Author Lewis illuminates the life and race of DuBois

January 22, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Staff Writer

More than 20 years after he gave the first reading from his acclaimed "King: A Biography" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, David Levering Lewis returns to Baltimore to speak and sign copies of his Pulitzer- and National Book Award-nominated "W. E. B. DuBois: Biography of a Race" in the Pratt auditorium at 2 p.m. today.

Dr. Lewis, an affable man with a dry wit and bemused tone, taught at Morgan State University from 1966 to 1970. The 57-year-old historian, who was educated at Columbia and Fisk universities and the London School of Economics, saw his DuBois project as "a major missing biography." He jumped at the chance to fill in the gap.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," he says with a laugh. "It overwhelmed me."

DuBois had to wait as long for a major biography as he has for recognition by his alma mater. Last October -- 30 years after his death and 99 years after he became the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard -- DuBois was welcomed home by his alma mater with a ceremony in Memorial Church.

"DuBois would be amused at the long walk in the anteroom," says Dr. Lewis, whose book tells DuBois' story from birth in 1868 Massachusetts to his ascension as the leading black activist of his day. He explains that DuBois' leftist politics and uncompromising style earned his countless enemies.

"Many thought DuBois' acerbity jeopardized the civil rights program, that he was just a lightning rod for racists, supremacists, and reactionaries," says Dr. Lewis, who lives in Washington and is the Martin Luther King Jr. chair in history at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"Other people, who had found DuBois an icon and a senior statesman, a progenitor of the whole civil rights movement, saw they had to distance themselves" after the man earned the uneasy attention of the State Department.

In 1948, DuBois was dismissed by the NAACP -- the group he had helped found 39 years before -- and he fought throughout his life with followers of Booker T. Washington, who urged accommodation and practical, industrial education for blacks.

DuBois saw his role as "to warn, to press, and to criticize," in the 1950s, when other black leaders became optimistic and lost their edge, Dr. Lewis says. "Others saw that civil rights were on a roll, with integration and so on. DuBois remained dubious."

The 735-page book consumed most of eight years, and comprises 200 interviews -- from janitors to former heads of Communist parties. Dr. Lewis even impersonated DuBois to two psychologists for insight into the leader's ambiguous relationship with women. He says his next volume will further consider the gap between DuBois' feminist principles and patriarchal, even exploitative private life.

The 95 years of DuBois' life, Dr. Lewis contends, tell the story of a century, the biography of a race. The second volume will look at DuBois' later years. It will end with his death in 1963, just at the beginning of the civil rights movement he'd worked his whole life to spark.

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