W.E.B. Du Bois

The writer who traveled backward.

Last week David Levering Lewis’ biography of W.E.B. Du Bois won a second Pulitzer Prize. Lewis won his first prize in 1994 for Volume 1. This year’s prize went to Volume 2. The double whammy recognizes Lewis’ gifts as a biographer. But it also reflects the swelling reputation of Lewis’ subject—who is now widely seen as the founding father of the modern fight for black equality.

Few people thought that about Du Bois when he died in 1963, at age 95. In the last two years of his life, he had joined the Communist Party, moved to Ghana, and renounced his American citizenship. At his death he was a pariah not just among the establishment powers in his native land, but also, to a degree, among civil rights leaders. While they were gathering for the triumphant 1963 March on Washington, Du Bois was drawing his last breath on the other side of the ocean.

But since his death Du Bois has enjoyed a remarkable rehabilitation. His writings, especially his collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903), have been enshrined, by most reckonings, in that nebulous body of must-read literature known as “the canon.” In 1987, the Library of America chose him as the first black writer to merit his own volumes. His ideas underpin much thinking about race in America today. His picture is on a stamp.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868, in a racially progressive Yankee community in Great Barrington, Mass. He attended all-black Fisk University and then Harvard, where he studied under William James and became the school’s first African-American Ph.D.

Du Bois burst into prominence with The Souls of Black Folk, which included a frontal assault on the ideas of Booker T. Washington, the leading black thinker of the day. Washington famously urged black Americans to follow a course of self-reliance and accommodation with white America—to trade or postpone their claims to civil rights for the chance to educate themselves in the practical knowledge that would materially better their lives. Du Bois saw Washington’s prescription not only as a bad bargain but also as a corrupt one, which rested on a condescending view of black people’s capacities and culture.

The antagonists’ positions in that debate have often been simplified as self-help versus integration. Du Bois, however, championed not just integration but integration on blacks’ terms—an equality that would not require an African-American “to bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism.” As Du Bois elaborated in The Souls of Black Folk, black Americans possessed a “double consciousness” or identity and did not have to choose between being “American” or “Negro” but existed as both, simultaneously. Long before multiculturalism, Du Bois articulated a way that retaining an ethnic identity and culture did not have to mean sacrificing full status as an American.

Developing that and other ideas from The Souls of Black Folk kept Du Bois busy as an activist and scholar for several decades. Committed to complete racial equality, he helped found the NAACP in 1910, and for roughly 25 years he edited its magazine Crisis. His belief in the richness of black culture placed him at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. His book Black Reconstruction in America (1935) upended then-prevalent notions of the post-Civil War Reconstruction and recast it as a noble action led by freed slaves seizing their rights. Decades later, the white historical establishment came around to endorsing his interpretation.

Du Bois was prickly, often arrogant, and prone to feuds like the one he picked with Washington. In the 1920s he set himself up as the chief rival to Marcus Garvey and his popular back-to-Africa movement. But Du Bois also provoked liberal integrationists. In the 1930s, he fell out with his colleagues in the NAACP, whose campaigns for anti-lynching bills and other measures Du Bois increasingly believed to be too narrow and timid an agenda. Du Bois did not wish to submerge black culture in the fight for equality. He now argued that economic segregation was only evil if it involved discrimination and, sounding a little like Booker T. Washington, claimed that in some cases segregation might serve blacks’ economic development.

Du Bois reversed the journey of many intellectuals, growing increasingly radical with age. At a time when many black radicals such as Richard Wright were rejecting communism, Du Bois became more and more orthodox in his Marxism; he even had kind words for Stalin. Targeted by the government as a subversive, he was stripped of his passport and rendered an outcast. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement, under the leadership of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was gathering force in its fight against segregation, drawing on the early work, but not the continuing involvement, of Du Bois.

Du Bois has become newly prominent because, despite his geriatric dogmatism, his thinking for most of his life was supple and original enough to reconcile what others saw as contradictions. He espoused African identity and American identity, self-improvement and integration, culture and politics. Today, a bouquet of these philosophies flowers among black thinkers and activists. All of them can trace their roots to Du Bois.