The Enduring Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, David Levering Lewis. Henry Holt, 715 pages, $35.00.

David Levering Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for
W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. The Du Bois portrayed
in that volume is a brilliant youth and later a powerful idealist who
wrote movingly about America's predicament with race in The Souls of
Black Folk
(1903) and then took on, through language and protest, Booker
T. Washington's accommodationist ideas about black advancement in the
Jim Crow era. Du Bois's early career earns him the right to be called
the "father of the modern civil rights movement." In his new book, Lewis
completes the story, treating Du Bois's mature and elderly years from
1919 to 1963, and building a monument of biographical literature. This
volume is as powerful as the first, impressive in its depth and scope;
yet this is a more difficult story to tell, complicated by Du Bois's
late-life radicalism and the hostility he faced during the Cold War.

The Du Bois of volume two edits The Crisis (the journal of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) for 24
years, helps create the fledgling Pan-African movement, challenges the
charismatic black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and moves toward socialism
and anticolonialism in the 1930s. In the decades that follow, he becomes
a fierce critic of U.S. imperialism, a hunted victim of McCarthyism, and
finally a communist in exile in Ghana, where he dies at age 95 in August
1963, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers the "I Have a
Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

Lewis gives us Du Bois's life as a saga of amazing achievement on the
one hand and disillusionment, as well as occasional doctrinaire
blindness, on the other. We see here the Du Bois of multiple genius,
superhuman work discipline, and colossal arrogance. In the course of his
life as editor, speaker, organizer, novelist, and "tribune" of the race,
Du Bois attempted, as Lewis notes, "virtually every possible solution to
the problem of twentieth-century racism--scholarship, propaganda,
integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international
communism, expatriation, third-world solidarity." His years at the helm
of The Crisis, writing editorials, short stories, reviews, and
accounts of his own travels, left one of the most important repositories
of African-American thought ever produced. His frequent speaking tours
helped define the idea of the "public intellectual" long before it
became a common notion.

Although he had many embittered relationships with fellow
African-American leaders, Du Bois led black America by the sheer weight
of his influence. As a thinker, his writings anticipated many of the
trends of late-twentieth-century academic work about
race--multiculturalism, third-world studies, whiteness studies,
Afrocentrism, and black-Atlantic scholarship. Du Bois sought tirelessly
to measure the "progress" of his people, to discern the horizons of
change for the "darker races" in the world. But as he wrote in Souls,
"Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly." Du Bois's enormous
intellectual productivity and self-confidence sustained him in the face
of historical realities that placed him on the outside of power looking
in. With enough distance now from the Cold War, even those who judge Du
Bois's communism harshly may find inspiration within the tragedy of this

Lewis develops each stage of Du Bois's career with ample, sometimes
overwhelming, detail. The remarkable cultural ferment of the 1920s
crackles in Lewis's prose. Lewis is a wonderful stylist, although at
times he insists on using archaic words: sangfroid (for
"self-possession"), eleemosynary (for "charity"), and others. He is
sure-handed in his depiction of Du Bois as the self-appointed "custodian
of culture" who ultimately rejected much of what he saw as the
"decadence" of the Harlem Renaissance. Du Bois believed that black art
needed to have a "civic function"; Lewis declares him an

Lewis illuminates, as well, the black-nationalist atmosphere that
Marcus Garvey entered in New York in the World War I era. We feel the
appeal of Garvey to race pride among blacks across all economic classes
living with the indignities of Jim Crow. Lewis argues that Garvey's
challenge was "bottom up"--more about class and who would lead black
America than about ideas and strategies. But Garvey's racialism, his
condemnations of mulattoes and interracial marriage, and especially his
embrace of the Ku Klux Klan as an ally in racial separation, repulsed Du
Bois. He was hardly alone in his suspicions of Garvey's chauvinism and
grandiose style, but he led the attack on the Jamaican's extraordinarily
popular Universal Negro Improvement Association. Du Bois gathered
information and editorialized extensively in order to destroy Garvey's

A defining aspect of Du Bois's career was his deep, torturous
relationship with the NAACP. The civil rights flagship that he had
helped found, and whose commitment to integration he championed, was a
troubled home. In 1934 Du Bois parted noisily from his long tenure at
The Crisis, by writing a series of articles espousing black
self-segregation. Du Bois was fed up with integrationism; the Depression
had driven blacks into deeper poverty and political marginalization.
This change of heart dumbfounded much of black America, especially
younger intellectuals. Some thought Du Bois was merely "engaging in
intellectual play," as E. Franklin Frazier put it. Perhaps he was merely
moving pragmatically, others surmised. But Lewis judges Du Bois's break
with NAACP leadership as a "caustic, condescending" act of "intellectual

Pittsburgh Courier columnist George Schuyler defended NAACP
leaders Walter White and Roy Wilkins with this diatribe against Du Bois
(who by then had coined the term "Talented Tenth" for the black educated
elite): "Imagine the Top Sergeant of the Talented Tenth fouling like a
punch-drunk pugilist despairing of victory." Du Bois, meanwhile, had
attacked Walter White as too "white," which Lewis grants was "an
egregious lapse of couth." But the bitterness of this breakup seems to
require more explanation than Lewis provides in his claim that Du Bois
moved to separatism because he was "disgusted personally and discouraged

By the 1930s, as Du Bois moved back to Atlanta University to resume
an academic career, he was "mesmerized by dialectical materialism,"
Lewis contends. He taught courses on Marx and worked on his greatest
historical work--Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Lewis
fashions a brilliant chapter on the writing of this classic, managing to
write epic narrative about historiography. His description of Claude
Bowers's racist and popular 1929 book The Tragic Era as a "lynching
in prose" almost makes one cheer. Who says historiography cannot be
dramatic when the stakes are high?

In his treatment of Black Reconstruction, it is as though Lewis
found the Du Bois he most admires--the historian who would throttle the
profession in the service of social ideals and good history. The story
of Reconstruction had been riveted into American historical
consciousness as a tragic mistake, a corrupt attempt to recognize blacks
as citizens long before their time, and a misuse of federal power
against the benighted South. Black Reconstruction put black bondage
and freedom at the heart of America's Civil War and its aftermath. In
spite of its awkward use of Marxist parlance and ideology--emancipation
as the "general strike" and slaves as the black "proletariat"--decades
of scholarship have been built on the insights of this book, especially,
as Lewis observes, on the simple idea of what historians came to call
black "agency."

Moreover, no one can read Black Reconstruction without seeing Du
Bois's own wish that this book be a "piece of literature." In biblical
tones, he captures the apocalyptic character of emancipation's meaning
to the slaves themselves: "To these black folk it was the Apocalypse.
The magnificent trumpet tones of Hebrew Scripture ... became a strange
new gospel. All that was Beauty, all that was Love, all that was Truth,
stood on the top of these mad mornings and sang with the stars. A great
human sob shrieked in the wind, and tossed its tears upon the
sea,--free, free, free." Not everyone's cup of tea, perhaps, for
historical writing, but necessary in order to dislodge America's
historical memory from its white-supremacist moorings.

Lewis also provides excellent readings of some of Du Bois's other
important books and articles, especially Dark Princess, his 1928
novel about an African American and an Indian princess. Du Bois's
fiction was not his best work, but Lewis makes artful use of Dark
, suggesting that the character Kautilya is a composite of all
the women in Du Bois's life--and there were many. Indeed, one of Lewis's
true achievements is the use of oral history and correspondence to probe
the details of Du Bois's private life.

Du Bois's wife, Nina Gomer, a student he met while teaching at
Wilberforce College in Ohio in the 1890s, emerges as "a sad record of
psychosomatic debility and shriveling superego." With time, Nina's
presence in her husband's life "ended at the borders of ... Du Bois's
cosmic concerns." In a proper Victorian pose, she remained the public
Mrs. Du Bois who was almost never visible. Nina was tireless in devotion
to a private sphere, managed the details of family affairs, and often
lived apart from the editor and professor. Lewis describes the Du
Boises' daughter Yolande as "self-indulgent, underachieving ...
chronically overweight, and often ill." She craved a father's approval
but seems to have received more instruction than love.

Yolande's celebrated marriage in 1928 to the poet Countee Cullen,
attended by 3,000 people, was a farce of enormous proportions. Cullen
was gay, a fact realized during the honeymoon. Much of the
responsibility for the failed marriage goes to Du Bois. The father
entertained racial and genetic fantasies of marrying a daughter to a
brilliant artist, the offspring from which would produce even more
genius. Lewis accuses Du Bois of exercising "spectacularly wrongheaded
... tyranny" over the lives of two misguided young people.

Du Bois, the "public feminist and the private patriarch," craved the
companionship of talented women. He was a sincere proponent of women's
civil and political rights, as manifested in his famous essay "The
Damnation of Women" (1920). Yet he conducted "serial affairs" with the
"compulsiveness of a Casanova," contends Lewis. And there were many
accomplished women in Du Bois's life: the novelist and editor Jessie
Fauset, the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, the physician Virginia
Alexander, schoolteachers Mildred Jones and Rachel Davis Du Bois (white
and no relation), and especially Shirley Graham, a playwright and
leftist, who became the second Mrs. Du Bois in 1951. Without doubt,
gifted women showed "enormous fascination" with Du Bois. Emotionally,
too, he needed these relationships, carried them on openly, and could be
callous in his partings.

Du Bois's internationalism dominated the final two decades of his
life. His Pan-Africanist, anticolonial views were sincere, but usually
combined with his own brands of Euro-elitism and a racial romanticism
about Africa. Culturally and temperamentally, Du Bois was a lifelong
Germanophile. While visiting Berlin in 1936 on a German fellowship, Du
Bois chose to avoid the Olympics and Jesse Owens's feats in the Nazi
capital and went to Bayreuth, where he "bathed himself in Wagner."
Humming familiar refrains from Lohengrin, America's most famous black
intellectual would leave Germany appalled at Nazi anti-Semitism, but
still hoping that Hitler's regime might lead to true socialism. Lewis
deftly handles the irony of this moment in the journey of Du Bois's
romantic heart. His refusal to give up on his "Germany of Goethe and
Heine" allowed Du Bois to engage in some bizarre public apologetics
about Nazism into the late 1930s.

Japan presented another curious impetus for Du Bois's growing
radicalism. In the 1930s, he became a leading supporter of Japan's
incursions into China and other parts of Asia. "Asia for the Asiatics"
seemed consistent with years of arguing for African liberation. Du Bois
was a cheerleader for Japanese imperialism, which he considered
acceptable because it would result in the "end of white world
supremacy." He was treated like a world celebrity when he visited Japan
in 1936 and 1937.

The principle of "the enemy of my enemies is my friend" motivated a
significant group of black American intellectuals who championed Japan's
ambitions in Asia. As Lewis explains it, Du Bois acted out of
misunderstanding, cynicism, and romantic racialism. So much
discouragement in battling American racism had made Du Bois all but
blindly yearn for a conquering nation not ruled by white people. But
given the record of atrocity committed in the name of racial
nationalism, such a judgment seems a little tame. Du Bois's genius ran
amok in the search for a nation to champion the darker races.

Du Bois also found a champion for the lower classes. From his first
visit to Russia in 1926, he was fascinated with the communist
experiment. As the Cold War ensued in the late 1940s, he became a
proponent of world socialism. None of the rampages of Stalinism could
dissuade him from the conviction that "all tactics that contained
American capitalism were fair." Du Bois was indicted, arrested,
handcuffed, and tried in 1951 as a "foreign agent" for his work with the
Peace Information Center. The case against Du Bois was dismissed, but
the aging radical's American passport was denied for the next eight
years. Those familiar with the many strands of civil rights thought and
strategy cannot help but be moved by the story of Charles Hamilton
Houston, the architect of the NAACP's legal war against segregation,
appearing at Du Bois's trial to give him a public bear hug.

Lewis's portrait of Du Bois depicts a mind and a gigantic personality
at war with the world's race problem in the twentieth century. The
writer Howard Fast characterized Du Bois as "very kind, very sweet, but
there was a wall between him and the rest of the world ... , and there
was no way past it." Whether in his idealistic-perfectionist impulses,
his pragmatic and scholarly modes, or his embittered anti-American exit,
Du Bois operated from a worldview in which "absolutes declared war on
half measures." On the meaning of race in twentieth-century America, he
was, in Lewis's terms, "the incomparable mediator of the wounded souls
of black people." For that alone, much of his writing will endure.

But Du Bois was no mediator between people or institutions, no source
of any repose along the color line. Lewis has broken down most of those
walls around Du Bois's life and thought, showing us an all too human
genius at work, a figure for whom the term "prophet" fits as well as it
does for anyone. While in Washington, D.C., recently, I watched a
segment of a talk show on which Ronald Walters, the black political
scientist, was asked by a somewhat hapless interviewer, "What does it
mean to be black in America at the beginning of this new century?"
Walters could have instructed the questioner to read the opening lines
in The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois reflects on being asked
so frequently, "How does it feel to be a problem?" But he didn't;
Walters carefully stated that it means to have an abiding sense of
history, an awareness of the progress that has occurred, and a vigilance
about the racism yet to be conquered. In a way, his answer amounted to
this: Read Du Bois and never give up the fight.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

, after login or registration your account will be connected.