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The Black and The Red

W.E.B. DU BOIS The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 By David Levering Lewis; Henry Holt: 574 pp., $35

October 22, 2000|JOHN PATRICK DIGGINS | John Patrick Diggins is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History."

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln called to the White House a distinguished group of free black Americans, the first time people of color were invited to meet a chief executive. Responding to the racial prejudice sweeping the country as the Civil War raged, Lincoln proposed recolonizing in Liberia, sadly concluding, "it is better, therefore, to be separated." The guests politely refused the president's recommendation and withdrew from the meeting convinced more firmly than ever that the real home for African Americans was America itself.

Exactly a century later, in 1962, W.E.B. Du Bois, America's most eminent black academic intellectual, decided to become a citizen of Ghana. Two years earlier, at the age of 93, and after having spent almost his entire intellectual life skeptical of Marxism, Du Bois applied for membership to the Communist Party USA. In August 1963, as he lay dying in a hospital bed, he was visited by Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the Republic of Ghana. "I failed you--my strength gave out," lamented the 95-year-old scholar regarding a collaborative project on an encyclopedia of African American history he knew he would not live to finish. "Forgive an old man." Nkrumah left the room in tears. At that moment, in the nation Du Bois had abandoned, 250,000 black and white Americans were gathering before the reflecting pool of Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial in what would be the greatest civil rights march in history.

David Levering Lewis, who holds the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in History at Rutgers University, has produced the second volume of his monumental study of Du Bois, a figure whose life reads as something of a noble tragedy in American intellectual history. The first widely acclaimed volume, "W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography of a Race, 1868-1919," won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1994. It dealt with Du Bois' ancestral roots in Haiti and New Haven, his youth in Calvinist New England, education at Fisk and Harvard, early career as a historian and his rivalry with Booker T. Washington, who advocated broad technical education for black youths opposed to Du Bois' preference for a classical curriculum aimed at the "talented tenth," his phrase, often regarded as elitist, for outstanding members of the African American community.

In the present volume, recently nominated for a National Book Award, Lewis has come through once again with a work of keen scholarship that will appeal to the general reader responsive to graceful, lucid prose by an author with an eye for ironic situations and complex emotions. Publishers are generally weary of multivolume works. But as Hannah Arendt pioneered a certain literary form in her assessment of J.P. Nettl's mammoth study of activist Rosa Luxemburg, so too has Lewis in his consideration of Du Bois' life and work. "The definitive biography, English-style, is among the most admirable genres of historiography," Arendt wrote. "Lengthy, thoroughly documented, heavily annotated, and generously splashed with quotations, it usually comes in two large volumes and tells more, and more vividly, about the historical period in question than all but the most outstanding history books."

In the academic world today, much of the writing on Du Bois tells us little about the man or his world. The "discourse" is arcanely analytical. Was Du Bois a post-structuralist who saw life as socially conditioned, or was he an essentialist who saw race as innately given? Was he a pragmatist who, having studied with William James, believed we can get along without truth, or did he, like Lincoln, whom he admired, hold America up to standards of right and wrong? Lewis wisely avoids such theoretical issues as he unfolds a masterful narrative that tells us as much about America as about this grand mind who struggled with it.

The story opens with Du Bois seated in the office of the NAACP's journal The Crisis, pondering whether to run a grisly account of one of the many race riots that exploded in the year 1919. As Du Bois recognized before anyone else, the "color line" would indeed become the searing problem of the 20th century. The NAACP had to stay clear of anarchist and Communist activists who thought the Bolshevik revolution could be repeated on the streets of Greenwich Village. Du Bois and the NAACP would continually be faced with the question of whether black Americans should maintain an autonomous identity or whether they should establish some semblance of solidarity with other groups and causes. How to empower the poor and powerless?

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