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date: 14 June 2024

Bois, W. E. B. Dufree

Bois, W. E. B. Dufree

  • Mark Richardson


  • North American Literatures

Half-way between Maine and Florida, in the heart of the Alleghenies,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in John Brown (1909), the year before he helped found the NAACP, “a mighty gateway lifts its head and discloses a scene which, a century and a quarter ago, Thomas Jefferson said was ‘worthy a voyage across the Atlantic.’ ” Whereupon he continues citing Jefferson's words from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):

You stand on a very high point of land; on your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to find a vent; on your left approaches the Potomac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.

The place is Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later West Virginia), where in 1859 John Brown, having shed blood in Kansas in an effort to make that territory free, struck his blow against slavery, and was hanged for it. In this passage from his biography of Brown, Du Bois sets up a genealogy of the real American “revolution,” a genealogy whose lines converge at Harpers Ferry: there is Jefferson, as much as anyone the architect of the Revolution, and the man who taught us how to speak of liberty; then there is John Brown, who, by acting where others were content merely to speak of liberty, helped to start a civil war that would, at least in promise, perfect the American Revolution in what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom”; and then there is Du Bois, who worked so hard to defend that infant liberty, born in 1863, when the reactionaries of the post-Reconstruction years set about to strangle it in its crib. In his astonishing career as writer and activist, Du Bois was all along simply trying to make America “worthy” of “a voyage across the Atlantic.” He devoted his long life to the New World idea that men, if they but overcame divisions of class, caste, and color, could, at the moment of their junction, gather such uncontainable, liberating force as Jefferson thought he had found in those two rivers that rend a mountain asunder at Harpers Ferry and pass off to the sea.

The Life

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born to Albert Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on 23 February 1868; he was of mixed French and African ancestry. Shortly after his birth, his father abandoned the family, never to see his young son again. Du Bois took his primary and secondary education in the local public schools, which were not segregated, and where he followed the college preparatory curriculum. In 1885, the year his mother died, Du Bois entered Fisk University, a black college in Nashville, Tennessee. Upon his graduation he gained admittance to Harvard University as a junior and completed an undergraduate degree there, studying with William James and George Santayana, among others. From Harvard he was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1890 and a master's degree in history in 1891. After a period of study abroad at the University of Berlin, and after having taken a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he became, in 1895, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. (His dissertation was later published as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the United States of America, 1638–1870 [1896], and is still consulted by historians over a century later.) In 1896 Du Bois married Nina Gomer and moved to Philadelphia, where he was attached to the University of Pennsylvania as a scholar. Out of his work there came a second book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899), a landmark in American sociology. Du Bois accepted a position at Atlanta University in 1897, and it would become the institution with which he was longest affiliated. There he directed an ambitious series of monographs in the sociology of African-American life and wrote the essays eventually collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the first of his books to reach beyond the academy to a general readership. The turn of the new century found Du Bois more and more involved in political activism, and he soon emerged as the most powerful critic of Booker T. Washington's policies of accommodation; in 1905 he was a key founder of the Niagara Movement, dedicated to the pursuit of equal rights for blacks. When, in 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed, Du Bois was appointed its director of publicity and research and relocated to New York City to take up duties as the editor of The Crisis. (Under his direction, circulation reached 30,000 within two years and peaked at 100,000 in 1919.)

In 1918, under threat of prosecution by the Department of Justice, Du Bois sailed for France to study the living conditions of black troops at first hand. (He was staunchly opposed to the army's policies of segregation.) The next year Du Bois organized the Pan-African Congress in Paris, which—at his urging—passed resolutions calling for the then-convened Paris Peace Conference to protect the rights of Africans still living under colonial rule. The year 1920 saw publication of a new volume of essays, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil, which reprinted his searing indictment of empire, The Souls of White Folks (1910). In 1923 Du Bois visited Africa for the first time, touring Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Senegal. In 1926, increasingly attracted to Marxism, he traveled to the Soviet Union (and subsequently published an article in The Crisis praising the achievements of the Bolsheviks). In 1928 he published his first novel, Dark Princess: A Romance, in which an international alliance of Africans, Asians, and American blacks is arrayed against the great colonial powers. Under pressure because of his espousal in the early 1930s of a nationalist program that de-emphasized racial integration for the time being, Du Bois was forced in 1934 to resign his editorship of The Crisis, whereupon he took a position again at Atlanta University. Over the next few years he traveled widely in Europe, the USSR, China, and Japan. In 1940 came his autobiography Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.

Retiring from Atlanta University, Du Bois moved back to New York City in 1944 to work once more for the NAACP, only to be dismissed a second time in 1948 when his public criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War raised an outcry. The Department of Justice indicted Du Bois in 1951 under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, citing his activities abroad and at home as a critic of U.S. policy, but he was acquitted of all charges. His difficulties did not end here, however. In 1952 the State Department denied him a passport with the explanation that the work he did abroad was not “in the national interest.” He did not recover his passport until 1958, but once he did, Du Bois again undertook extensive travel overseas, in the United Kingdom, in Europe, in the USSR., and in the People's Republic of China. Along the way he met with Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, and Zhou Enlai. In 1960 he traveled to Ghana to celebrate its establishment as an independent republic, and the following year accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to immigrate to that country, of which in 1963 he became a citizen. In the same year, Du Bois died in Accra on 27 August, leaving behind him a body of writing all but unmatched by twentieth-century American writers in its breadth and variety, consisting of history, sociology, essays, novels, memoirs, poetry, biography, and more.

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk marks Du Bois's entry into the ranks of the radical civil rights movement; it might be said, as well, to mark the beginning of the civil rights movement as we came to know it in the twentieth century. Up to that point, Du Bois had lived in scholarly detachment, studying, teaching, working as a research fellow, and writing history and sociology. But events in the 1890s gradually made this sort of academic life impossible for Du Bois. He says in Dusk of Dawn: “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved” (Writings, p. 603).

The Souls of Black Folk is one result of his decision. It was written to put to rest for good and all—at least to those who could read, and would—the slanders against blacks that seemed to be issuing from every quarter of the country in 1903. David Levering Lewis rightly calls Souls an epoch-making book, the sort that divides history into a “before” and “after.” Nine of the fourteen essays collected in The Souls of Black Folk had been published previously in periodicals, some of them professional journals of historical and sociological scholarship, but Du Bois reworked them all for the book. They range widely in character and subject. Two of them—Of Our Spiritual Strivings and Of the Meaning of Progress—combine memoir with a very literary blend of philosophy and polemic. Several are chiefly historical or sociological in bearing: Of the Dawn of Freedom (a revisionist account of the rise and fall of the Freedmen's Bureau); Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece (about cotton agriculture and black peonage in the postwar period); and Of the Black Belt (a study of the largely black counties of southern Georgia). One, Of Alexander Crummell, is a portrait of a major figure in the history of American education. Another chapter, Of the Coming of John, is a paradigmatic short story about the education of one young black man from Georgia. Of the Passing of the First Born, an intensely personal elegy for Du Bois's first child, who died in infancy, approaches the intensity of a prose poem. There is an essay on religion in the South, Of the Faith of the Fathers; a polemical engagement in Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others; an essay on postwar education, Of the Training of Black Men; a suggestive, allegorical treatment of the ideal of a liberal education, titled Of the Wings of Atalanta; and a concluding chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” a pioneering inquiry into the meaning of the Negro spiritual, which had only lately begun to attract the attention of musicologists and historians.

The Souls of Black Folk was something of a sensation: twelve printings were exhausted by June of its first year in print, and by October two hundred copies per week were selling—remarkable figures for a book of such uncommon erudition. In 1905 Souls was brought out in England. Five years after it first appeared, more than 9,500 copies had been sold. Southern responses were intemperate and often savage, as might be expected. The Nashville American declared the book “dangerous for the Negro to read.” A reviewer for the Houston Chronicle, in a fit of panic perhaps indicative of his own preoccupations, demanded that authorities arrest Du Bois for “inciting rape.” Even the relatively moderate New York Times chose a white southerner to review the book, and, although he was not so severe as his compatriots from the South, he expressed grave reservations, and speculated that Du Bois, born and reared in Massachusetts, really did not know the South at all.

There is a deviously mortuary grace to the phrase with which Du Bois opens the book: “Herein lie buried many things,” he says, “which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” (Writings, p. 359). Souls will be an exhumation of sorts: after all, Du Bois, and his fellows “within the veil,” know best where the American bodies are buried. And though it is arresting, Du Bois establishes at once that the “color line” of which he will speak separates not only whites and blacks generally in America, and throughout the world, but also separates him from his reader—a figure with whom, he intimates, his relations are perhaps to be difficult: “Need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?” he says, echoing Adam's words in Genesis 2:23.

We are made aware, here, of a fact of singular importance: almost always we simply take it for granted that the American reader is “white.” When Du Bois startles us into the thought that the “American gaze” is, in the first instance, always a white gaze—even when situated (so to speak) in a black mind—he hints at an important idea: to read American literature or American history, both of which take for granted a necessarily unscrutinized “white” way of seeing, is—for black folk—to be given an education in self-distrust. For example, Huckleberry Finn (1884)—Twain's unimpeachable politics notwithstanding—somehow manages to admire a black man, Jim, chiefly by making an innocent, self-sacrificial child of him. And in 1903 our literature was, for better and for worse, constituted by books like these. Any black reader who would educate himself by reading them must undertake something of a struggle: he must “de-colonize” his mind, as the radicals used to say in the 1960s—and Du Bois was well ahead of them.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, Du Bois writes in the first chapter of Souls,

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, 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; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Writings, p. 364

Double-consciousness is equivocally a gift and a curse. It is a gift insofar as it helps those who have it toward a purchase on the social world that those without the veil might never achieve: namely, the intuition (later, the conviction) that the social world we inhabit is not, in fact, of a “natural” kind, but of an “absurd” kind, as the existentialists say—that it is a contingent and historical world, a made world that can be remade in turn. But double-consciousness is at the same time a curse because, as Du Bois says, it first requires of a man that he “measure his soul” by “the tape” of a world that holds him in contempt, or regards him, simply, with pity: he can have no “true” self-consciousness; he cannot know himself as in himself he “really” is; the very language through which he “thinks” the world (and the self) is a white language, and in it he is Object, not Subject; Other, not Same; in it he is seen to act from passion more than from reason, to be more readily assimilated to nature than to culture, and more to the body than to the mind. The biological, literary, historiographical, and anthropological writing of the nineteenth century—especially of the period after 1840– is everywhere shaped by precisely these assumptions, such that it becomes difficult ever to think entirely beyond the reach of them. The literary language even of the most innovative African-American writers is, at times, inflected by imperfectly acknowledged “white” assumptions.

“Soul” and “spirit,” then, are the ideals; for far too long black men and women had been thought of chiefly as “bodies.” And over against the souls of black folk, Du Bois forever sets the prison house, the immanence, of the flesh. There is, in his thinking, an abiding idealist (or perhaps dualist) notion that self cannot be somehow identical with body, and this leads him to speak of the “unmanning” of men by the allure of the flesh, by which Du Bois means, in the farther reaches of his allegory, the allure of all things purely material. It must be admitted that there is a patriarchal drift to the language in which Souls is written, notwithstanding that Du Bois was a sincere feminist. The peculiar situation of African-American men probably made this inevitable: some reassertion of “masculinity” simply had to be made over against the predations of a culture that would assign the prerogatives of “manhood” to white men only—a culture that insisted, moreover, on articulating its power in more or less gendered (and sexualized) terms. So, the “aspiring self” Du Bois imagines in Souls is implicitly gendered “masculine”; the terms of the debate in which he was engaged—and these he certainly did not set—required it. (The character “Atalanta,” who figures so largely in the book, is no exception; the allegorical meaning of her ascetic self-discipline is what really concerns Du Bois, not her “femininity.”)

For many in America, and for many in the West generally, “blackness” came to embody sexuality as such, the flesh as such: this is the idea Du Bois most wishes to chasten his “Gentle Readers” out of in speaking of the souls of black folk. To be sure, this “white” (and invidious) association of “color” with “sexuality” explains much about Souls: why it so often relies on metaphors of sensualist “decadence” to figure what had been done to the freedmen and their posterity (as in Of the Wings of Atalanta); why Booker T. Washington should so consistently be stigmatized in the book as a kind of “feminizing” force—as a seducer who would “unman” African Americans, giving them over entirely to the fate of the body, and to the abuse, as hewers of wood and drawers of water, of big capital; why Du Bois should everywhere be at pains to defend black Americans against the charge, urged constantly in those days, and often on so-called scientific grounds, of sexual immorality; and why Du Bois at times sounds rather monkish and otherworldly, rather, indeed, like an ascetic—as when he quotes with approval Goethe's injunction in Faust, “Deny yourself, you must deny yourself” (Writings, p. 420).

This brings us to the Wizard of Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, and to Du Bois's great debate with him about the souls of black folk. In Of Our Spiritual Strivings, Du Bois sketches out, in brief, the history of the postwar period for African Americans: there was emancipation itself; then the granting of citizenship and suffrage; then what Du Bois bitterly calls The Revolution of 1876 (the election that put an end to Reconstruction); and with that, the freedmen and their sons and daughters were left to wander, like forsaken Israelites, in a desert somewhere between Pharaoh and a nation they could rightly call home. In this “wilderness” appeared before the freedmen, like the biblical pillar of fire, what Du Bois calls “the ideal of ‘book learning’; the curiosity, born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the cabalistic letters of the white man, the longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan” (p. 367). Cabalistic letters, says Du Bois—and the adjective is carefully chosen. The Cabala is the word of God handed down by Moses to the rabbis in the desert: the Talmud. Du Bois is setting up a rather exact allegory in The Souls of Black Folk: “ten thousand thousand” black Americans are adrift, and two men would be their Moses—Du Bois with his Cabala (all the “book learning” of the West), and Washington with his Tuskegee program of “industrial training.” The one tends to the souls of black folk, the other to their bodies alone.

The chief underwriters of black educational institutions in the South in the post-Reconstruction period were organizations whose funds came for the most part from northern capitalists. The money was disbursed largely through two organizations: the Southern Education Board and the General Education Board. As David Levering Lewis points out, “a partial roster of the officers and trustees of the new SEB was a roll call of the arbiters of the Industrial North and the New South”—railroad money, money from the Wanamaker Department Store fortune, from Wall Street, from Standard Oil, and so on (W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919, p. 266). The SEB, founded in 1901, and the GEB, created in 1902, disbursed some $177 million to white colleges and universities and some $22 million to black colleges and universities between 1902 and 1930. The directors of these organizations sought reconciliation between North and South and the development of southern labor and resources by northern capital, and these goals required that they defer to southern opinion on the “Negro Question.” “The rich and dominating North,” Du Bois explains in Souls, “was not only weary of the race problem, but was investing largely in Southern enterprises, and welcomed any method of peaceful cooperation” (Writings, p. 398). Booker T. Washington perfectly suited their purposes after his groundbreaking 1895 speech, familiarly known as the Atlanta Compromise. In it, he agreed to put off demands for real political and civil rights in favor of economic development. “As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past,” Washington said to his white audience,

nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

Up from Slavery, p. 156

The studied “humility” of the address struck Du Bois as embarrassing; the concession to “social separation” struck him as reprehensible.

Washington reports in Up from Slavery (1901) that “one of the saddest things” he ever saw was a young black man “sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar” (p. 86). The youth, Washington implied, would be much better off, and much happier, if he practiced a trade instead of studying “big books” with “high-sounding subjects.” To which Du Bois dryly retorts in Souls: “One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this” (Writings, p. 393). Well, what northern capitalists had to say to it was plain enough: Washington on the merits of studying French grammar was music to their ears. He soon became a salaried field agent for the SEB, with the result (among other things) that Du Bois's Atlanta University was ignored by northern benefactors while Tuskegee flourished. Du Bois later remarked of the period in Dusk of Dawn: “The control [of the SEB and GEB] was to be drastic. The Negro intelligentsia was to be suppressed and hammered into conformity” (Writings, p. 608). All of which explains why Du Bois's attack on Washington in The Souls of Black Folk is so utterly devastating—although Du Bois manages, throughout, to sustain an essentially temperate, even cordial, tone: his iron fist is velvet gloved.

The heart of his argument against Washington is this:

Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington's programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington's programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro's tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.

Writings, p. 398

Washington becomes, in the story Du Bois tells, an instrument in the hands of white supremacy and of capital; and both institutions—the political and the economic—employ him for the purpose of “re-enslaving” the freedman, of “adjusting” him, more or less bloodlessly, to “submission” (the bloodier instruments of “adjustment” were wielded chiefly by rogue elements of the southern white working class under the protection of the local Democratic Party). In Souls, Du Bois associates Washington with what might be called the capitalist extremism of the Gilded Age, which, in its “astonishing commercial development,” had grown “ashamed of having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes,” and which henceforth would be “concentrating its energies on Dollars” (p. 392). This “unusual economic development”—the word “unusual” carries the considerable force of Du Boisian understatement—had come to comprise as well the acquisition and administration of colonies in Hawaii, the West Indies, and the Philippines. The reassertion of white supremacy at home, in the post-Reconstruction period, was but a part of a larger project: the consolidation of white authority over peoples of color everywhere in the world—by the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium.

When set in this larger, global context, Washington emerges—under Du Bois's direction—as a veritable agent of colonial rule, as a figure who would sell out black “manhood,” and who would, in fact, pander his race to a white ravisher. He had become, Du Bois pretty clearly implies, the Great Emasculator: he had “sapped the manhood” of the race, advocated a “policy of submission,” withdrawn the demands of Negroes “as men,” acquiesced in their relegation, again, to a “servile caste,” yielded up their “manhood rights,” and “overlooked certain elements of true manhood.” It is exactly as Du Bois would have it in the epigraph he chose for this essay (and assay), Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others: “From birth to death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned!” The line is from Byron's Child Harold's Pilgrimage (1813–1814) and it comes in a passage often cited in the literature of the more fiery abolitionists of old: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” It is no accident, as the saying goes, that when Du Bois convened a 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement, he chose as the site Harpers Ferry, where John Brown—the “meteor of the war,” as Melville put it—had staged his bloody insurrection in 1859.

John Brown and The Negro

In November 1903 Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer invited Du Bois to write a book about the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass for the American Crisis Biographies series, of which Oberholtzer was the general editor. Du Bois agreed at once, only to have the invitation rescinded several months later. Booker T. Washington, it turned out, wanted the volume on Douglass for himself, and given Washington's fame, Oberholtzer gave the title to him, offering an irritated Du Bois the chance to choose another subject for his own contribution. Du Bois proposed a biography of Nat Turner, leader of a bloody slave insurrection in 1831, but when that was declined on the grounds that Turner was too incendiary a figure, Du Bois accepted Oberholtzer's suggestion that he write about John Brown instead. The reader should bear in mind the book's origins in these prickly negotiations because John Brown (1909) obliquely, but devastatingly, extends Du Bois's unforgiving critique of the accommodationist strategies he associated with Washington (though Washington is never mentioned by name). A kind of unspoken analogy lies behind the book: Du Bois is to Washington what John Brown was to the “moderate” abolitionists of his own day—a figure absolutely unwilling to compromise his principles, and whom time would fully vindicate. In identifying with Brown, as he surely does, Du Bois identifies with a prophet as misunderstood and feared in his own day as he would be held in awe by generations to come. At a time when even relatively liberal Americans spoke of Brown with a wary embarrassment—indeed, to many he was little better than what we now would call a terrorist—Du Bois made no bones about it: his book, he announces in a brief preface, is “a tribute to the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk” (John Brown, p. xxv).

In telling Brown's story, Du Bois relies on what was then the best scholarship available, and he writes with his customary eloquence. But of most interest to contemporary readers is the last chapter of the book, “The Legacy of John Brown.” There Du Bois points to a simple coincidence: 1859, the year of Brown's martyrdom, was the also the year of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. And “since that day,” as Du Bois says, “tremendous scientific and economic advance has been accompanied by distinct signs of moral retrogression in social philosophy. Strong arguments have been made for the fostering of war, the utility of human degradation and disease, and the inevitable and known inferiority of certain classes and races of men” (p. 225). He refers, of course, to what came to be called Social Darwinism: the attempt to bend the new biology that Darwin had done so much to create to the purposes of empire, whereby one race or people is subjected to the will of another. The very complicated idea of natural selection had been travestied. To robber baron industrialists and unapologetic imperialists it seemed to explain, and also to justify, the global supremacy of Europeans and their descendants in North America; indeed, it seemed to consign to the dustbin of history the high end for which John Brown had died—what Du Bois calls his hope that “a more just and a more equal” distribution of property and power might be realized. Above all, the forces of reaction thought they had found in Darwin a thinker who could set their own privilege on a “natural” and therefore unchallengeable footing.

Du Bois could not abide that sort of thinking. And he devotes his closing chapter as much to the vindication of Darwin's legacy as to the defense of Brown's. “What the age of Darwin has done,” he maintains, against the grain of current opinion, “is to add to the eighteenth-century idea of individual worth the complementary idea of physical immortality” (p. 227). By that last phrase he means the physical immortality of homo sapiens as a species, not, of course, that of any particular individuals. In other words, Darwin showed us that, contrary to what Christianity had always taught, the world has no end—no limit. Its ongoing development is potentially infinite and certainly unpredictable. “And this,” adds Du Bois,

far from annulling or contracting the idea of human freedom, rather emphasizes its necessity and eternal possibility—the boundlessness and endlessness of human achievement. Freedom has come to mean not individual caprice or aberration, but social self-realization in an endless chain of selves; and freedom for such development is not the denial but the central assertion of the evolutionary theory.

pp. 227–228

Here, Du Bois anticipates the later insights of such politically progressive Darwinians as Stephen Jay Gould, which makes his book on John Brown a contribution not merely to history and biography but to the history of ideas.

With The Negro, published in 1915, Du Bois achieves three notable things: first, he offers a concise synthesis of the best scholarship available on the subject and writes for the general reader, who knew almost nothing of African history, rather than for specialists; second, he is uncompromising in his demonstration that “race” is neither an essential nor a scientifically valid means of distinguishing one people from another (that is, he demonstrates that “race” as we know it in the New World is a product of historical and economic conditions, not of biological ones); and third, he shows how New World slavery was genuinely novel in the long history of human slavery, in that it arose alongside, and in the service of, the new industrial capitalist economies of America, England, and western Europe. Slavery, as developed in the colonies of the New World and in the United States, constituted an unprecedented means of production rooted in a racial caste system, and devoted to the mass production of a handful of commodities traded on a global market (chiefly rice, cotton, tobacco, and sugar). Du Bois's analysis in The Negro, coming as it did in 1915, alerts his reader to the fact that slavery, imperialism, and the European Scramble for Africa did much to bring on what Europeans were soon to be calling the Great War of 1914–1918. As any serious reader of Du Bois might expect, The Negro is at once exacting—Du Bois's training in historiography and sociology is much in evidence—and eloquent. Du Bois's estimation of the total cost of the slave trade is as shocking as it is moving. “It would be conservative,” he writes, after having reckoned the total number of slaves expatriated from Africa, and the likely number that died along the trade routes and in the middle passage, “to say that the slave trade cost Negro Africa 100,000,000 souls. And yet people ask to-day the cause of the stagnation of culture in that land since 1600!” (p. 156). Furthermore, Europe in 1600 and after was hardly a decadent, barbaric realm, as Du Bois notes with caustic irony. The slave trade flourished not in the Dark Ages but in the epoch of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. “Raphael painted, Luther preached, Corneille wrote, and Milton sung,” Du Bois says bitterly,

And through it all, for four hundred years, the dark captives wound to the sea amid the bleaching bones of the dead; for four hundred years the sharks followed the scurrying ships; for four hundred years America was strewn with the living and dying millions of a transplanted race; for four hundred years Ethiopia stretched her hands unto God.

p. 159

The Negro is a book now too seldom read.

The Later Years

It is difficult in so short a review of Du Bois's life to suggest the range and ambition of his writings, which, as already indicated, include works not merely of history, sociology, and essay but of fiction, poetry, and autobiography. He once said that of all his books he loved Dark Princess: A Romance the best. This novel, published first in 1928, never attracted a wide readership, and certainly Du Bois loses something of his usual elegance and guile as a writer when he turns to fiction. It will strike most readers as an awkward performance. But it is nonetheless fascinating.

The opening paragraphs of the novel tell the story of how Matthew Towns, the black protagonist, is compelled to leave the University of Manhattan in his junior year when he is refused admittance into the requisite course in obstetrics. The college dean (a new hire, and a southerner) dismisses him with the curt declaration that no white woman should be expected to permit a “nigger doctor” to deliver her baby. The attendance of a black obstetrician on the delivery of a white baby is, within the terms of white supremacy, unthinkable, and the reasons for this are worth going into. Simone de Beauvoir has suggested that, at the moment of parturition, the body of a woman is, at least as patriarchy would have us see her, somehow most essentially a body. (“Everywhere life is germinating inspires disgust,” Beauvoir says in The Second Sex [1949]; hence the ancient taboos and proscriptions stigmatizing menstruation and childbirth, and requiring purification from them.) In speaking of the souls of black folk, of course, Du Bois had all along, and with devastating force, shown how white supremacy thinks of colored bodies as more purely physical and sensual, and less “intellectual” and spiritual, than white ones. The attendance of a “nigger doctor” on a white birth is intolerable because he would (so to speak) despiritualize the parturition all the more; he would desanctify it, animalize it, biologize it—he would put the white mind in an altogether unbearable relation to the prospect of its own reproduction (which it must, of necessity, view as not merely biological, not merely animal). The proscription is of course double because black fathering of white babies is also forbidden and hysterically feared (as if that route of insemination is radically unspiritual, radically biological; or as if that route of insemination does not “tie a subtle knot” between spirit and body but in fact reduces spirit to body). For white supremacy, blackness is everywhere a token of animality, of pure physicality. The racist assumptions of Social Darwinist thinking make this clear, as does also the behavior of white colonizers in Africa and Asia. “The horror, the horror!” say the latter with Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness (1902). But the horror of which they speak is simply the horror of seeing in themselves a body. (Their unwillingness to think of themselves as animals perhaps explains why they could not assimilate Darwin without first distorting and refashioning his ideas.)

In any case, Matthew Towns, now banished from medical school, finds himself adrift. He goes abroad, to Europe, and there becomes acquainted with the “dark princess” of the novel's title: the daughter of a maharajah in British India. She is at the center of a loosely organized conspiracy of sorts: representatives of peoples in the colonized and “colored” parts of the world have come together to mount an organized struggle against empire and racism, a struggle that would unite American blacks with Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Africans, and Japanese. No doubt Du Bois has in mind, as a kind of model of how the thing might be done, the expatriate Bolshevik movement of the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. But to the Marxist analysis of the global situation in the early 1920s he adds, in The Dark Princess, an essential insight: it is not merely a question of capital exploiting labor on a global market; it is a question of white capital exploiting colored labor—as much in the American South as in the Belgian Congo.

The plot of Dark Princess is improbable, the characterization often puzzling. But it is a novel of ideas—a novel, in fact, of propaganda in the best sense. This is in keeping with Du Bois's argument in his seminal essay, The Criteria of Negro Art (1926). The artist, he maintains, must be not merely an “apostle of Beauty” but an “apostle of Truth and Right” as well:

Free he is but freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice. Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

Writings, p. 1000

The success of his undertaking in Dark Princess must be judged according to these criteria. And there can be no doubt that it is a major contribution to the field that we now know as postcolonial studies. Here, as in all his works, essay and fiction alike, Du Bois thinks through the problem of the “color line” in genuinely global terms.

When Dark Princess appeared in 1928, Du Bois was already sixty years old. But the next twelve years saw the publication of two of his most remarkable books: Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (1935), and Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940). The first is a monumental study of the United States in the post–Civil War period, whose Marxist interpretation of the collapse of Reconstruction remains to this day a major (if controversial) contribution to American historiography. The second is certainly one of the most unusual and provocative autobiographies ever produced in this country. Here the reader is, by stages, allowed to see emerge the real figure in the carpet of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European and American history: the color line, as it was etched across the whole of the globe by European colonizers and by American segregationists. In a series of withering chapters on Science and Empire, The Concept of Race, and The White World, Du Bois tells the story of what was, in certain respects, the most astonishing invention of the Europeans: the idea of “race,” which itself took on seeming life, and in a sense, became an “actor” on the world stage. The story of Du Bois's own life is necessarily tangled up in the story of that unreal but decisive “actor” (white folks had always already written the “biographies” of black folks—had always already determined the shape their lives might take). And so the reader finds in Dusk of Dawn not so much the story of an individual named W. E. B. Du Bois as “the autobiography of a concept of race,” as Du Bois strikingly puts it in his preface to the volume.

Over the course of his career Du Bois published scores of articles and essays in The Crisis, which he edited, and in a number of other periodicals. These had a significant readership, as did such books as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, The Souls of Black Folk, and Dusk of Dawn. And yet beyond them, the key to this extraordinary man's life and work might well lie in that much less widely known of his books, John Brown, the brief measure of which we have already taken. Like Shields Green, the black confederate of Brown who preceded him to the gallows, Du Bois chose, in his own way, to go with “the old man” (as Brown was sometimes called). And in this connection no reader of Du Bois can forget a scene described in Dusk of Dawn. The year is 1906 and Du Bois has called together, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a meeting of the Niagara Movement, the most radical civil rights organization then in existence. It was “in significance if not in numbers,” Du Bois says, “one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes have ever held. We made pilgrimage at dawn bare-footed to the scene of Brown's martyrdom and we talked some of the plainest English that has been given voice by black men in America” (Writings, pp. 618–619). The battle that these “pilgrims” waged, as they explain in a public statement, was not for themselves alone, but for “all true Americans.” It was and still remains a battle “for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth the land of the Thief and the home of the Slave—a by-word and a hissing among nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishment” (p. 619). In America, Du Bois explains in John Brown, “we had built a wonderful industrial machine,” and had done it on the backs of colored labor. It was a machine “quickly rather than carefully built, formed of forcing rather than of growth, involving sinful and unnecessary expense” (John Brown, p. 236). His admonition to his countrymen—and here Du Bois only follows Brown as he would have us understand that martyr's legacy—is still as crystalline in its simplicity as it is revolutionary in its implications for a world of global capital: “Better smaller production and more equitable distribution,” he says; “better fewer miles of railway and more honor, truth, and liberty; better fewer millionaires and more contentment” (p. 236).

Selected Works

  • The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  • John Brown (1909)
  • The Negro (1915)
  • Dark Princess: A Romance (1928)
  • Writings (1986)
  • Black Reconstruction in America (1992). Reprint of Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (1935)

Further Reading

  • Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York, 1993.
  • Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight For Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963. New York, 2000. This and the preceding volume constitute the best biography of Du Bois, and in fact one of the best biographies of any American.
  • Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass., 1976.
  • Reed, Adolph, Jr. W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line. New York, 1997.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. A book of great breadth that includes an extensive, nuanced study of Du Bois.