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On the Trail Blazed by W.E.B. Du Bois

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


The New York Review’s August 19, 2021 issue features “The Color Line,” Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of three books focusing on the achievement of the Black scholar, activist, and novelist W.E.B. Du Bois in organizing the legendary “American Negro Exhibit” at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Much of Gordon-Reed’s field of study centers on the events of a century prior: her research brought the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings into mainstream consciousness and established a new historical consensus, overturning the entrenched view of historians over many decades who refused to accept that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’s children. For her investigation into the further branches of Hemings’s family, Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize, and she is now at work on a second volume, which will chronicle the next two generations of Hemingses.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

Annette Gordon-Reed

Gordon-Reed’s latest book, On Juneteenth, is about Texas, where she is from, and about her own, deep relationship with the state. “Texas tries (and succeeds in some ways) to make its citizens see themselves as special. I know that can be annoying,” she explained this week over e-mail, “but I think it gives a sense that we were supposed to do things in the world, to be a part of shaping the world in some way.”

Much as Texas had a formative effect on her life, Gordon-Reed argues that Du Bois was influenced by his New England upbringing. When she went to Dartmouth for college, she told me, “I got the impression that many of the white people I met had never really talked with, or seen, many Black people. The culture of New England has not been shaped by the interaction of black and white as much as East Texas.” When Du Bois went to college at Fisk in Tennessee in the 1880s, and began teaching at Atlanta University a decade later, “he encountered large numbers of Black people, and Black culture, for the first time after having grown up in a virtually all-white society.”

The guiding idea behind the 1900 exhibition in Paris was, as Gordon-Reed writes in her review, to demonstrate “race uplift through the meeting of bourgeois ideals”—educational attainment, steady employment, book-writing—the scope of which would have been unthinkable under slavery, just a few decades before. Gordon-Reed said that Du Bois “started out thinking that the elite among Blacks were the natural leaders of what he saw as a nation within a nation. He was actually quite snobbish.”

I asked her about how the principle of “race uplift” might translate to contemporary America, where the gap in racial well-being remains staggering, and strategies to close it abound. At the turn of the nineteenth century, “there was an emphasis on what we would call bourgeois values—patriarchal marriage, sobriety—a kind of sensibility associated with the Victorian Age,” she said; the decades since have seen “a sustained critique of that way of thinking.” Today, “economic advancement, voting rights, equal citizenship—things for which Du Bois also fought—far outstrip the emphasis on a particular definition of morality as the prerequisite for advancement.”

As Gordon-Reed notes in her review, Du Bois’s thinking eventually shifted toward more structural explanations for racial inequality. “As he moved toward socialism, he saw the Black working class having a critical role to play in the process,” and backed away from his earlier moralizing, she told me. Still, Du Bois never entirely left New England: “He remained a bit imperious,” she said.

Imperious, maybe, but decidedly anti-imperialist. Du Bois “thought globally,” Gordon-Reed said, “seeing the struggle as bigger than just what was happening to Black people in the United States.” (Du Bois spent his last years in Ghana, working on an encyclopedia of the Black diaspora.) His internationalism was one of many qualities that Gordon-Reed admires. “His determination to explore every relevant avenue to promote Black advancement is stunning to me,” she said. “Writing, teaching, activism, organizing—he did everything.” For her own part, Gordon-Reed describes herself as more than a historian of race, or a Black historian, than any kind of activist, but she added:

I do feel a responsibility, or desire, I could say, to reach as many people as I can with my writing, that grows out of my interest in making a contribution to the Black struggle. The idea of writing just to, or for, other scholars was never the plan.

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