such compilations go, The Seventh Son is useful precisely because Lester has taken pains to edit DuBois’s writing so as to illustrate the intricate thought and feeling of a man who was complex and perplexing at times, but rarely inconsistent. As one turns from DuBois’s earliest written pieces—his short columns for the New York Globe—to his scholarly and editorial writings, one sees that he always believed that his destiny was to be a public teacher and intellectual leader. First, there is the youthful DuBois advising Globe readers,
The political contest is near at hand, and the colored men of the town should prepare themselves accordingly. They should acquaint themselves with the political status and attitude of the candidates toward them, particularly their representatives….
And, then, years later, we find DuBois musing,
The liberal and radical American forces cannot count on a Negro following so long as Negroes get jobs and make money and continue to be satisfied with their present status as half or threequarters free. But conservative and industrial Americans also cannot count on a Negro following as caste allows disfranchisement and results in unpunished murder.
Undoubtedly, DuBois relished being an omniscient instructor of the untutored. On one page of Lester’s edition, we find DuBois informing the young readers of The Brownie’s Book3 that Rilke was “one of the most original of living poets.” On the next, he advises his readers that “there were sixty-five persons lynched without trial in the United States during the year 1920.”
The reference to Rilke is significant because, in spite of his recent deification as a prophet of militant revolutionism, DuBois was a persistent advocate of high culture. He remarked once that “civilization must show two things: the glory and beauty of creating life and the need and duty…of intelligence.” In his view, the virtue of socialism as a political system lay in the socialists’ willingness to organize society to supply basic material needs and to free talented men to engage in those leisurely intellectual and cultural pursuits which competitive capitalism seemed actively to discourage. With this notion of an organic relationship between politics and culture, DuBois had much in common with the idealists and the progressive Social Darwinists of the nineteenth century.
But it is precisely this fact that eludes Lester in his valuable introduction to The Seventh Son. He suggests correctly that DuBois and Washington “disagreed…in their concepts of education—in their concepts of the nature of Man and his function.” True enough. But when DuBois stressed the importance of the “Talented Tenth” of the black population, he was not, as Lester suggests, simply restating the importance of “awareness of the complexity of the twentieth century world” or his belief that “the Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” as Lester proposes. More important, as Truman Nelson argues in The Black Titan: W. E. B. DuBois, DuBois opposed Washington because he believed that the Tuskegee leader was “trying to shrink a great race into a mere petty bourgeoisie.” DuBois tended to take an aristocratic position on most issues and found anything vaguely connected with bourgeois aspirations—which to him Washington represented—to be distasteful.
Similarly, Lester is mistaken when he asserts that, in his early years, “DuBois could see no class divisions in the black community.” DuBois certainly was aware of class differences among blacks and was careful to distinguish between the “better classes of Negroes” and the “masses,” as in his book The Philadelphia Negro. His call for a “Talented Tenth” was not predicated on the notion that blacks could not already be distinguished along class lines, but rather that the black upper classes had not adequately consolidated their intellectual resources and were too busy pursuing the trappings of the white bourgeoisie.
Certainly Lester is mistaken in equating DuBois’s notion of a “Talented Tenth” with an economic middle class. DuBois intended nothing of the sort. On the contrary, he hoped for the ascendancy of a cultural elite, not a successful business class, primarily because he was appalled by the ignorance and materialism characteristic of the American middle class—black and white. Moreover, DuBois’s vision of a controlling and culturally superior black elite implied that, for him, both oligarchy and regimentation were acceptable principles of social organization. In view of this, his rapprochement with communism was less difficult for him than most commentators suppose.
DuBois’s decision to join the Communist Party, like his participation in the Niagara Movement, has provided fertile grounds on which DuBois scholars, notably Rayford Logan and August Meier, can nourish their pet thesis—“the paradox of W. E. B. DuBois.” In reality, DuBois was not as much of a “paradox” as they would like to believe. In his newspaper columns he gave instruction, but he never appealed directly to the black masses because he felt he was not “of the masses.” Nor, for that matter, did he ever become an orthodox Marxist. One can argue that DuBois never retreated from his initial position that the white American proletariat was both insensitive to and obstructive of black progress. Even when he became an avowed communist, he rationalized his position as one supporting traditional African socialism rather than an imminent class struggle in America. The consistency that these scholars deny is readily apparent in his political alignments. Throughout his career, DuBois was more of a Hegelian idealist than a Marxist materialist.
It is especially lamentable that there is no convincing analysis of DuBois’s detente with communism in Rayford Logan’s W. E. B. DuBois: A Profile. Logan’s symposium of well-known DuBois scholars and researchers includes Francis Broderick, Vincent Harding, Herbert Aptheker, and Elliott Rudwick, among others. A rigorous historian, Professor Logan has sternly and admirably controlled the often discordant views of these writers. Logan taught with DuBois at Atlanta University from 1933 to 1938. He takes a rather proprietary view of his former colleague and does not hesitate to provide Olympian judgments on his career. The publishers could not have chosen a better editor for, while “DuBoisites” are given to flights of unqualified praise, Professor Logan can be counted on to apply the brakes.
But Logan’s collection contains some serious flaws—DuBois’s conflict with Garvey, for example, is slighted while his battle with Washington is rehashed at great length, yet without casting any new light on this seemingly endless dispute. None of the contributors recognizes that DuBois’s attacks on Garvey were rooted in his earlier conflict with Washington, a rudimentary fact of black social history that DuBois scholars seem determined to ignore.
Logan’s bias against Washington is the key to understanding not only the portrait of DuBois he has compiled but other matters as well. Like Herbert Aptheker, who (for other ideological reasons) has a strong intellectual and emotional bias against Washington, Logan cannot recognize any useful service that this brilliant politician might have performed for blacks. Undoubtedly, a scholar should be acutely discriminating in choosing his ideological bedfellows. But the disdain for Washington leads to a serious misunderstanding of the complex history of the Negro movement. None of these historians sees that DuBois’s first tactical error was to attack Washington openly. It was a blunder because Washington, whose Atlanta speech was welcomed by editors, college presidents, and other leaders throughout the United States and who was able to build a political following among blacks, had both the power and the inclination to retaliate.
As a result of Washington’s strength, many of DuBois’s efforts—including his early magazines, The Moon and Horizon—failed. And as the experienced observer Kelly Miller has noted, Washington proceeded to harass the Niagara men, continually defeating them at every turn. The Niagara Movement, in fact, dissolved in a frenzy of internal disputes, and the consequences of its break-up for the anti-accommodationist wing of the civil rights movement have been dire ones ever since. The various failures of Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X can in part be traced to the failure of Booker T. Washington’s opponents, including DuBois, to understand the strength of Washington’s appeal.
However, for all of his occasional shortsightedness, DuBois’s views have been current among black intellectuals for most of the century. The recent surge of interest in him has inspired the expected glorification. In the commemorative volume The Black Titan, the editors of Freedomways4 have collected a number of tributes (by Shirley DuBois, Nkrumah, Roy Wilkins, Ruby Dee, etc.), together with a series of essays by and about DuBois. With few exceptions, including a moving discussion of The Souls of Black Folk by Saunders Redding, most of these essays are as uncritical as we would expect in a memorial edition. Still, The Black Titan is useful because it reveals the strength of DuBois’s influence in the black community during the middle 1960s.
The reputations of controversial men like DuBois are liable to curious fluctuations. Initially, his pact with the Communist Party was somewhat embarrassing to the liberal community that had been scared by McCarthy and embraced the crusading anticommunist fervor of the Kennedy Administration. Lately, DuBois’s reputation has fared better because of his assertiveness about the importance of black racial consciousness.
Not surprisingly, however, his nationsalistic radicalism has led some white liberals to conclude that DuBois became a racist. In an attack reprinted in Logan’s A Profile, Harold Isaacs writes that DuBois “made himself into a racist, genteel, intelligent, and literate, but still a racist.” But, Isaacs to the contrary, DuBois’s emphasis on black racial consciousness was a response to Western racism. As such, it was a consequence of white attitudes, and a defensive one; it was not an aggressive insistence on further racism.
Indeed, whatever one thinks of DuBois’s rapturous views about the black sensibility, it is important to remember that he continued to plead for a truly pluralistic culture in a world where the superiority of whites is still an a priori assumption. In so far as he grasped the basic dilemma of Western blacks as being a people with “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings,” DuBois’s attitudes have been vindicated. He was, as we can now see, one of those unique men whose ideas are destined to be reviled and then revived, and then, no doubt, reviled again, haunting the popular mind long after his death.
November 30, 1972
Quoted from DuBois’s essay “The Shadow of Years” in The Crisis Writings edited by Daniel Walden (Fawcett, 1972). ↩
“The Negro and Radical Thought” (1921), “Judging Russia” (1927), “The Negro and Communism” (1931), etc. ↩
In the 1920s DuBois started this short-lived magazine for black children. ↩
John Henrik Clarke, Ernest Kaiser, et al. ↩