W.E.B. DU BOIS: A BIOGRAPHY, 1868-1963
By David Levering Lewis
Henry Holt, $35, 893 pages
Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor
If you didn’t get around to reading the two volumes (700-plus pages each) of David Levering Lewis’ highly praised life of W.E.B. Du Bois published in 1993 and 2000, you should consider tackling this still-massive work (almost 900 pages). The objective, the author says, is “to deliver more with less,” for which the author’s assistant, Kendra Taira Field, apparently deserves much of the credit.
It is still not a breeze to read, but the subject, “the premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States,” who memorably proclaimed “that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line,” merits attention. Mr. Lewis’ graceful prose is a joy, and his account is well-balanced: He makes sure that no dissimulation on Mr. Du Bois’ part goes unchallenged.
Somebody must have had high expectations for this great-grandson of slaves to have named him William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, and Willie, as he was known in his hometown of Great Barrington, Mass., was indeed recognized early as precocious. The father deserted his family before the child was 2, but the impoverished, hardworking youth and his mother earned the admiration and support of the townspeople.
When it came time for college, Harvard said no, but some Berkshire Congregational churches underwrote his education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and he matriculated as a sophomore. It was in Tennessee that he was introduced to the complexities of the Southern black environment and began his exploration of racism in America and its potential solutions.
Harvard said yes to Mr. Du Bois after he had graduated from Fisk in 1888, and upon finishing his degree at Harvard in 1890, Mr. Du Bois received a scholarship to Friedrich Wilhelm III University in Berlin, where he was in his element, mixing with Europe’s prominent social scientists. However, he was shattered to be turned down for his doctorate in economics because he lacked a required course or two. Back he went to Harvard, where, in 1895, he became the first black American to earn a doctorate there. (The German university later obliged with an honorary doctorate.)
After a short teaching stint at Wilberforce University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he met and subsequently married one of his students, Nina Gomen, Mr. Du Bois accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania that consisted mainly of investigating crime among the black population in Philadelphia. His research, published as “The Philadelphia Negro,” was the first of what would become a constant stream of perceptive books about the black condition by Mr. Du Bois; he also wrote three autobiographies and five novels as well as many influential magazine articles.
Much of his teaching and research were done at Atlanta University, which welcomed him whenever he needed an academic post, beginning in 1897 and continuing intermittently for decades.
In 1910, he left Atlanta to edit the Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he had co-founded. At its peak, the publication’s circulation reached 100,000. But Mr. Du Bois didn’t know when to quit and repeatedly refused to step aside gracefully from this journal and, later, from his teaching when he reached retirement age.
Among the many prickly professional and personal relationships Mr. Lewis describes is that between Mr. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, with whom he had irreconcilable differences over how best to educate black Americans.
The author also discusses Mr. Du Bois’ family life at length, documenting Mr. Du Bois’ neglect of his sad wife, their mutual despair over the death of their son at age 2, and Mr. Du Bois’ artless interventions in his daughter Yolande’s life, which principally involved sending her away to schools whose work she could not handle. (Mr. Lewis points out the irony of Mr. Du Bois’ genuine endorsement of feminism in principle while he remained supremely patriarchal at home.)
But the existence of a wife, who survived 54 years of a generally long-distance marriage to Mr. Du Bois, served an important purpose: legitimately keeping at bay all those talented, accomplished female admirers who threw themselves at Mr. Du Bois in every port of call. They were available to him for what Mr. Lewis terms a series of “parallel marriages,” but they all knew he was legally unavailable. The last “friend” standing when Mrs. Du Bois died in 1950, Shirley Graham, married Mr. Du Bois within months.
In his early years, Mr. Du Bois was noted for advocating liberal education for the elite (the talented tenth of black men who were to lead the rest); later he campaigned for voting rights for the masses, economic democracy and worldwide racial parity. He traveled widely and often — particularly when he could get a sponsor to invite him and pay for it — even in his 90s, to countries such as China and the Soviet Union, where he was happy to denounce America.
In his final years, he alienated many of his longtime admirers by embracing ever more radical positions. He even refused to acknowledge the evils of Stalinism after the Soviets themselves had done so.
As Mr. Du Bois emigrated to Ghana in 1961 at age 93, his final act on departure was to join the American Communist Party. He died two years later and was buried, with much ceremony, just outside Osu Castle near the walls of the slave-holding pens built along the Atlantic coast 100 miles from Accra.
This marvelous biography of a truly important figure in American history has a new timeliness for Americans, and it deserves a new audience. What a shame Mr. Lewis’ publisher has printed it on cheap paper just a shade better than newsprint and with no photographs other than the one on the dust jacket.
Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.