Du Bois told the world what it meant to be black in America

W. E. B.

November 07, 1993|By Bruce A. Clayton

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line," W. E. B. Du Bois prophesied in 1903. The young black professor at Atlanta University was writing in "The Souls of Black Folk," a brilliant, lyrical but uncompromisingly bold cry of what it meant to be black in a white world. Here was a voice that the world -- and not just America -- had never heard before. From that moment on, black consciousness began to change.

Two years later, Du Bois and a small band of black and white activists met in Niagara, Ontario, to talk and plot strategies for change. His words, given added urgency by recent race riots and lynchings, had galvanized many of them into action. In 1910, with Du Bois' militancy prodding them, Eastern liberals called for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois was immediately invited to edit the NAACP's magazine, the Crisis.

Now he had a bully pulpit. His editorials and feature pieces were stinging sermons on the sins of racism. A torrent of books and essays, lectures and manifestoes, flew from his hand. Like Moses, he thundered at those who would not let his people go -- whether it was the president of the United States or Booker T. Washington, the towering African-American educator who counseled passivity among blacks. Du Bois rallied the "talented tenth" -- his label for the race's intellectuals, poets, artists and scholars -- to speak out candidly. Many of them did.

David Levering Lewis' big biography of the first half of Du Bois' life -- he lived vibrantly until 1963 -- captures the brilliant, complex man as no one has done before. Dr. Lewis, a distinguished professor of African-American history at Rutgers University, writes elegantly. He thinks with discernment, and forcefully -- as evidenced in his earlier biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and in his 1981 book, "When Harlem Was in Vogue." But his latest book -- which was recently nominated for the National Book Award -- is stunning, a monument of scholarship and disciplined passion. If the second volume matches it, Dr. Lewis will have written a landmark biography truly worthy of his subject.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Mass., of Haitian and French ancestry. His light complexion, keen intelligence, good grades and assured manner always his trademark -- prompted attention from sympathetic whites, who helped him attend Fisk College in Nashville, Tenn. There he rubbed shoulders with other bright young people of color and became self-consciously and proudly a "Negro." Even then, he sensed he had a mission.

Dr. Lewis details his subject's years of preparation admirably: the growing self-awareness, an immersion in black culture, the honing of a forceful style, the penny-pinched but prize-winning years at Harvard, where he studied philosophy under William James. Then came graduate training in Germany and a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. Following were years of teaching -- Greek, history, sociology -- and ground-breaking publications, including his exhaustive study "The Philadelphia Negro," researched during a year at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nestled among the many stark facts and figures of that book was a statement that foreshadowed Du Bois' emerging radicalism. He wrote: "For thirty years and more Philadelphia has said to its black children: 'Honesty, efficiency and talent have little to do with your success; if you work hard, spend little and are good you may earn your bread and butter at those sorts of work which we frankly confess we despise; if you are dishonest and lazy, the state will furnish your bread free.' "

It was Du Bois' fate (he might have said "destiny") to come of age when Booker T. Washington's star was burning brightly. The famous founder of the Tuskegee Institute had the ear of presidents and the helping hand of philanthropists. Tuskegee's curriculum was vocational -- graduation ceremonies featured cow-milkings on stage -- and Washington aggressively dismissed all other education as impractical. Blacks were to strive for economic advancement and appease whites by foregoing civil or political rights.

But Du Bois found such a philosophy disastrous. It would relegate the black masses to serfdom, kill the spirit, and rob the race forever of a much-needed intellectual class. Never forget, he once admonished a fellow black, that "Washington stands for Negro submission and slavery." Dr. Lewis details the escalating DuBois-Washington feud thoroughly and judiciously. He's clearly a Du Bois partisan, but Dr. Lewis' passions sharpen every page.

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