Exemplar of African-Americans
WILLIAM Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a prophet, poet, and pioneer in social science scholarship, and an activist in the cause for civil rights and self-determination for African-Americans and Africans. David Levering Lewis's biography, a finalist for this year's National Book Award, is a significant addition to the celebrations of Du Bois's life, work, and writing.
``W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919,'' the first volume of a projected two-volume study, is rich in detail. It draws on Du Bois's autobiographies and published writings and is the first biography of him that uses his now-unrestricted personal papers. It is also replete with information garnered from the personal papers and writings of large numbers of black and white scholars and activists who were contemporaries of Du Bois.
Lewis skillfully uses this new material to extend, clarify, and correct preexisting knowledge of Du Bois the person, intellectual, and activist.
We learn more about Du Bois's ancestry, his New England upbringing, education, and travel in the Northeast, South, and Germany. His cultural and intellectual growth in those places are fleshed out; his academic career and scholarly output are not neglected. Relationships with family and colleagues inside and outside the academy cast additional light on his character and personality.
The public Du Bois appeared with the publication of ``The Souls of Black Folk'' (1903), continueed with his charter membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and advanced the next year with his founding of the NAACP's monthly magazine, The Crisis.
By the time he was 50, Du Bois was actively organizing the 20th-century pan-Africanist movement. Though he would later be a peace activist, in 1918 he was not above combining ``personal vanity and civil rights aspirations'' to promote the recruitment of African-Americans for the segregated armed forces with his controversial ``Close Ranks'' editorial in The Crisis.
Lewis introduces the biography by reenacting Du Bois's state funeral in Ghana in 1963, where he died peacefully in his sleep the night before Martin Luther King's march on Washington. Du Bois was this century's true ``drum major for justice.'' It was a task he deliberately chose, unlike Dr. King, who had it thrust upon him.
Speaking of the evolution of his racial identity, Du Bois became, in his own words, ``quite willing to be a Negro and to work with the Negro group.'' Lewis sees in this attitude the rise of Du Bois's superiority complex, for which there is considerable evidence in this book.
The subtitle of this biography presents Du Bois as ``exemplar'' of the black race. Lewis regards him as ``the paramount custodian of the intellect that so many impoverished, deprived, intimidated, and desperately striving African-Americans had either never developed or found it imperative to conceal.''
One may dispute the notion that he, or indeed any individual, can perform such service, but it is indisputable that the history of African-Americans in his first 50 years involved him in practically every aspect. The same, of course can be said of Booker T. Washington and especially of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Surely not unbeknown to Lewis, but not remarked upon either, is that the significant event in Du Bois's year of birth was not the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which never happened anyway, but the opening of Hampton Institute in Virginia, where Washington was later educated and which served as the model for his own Tuskegee Institute. It was Booker T. Washington's America that shaped Du Bois's path after he completed his undergraduate education.
In many ways, not fully known before this biography, Professor Washington, as he was called, strongly influenced Du Bois's educational opportunities and career through his infernal ``Tuskegee Machine'' and his belief, which was accepted by white philanthropists, that industrial education was the key to the uplift of the race. Du Bois, on the other hand, was equally convinced that a classical education, for himself and a select few other blacks, was the key.
As might be expected in a work as ambitious as this one is, there are omissions and errors. For instance, the ``spirited debate'' on the numbers of Africans transported across the Atlantic for slavery in the Americas included figures provided by Du Bois. Had Lewis read Philip Curtin's ``The Atlantic Slave Trade'' (1969), instead of relying on the bibliographical lists of others, he would have known this. And since Du Bois is excluded from Lewis's discussion of the debate, one wonders what purpose it serves to mention it in this biography.
A significant error, certainly relevant to Du Bois's life, since he was an ardent supporter of women's suffrage, is that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution did not guarantee the franchise to black Americans as Lewis maintains, but only to black males. Moreover, a definitive biography should inform us, once and for all, of the number of Du Bois's autobiographies. Are there four, three, or two?
These points aside, the most disturbing feature of Lewis's biography is his psychosexual analysis of Du Bois. He dismisses conclusions reached by others that Du Bois's high regard for women, especially for black women, was rooted in his respect for his mother. Such analysis is unworthy of an otherwise perceptive and revealing study.
One of the subjects we can anticipate learning more about in the next volume is Du Bois's alleged role in the downfall of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.
Garvey, not Du Bois, was a pan-Africanist mentor to the first president of the independent Republic of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Significantly enough, in the same year that Du Bois died, the Organization of African Unity was born, representing Du Bois's vision of pan-Africanism rather than that of Garvey and Nkrumah.