Du Bois was perhaps too elitist to trust everything to class politics. He knew full well what Marxists were reluctant to acknowledge: that organized white workers, even more than corporate capitalists, excluded blacks from economic opportunity. In the '30s, when Communists tried to play the race card to promote the cause of the Soviet Union, Du Bois cautioned: "American Negroes do not propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution, driven out in front to death, cruelty, and humiliation in order to win victories for white workers."
At the pan-African conferences in the '20s, Du Bois demanded of the League of Nations racial equality and national self-determination for Africa. He clashed with Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican who, opposing the NAACP's policy of black-white cooperation, arrived in New York City to urge upon African Americans a separatist stance that would lead to resettlement in Liberia.
Lewis devotes considerable attention to Du Bois' efforts to improve education for black students, matters which involved curriculum development, fund-raising and the roles of leadership, admission and promotion policies at universities such as Howard, Hampton Institute and Tuskegee. Du Bois vehemently protested the absence of black students at elite East Coast institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Radcliffe, Wellesley and Smith, while at the same time complaining of the paternalism and parochialism prevalent at black colleges.
In a rich chapter ("Civil Rights by Copyright") on the Harlem Renaissance, Lewis is skeptical of culture serving in place of politics. Nevertheless, a good deal of the Harlem Renaissance had the support of the William Harman Foundation, the Rosenwald Fellowships, as well as the Guggenheim. A leading light of the Renaissance was the poet Countee Cullen. Du Bois' daughter Yolanda married Cullen, and the proud father-in-law looked forward to the arrival of superior offspring. Although Du Bois criticized racist presumptions, Lewis observes: "As far as his own flesh and blood was concerned, he believed that genes were destiny." Indeed, they are; the poet Cullen, refusing parenting, turned out to be homosexual. But Du Bois urged his daughter to remain married, hoping for a mating miracle.
In the late '30s, when the Depression seemed to have doomed liberal capitalism to the dustbin of history, and the world was poised between the forces of fascism and communism, Du Bois saw Stalin's Russia as the answer to Hitler's Germany and a beacon of racial equality. The outbreak of the Cold War left Du Bois increasingly isolated as he opposed the containment of communism, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the armaments race, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and even the Point Four Program for the developing world. Convinced that the United States stood in the way of social progress, Du Bois was welcomed as a prophet in China and Russia. In Ghana he went to his grave a true believer in two causes, African nationalism and Soviet communism, one a wasteland of killing fields and kleptomania, the other a living hell of show trials and slave labor.
Although Lewis' knowledge of black cultural history is thorough, some of his generalizations about intellectual history are dubious. The "Lost Generation" hardly looked to art and literature as the "means to change society." The philosopher Sidney Hook did not become "an anti-socialist par excellence"; he continued to admire Karl Marx as much as Ronald Reagan. And America did not have to wait for Herbert Marcuse to show us what Du Bois anticipated: "The investment of American workers," as Lewis writes, "in the success ideology of capitalism." That point had been made much earlier by thinkers as diverse as Tocqueville, Lincoln, Engels and, above all, Thorstein Veblen.
But these corrections are minor matters in a major book that is a joy to read even if Du Bois' final years are too sad for words. One of the strongest sections is the author's astute and judicious analysis of Du Bois' seminal book, "Black Reconstruction in America," published in 1935. Here indeed, as Lewis demonstrates, Du Bois does presage current scholarship in showing that blacks in post-Civil War America were not passive objects manipulated by Northern carpetbaggers, but active agents trying to work out the condition of their own freedom and self-determination. Had emancipated blacks been given the land, animals and tools with which to work the earth (to say nothing about equal access to trade unions and jobs in the industrial north), America might have witnessed the possibility of black capitalism, and Du Bois might have given America a chance to make good on its egalitarian promises in the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln called the "sheet anchor" of the Republic and the "immortal emblem" for humanity everywhere in the world.