William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was bigger than life. Among the most celebrated intellectuals of his day, he was the founding editor of The Crisis, a monthly magazine dealing with black issues and serving as the major mouthpiece of the NAACP. Its monthly circulation in the early 1920’s exceeded one hundred thousand copies. Du Bois’s articles and editorials in it attracted a wide range of readers, black and white, and were a motivating force in demanding that African Americans be accorded the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all United States citizens.
Given the monumental dimensions of its subject, it is not surprising that David Levering Lewis’s two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois is monumental in its dimensions. The first volume, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, appearing in 1993, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography as well as the Bancroft and Parkman prizes. For both its breadth and depth of coverage, Lewis’s two-volume biography is in a class with Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s O’Neill (1962) and David McCullough’s Truman (1992). His massive research is presented in an elegant, well-considered prose style as impressive as that for which Du Bois himself was renowned.
If volume 1 is, as its subtitle suggests, the biography of a race, volume 2 is equally ambitious. Lewis, after considering the subtitle The Biography of a Century, opted for the less encompassing The Fight for Equality and the American Century. Besides presenting the biography of a man who was a driving force in the struggle for racial equality through his association with the NAACP, the Pan-African Congress, and The Crisis, this volume provides one of the most significant accounts of the complex events that led to the racial turmoil of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, resulting in civil rights legislation that dramatically changed the standing of African Americans, indeed of all minorities, in the United States.
Volume 2 begins in the year after World War I. Mainstream America was optimistic about its future now that the “war to end all wars” was behind it and the American continent emerged unscathed. African Americans, particularly in the South, where separate but equal was the rule, were still relegated to second-class citizenship in many states, north and south. Nevertheless, a black intelligentsia was growing. The Harlem Renaissance was about to blossom full-blown in the black community centered in New York’s Harlem. Blacks were being encouraged to write. Their books were being published and read widely by both black and white audiences. Black music and dance flourished.
At the same time, a national fear of communism was building and was to culminate in the Red Scares of the 1920’s and later in the 1950’s, when Joseph McCarthy and others were obsessed with ferreting out communists. This fear launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His “Radicalism and Sedition among Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications” (1919) brought him to the attention of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who smoothed the path to Hoover’s becoming a force in important investigative wings of the Department of Justice that predated the FBI.
It was in this climate that W. E. B. Du Bois founded The Crisis, which quickly became a sounding board for challenging the status quo as it applied to black citizens. Responding to mainstream fears about the threat of communism, Du Bois contended that “the danger facing the nation came not from Communist revolution but from the consequences of its own moral and humanitarian failure.” As this sentiment grew in Du Bois, it eventually caused him in the final years of his life to join the Communist Party and relocate in Accra, Ghana, where President Kwame Nkruma offered him sanctuary. On his ninety-fifth birthday, Du Bois, now residing in Ghana, became a citizen of that country after the United States Department of State refused to renew his passport.
Lewis presents a Du Bois who was clearly a genius, gifted, opinionated, and, as he grew older, increasingly intransigent in his views. Du Bois had the strong libido that often is part of the makeup of males who are overly ambitious. His long-suffering first wife, Nina, came eventually to accept her husband’s dalliances and even to entertain some of his paramours in her home. Many of Du Bois’s female...
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