Issue Date: Feb 2, 2001
By Alice Roche Cody
When David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King Jr. University Professor on the New Brunswick campus, set out to write a one-volume biography of the black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, he knew the enormity of the challenge before him. But he never dreamed that the task would grow into two mammoth volumes and take more than 15 years of his life to craft. The research alone required some 200 interviews and extensive travel across the United States, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Africa and Mexico. Lewis pored through documents and archives and sifted through Du Bois' memoirs.
"It sounds awesome, and to tell you the truth, I could have added another 50 pages," says Lewis of his newly released 715-page volume, "W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963" (Henry Holt). The book, volume two of the biography, traces the second half of the life of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois -- activist, historian, scholar, sociologist, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the leading proponent of the civil rights movement -- until his death at age 95. The biography, which has gained critical acclaim, was a 2000 National Book Award Finalist.
Lewis' earlier book, "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919" (Henry Holt, 1993), follows Du Bois' life from his birth in Great Barrington, Mass., to his role in founding the NAACP in 1910. For that volume Lewis received top honors: the Bancroft, Parkman and Pulitzer prizes, as well as a $375,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
The first volume details Du Bois' participation in the 1905 Niagara Movement, which called for economic and educational equality and opportunity for blacks, an end to segregation and an end to discrimination. This stance directly opposed the rhetoric of the influential black educator Booker T. Washington, who advocated accommodation and compromise with whites. Du Bois' work in the Niagara Movement was crucial in founding the NAACP, an organization dedicated to improving the conditions of blacks in the United States.
The second volume moves from Du Bois' opposition to Washington to the ongoing struggle between Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born activist whose "back to Africa" movement Du Bois opposed, calling instead for "the gradual empowerment of the darker world" to bring an end to imperialism and racism, writes Lewis.
"Garvey threatened the continuity of these efforts with an opera bouffe act that amounted to little more, really, than pageantry and incantation," writes Lewis. Du Bois considered Garvey's battle cry, "Africa for the Africans," a rash slogan without a carefully thought-out plan. Lewis asserts that Du Bois had advocated Africa for the Africans, but he had never called for Africa to be ruled by outsiders, such as West Indians or American Negroes.
In 1919, the 51-year-old Du Bois was the unchallenged editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, which boasted a monthly circulation of 100,000. Through the pages of The Crisis and in a series of magazine essays such as "Souls of White Folk," Du Bois became the voice for black Americans seeking racial equality and justice. "Du Bois seemed almost to scream," writes Lewis, "at what had been done to men and women of Negro descent in the United States through 'orgy, cruelty, barbarism, and murder.'"
Indeed, there was plenty to scream about. Lewis powerfully depicts the ugly state of race relations at that time, vividly describing the lynching of uniformed black soldiers as they returned home from fighting in World War I and the "Red Summer" of 1919 when 76 black men and women were lynched by angry white mobs in the South.
Du Bois warned his readers: "Terrible as the Great War had been, it was nothing compared to the impending holocaust of the races ... that fight for freedom which black and brown and yellow men must and will make unless their oppression and humiliation and insult at the hands of the White World cease." A complex man
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
In 1944, after a decade of teaching at Atlanta University, Du Bois returned to the NAACP. Four years later, he was fired for accusing the executive director of sacrificing civil rights gains for his own advancement. Du Bois then moved further to the left politically and became involved in promoting world peace and nuclear disarmament.
"The Cold War was in the air and Du Bois was vulnerable to being called a traitor, a Communist," said Lewis. "Many said he was sacrificing his gains in the area of civil rights, at the very moment they were taking hold, for this left-wing lunacy."
A series of battles with the United States government began in 1951 when the U.S. Justice Department charged Du Bois with being an agent of the Soviet Union. After his acquittal, the government refused for a time to grant him a passport to travel outside the United States. In 1961, after joining the American Communist Party, he moved to Ghana.
"On his 95th birthday, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana, another symbolic decision taken largely because the American embassy refused to renew his passport," writes Lewis. Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 27, 1963, the eve of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington, Du Bois died. "In Washington, 250,000 of his countrymen and women began assembling along the great reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial," writes Lewis. "As far as can be known, W.E.B. Du Bois said nothing in his last hours. But it had all been said."
While some may view the final volume of Du Bois' biography as the tragic unraveling of a brilliant mind and career, Lewis bristles at this suggestion. "It's more perceptive if you take someone of such moral principles and high ideals and ask what caused it," says Lewis. "I didn't want to defend him. I presented a conflicted figure whose attempt to achieve his ideals caused him to contradict many of them."
An extraordinary mind
In the course of his long, turbulent career ... W.E.B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism -- scholarship, propaganda, integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third-world solidarity. First had come culture and education for the elites; then the ballot for the masses; then economic democracy; and finally all these solutions in the service of global racial parity and economic justice. An extraordinary mind of color in a racialized century, Du Bois was possessed of a principled impatience with what he saw as the egregious failings of American democracy that drove him, decade by decade, to the paradox of defending totalitarianism in the service of a global ideal of economic and social justice.
--From "W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963" by David Levering Lewis
About the author
David Levering Lewis' life first intersected with that of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1948, when Lewis was only 12 years old. Du Bois was visiting Wilberforce University in Ohio, where Lewis' father was dean of theology. Du Bois asked the young Lewis what he planned to do with his life. "I have no idea what I could have said," recalls Lewis. "Later, I said that my answer could have been, 'Spend much of my life in your life.'"
Lewis went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Fisk University in 1956. He then earned a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1985, he joined the faculty at Rutgers. In addition to the just completed two-volume biography of Du Bois, he has authored several acclaimed books, including "King: A Biography," "When Harlem Was in Vogue" and "The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance in the Scramble for Africa."
He is already at work on his next project, although he declined to share specifics. Meanwhile, on sabbatical from Rutgers this semester, he is teaching a course at Harvard University on European involvement in the slave trade.
-- Alice Roche Cody
This article was published in the Feb 2, 2001 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/632/