W.E.B. Du Bois: Volume II
David Levering Lewis completes his biography of a fascinating African-American
Archived article from Feb 2, 2001
By Alice Roche Cody
Page 2 of 3
Because of Du Bois' influential position, Lewis faced a particular challenge in writing and researching his biography. "Every biographer finds that the subject conceals or misrepresents his or her life," says Lewis. "It's not that Du Bois was mendacious or fraudulent or a liar, it's that he was so concerned with his legacy for people of color that he often rearranged circumstances."
For instance, there is the matter of Du Bois' cantankerous role in assembling the Pan-African Congress in 1923, a meeting that sought to foster unity among people of African descent. "It almost didn't happen because of his own arrogance," says Lewis. "He ran roughshod over the people invited to participate."
Du Bois also had a tendency toward exaggeration, notes Lewis. "He got a few people from England to sign on, a few socialists from London and some elegant people from Portugal. The way he wrote about it in The Crisis, you would have thought half the world was present at the Pan-African Congress, and that it was a harmonious enterprise."
Another firestorm involved the events leading to Du Bois' resignation from the NAACP in 1934. Abandoning the NAACP's position of seeking full integration into white America, Du Bois "advocated a new segregation along economic lines." He believed it would be the "race-conscious black man cooperating together in his own institutions and movements" that would eventually emancipate the black race. Du Bois called for blacks to mobilize and conduct their businesses strictly among themselves. It was in business situations like these, stressed Du Bois, that blacks had made the greatest gains.
Frustrated that the NAACP rejected his latest position, Du Bois resigned in protest. "There are two stories behind this event -- Du Bois' version is self-serving and ennobling, it's the version of an intellectual who won't compromise," says Lewis. "But it's more complicated than that. He was terribly imprudent and abstract and unrealistic in his proposals."
Du Bois in this period presents a complex picture of seemingly warring ideals, Lewis observes. Whereas the first half of Du Bois' life was spent building a true civil rights movement that would have a tremendous impact on the life of blacks in the United States, the second half of his life was filled with contradictions and difficulties as he came into conflict with other black leaders, as well as white society.
Yet these intricacies led the biographer on a fascinating path that he relished. "What biographers love is that challenge," says Lewis. "Many asked me if I had sleepless nights. One or two times Du Bois almost shocked me, and that's when I thought to myself, 'Where is he taking me?' I'd then step back and say, 'After all, I'm following his marvelous life, and all I have to do is fill it in.'"
One such shocking moment came when Du Bois traveled to Nazi Germany in 1936 and spent six months as a scholarly guest of the Third Reich. "In 1936 no one knew that the Holocaust was in the cards and that six million people would be liquidated,"
explains Lewis. "Many Americans at the time were saying that even though they might not like Hitler, he did get the trains to run on time and there was little unemployment. Meanwhile, Roosevelt's New Deal was limping along. Du Bois seemed to understand Nazism's virulence, but to condemn this trip is a time-bound assessment," he cautions.
Another discrepancy is Du Bois' firm stance regarding women's rights while participating in a marriage with a blatantly unequal power structure. "Only at the sacrifice of intelligence and the chance to do their best work can the majority of modern women bear children. This is the damnation of women," writes Du Bois in "Darkwater," a book of his essays. Later in the biography, Lewis reveals Du Bois' extramarital affair with a student 39 years his junior. He also discloses how throughout most of their marriage, Du Bois arranged for his wife, Nina, to live separately. The final years
Page 2 of 3