W. E. B. Du Bois, Volume I

Describing his eight years of researching and writing this biography of a monumental figure in African American history, Lewis remarks that the voyage has been “long, challenging, and fascinating.” Readers of W. E. B. DU BOIS will have similar feelings as they voyage through its nearly six hundred pages of narrative (and more than one hundred pages of notes), beginning with Du Bois’s upbringing in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and closing with his campaign against racial discrimination during World War I. All nineteen chapters that comprise the book are interesting and informative, especially those dealing with Du Bois’s well-known feud with Booker T. Washington, and his activities as an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and as editor of its magazine, THE CRISIS. Lewis synthesizes the most important information available in previous studies of Du Bois, and adds much new data from Du Bois’s diaries and other unpublished sources.

In a famous passage from his book THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK (1903), Du Bois remarked that African Americans feel a “double consciousness”—that of being an African and an American. Du Bois’s struggle to reconcile his opposing selves preoccupies Lewis and serves as the unifying theme of his study.

Throughout the book, Lewis carefully reconstructs the historical context in which Du Bois’s actions and writings occurred; thus large portions of the book are detailed accounts of episodes in African Americans’ long quest for racial justice. In this respect, Lewis’ biography of Du Bois is indeed, as the subtitle suggests, also a “biography of a race.”

It is clear that Lewis greatly admires Du Bois, but he avoids idolizing his subject. He does not ignore or gloss over Du Bois’s character flaws: his elitism and arrogance; his sexual affairs; and his failures as a husband and father. Still, if Lewis’ discussions of Du Bois’s shortcomings remind us that he was, after all, a fallible human being, the book overall strengthens Du Bois’s reputation as one of American history’s most brilliant, courageous, and dedicated civil rights activists.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, August, 1993, p.2010.

Boston Globe. November 7, 1993, p.15.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 6, 1993, p.15.

Commonweal. CXX, December 3, 1993, p.24.

The Nation. CCLVII, November 15, 1993, p.574.

The New Republic. CCX, April 4, 1994, p.28.

Newsweek. CXXII, November 29, 1993, p.75.

USA Today. November 19, 1993, p. D4.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 24, 1993, p.1.

Form and Content

When David Levering Lewis initially decided to write a biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, he planned on producing a medium-length, one-volume work, a task that he expected to take about five years. As he became increasingly fascinated by Du Bois’s eventful, ninety-five-year-long life, however, the project itself became longer and longer, until it was finally published in two large volumes totaling 1,449 pages, with 232 pages devoted to documentation.

Growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts, Du Bois experienced some racism, but Lewis observes that the location was an “incomparably kinder place” than the lynch-law South, where most African Americans lived at the time. After Du Bois graduated from Harvard University in 1890, he studied at Berlin University for two years, and while there he learned about socialism and Marxism. He then returned to Harvard for graduate study, and in 1895 he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. His dissertation, devoted to the end of the African slave trade to the United States, was published as the first volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

A prolific writer, Du Bois published hundreds of articles and twenty-two books, including five novels, and he helped establish four journals. His first book, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), which was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania, was a sociological study of African American neighborhoods, including family structures, crime, and economic conditions. Lewis observes that this was among the first of the sociological accounts to reject the idea of deterministic laws and to emphasize the roles of “human choice, wish, whim, and prejudice.”


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W. E. B. Du Bois, Volume I

Describing his eight years of researching and writing this Pulitzer Prize-biography of a monumental figure in African American history, Lewis remarks that the voyage was ’long, challenging, and fascinating.” Readers of W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 will have similar feelings as they voyage through its nearly six hundred pages of narrative (and more than one hundred pages of notes).

The book opens with a brief overview of W. E. B. Du Bois’ career and achievements, then moves chronologically from his childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, through his civil rights and literary activities during the period of World War I. Du Bois had at this point nearly forty-five years left to live; thus this biography covers only about half of his remarkable life.

In his best-known book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois produced what Lewis rightly terms a revolutionary conception: The African American, Du Bois wrote, ever feels his two-ness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.” Du Bois’ “two-ness,” his often painful struggle to reconcile his African and American selves, preoccupies Lewis and serves as the unifying theme of his study.

As a child prodigy in Great Barrington during the 1870’s and early 1880’s, Du Bois was largely shielded from the virulent racism that afflicted most African Americans, especially those in the South, where the gains made during the Reconstruction era were being eroded and racial violence was on the increase. Great Barrington was not immune to racial prejudice, however, and in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois states that his first encounter with the “vast veil” of racism occurred when he was ten years old. Lewis, however, demonstrates that Du Bois’ recollections here are not entirely trustworthy, and that they must be examined with “sympathetic skepticism.” One of the strengths of this book is that Lewis repeatedly examines Du Bois’ autobiographical statements with such skepticism; the examination often turns up distortions or contradictions of fact without necessarily damaging the particular truth that Du Bois was seeking to dramatize.

When he left Great Barrington’s predominantly white middle-class environment in 1885 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to enroll at Fisk University, Du Bois found himself in a different world, different not only because the veil of racial prejudice was more pronounced but also because there existed a rich African American folk culture to which Du Bois was alien. While studying at Fisk and teaching during summer vacations in rural Tennessee schools, Du Bois developed a deep appreciation of black folk life, especially of the “Sorrow Songs.” For Du Bois, who was a mulatto, ethnic identity was a matter of choice, not genes. His decision to be “Black” and to commit himself to the cause of racial injustice occurred during his years at Fisk.

As Lewis emphasizes, however, though Du Bois was sympathetic toward and committed to uplifting the black masses, he stood proudly aloof from them. His subsequent years at Harvard University (1888-1892) and the University of Berlin (1892-1894) allowed his genius to be recognized by such eminent professors as William James, George Santaynna, Albert Bushnell Hart, and Max Weber. His university education, which steeped him in the classical texts of the Western, not African, cultural tradition, also reinforced his elitist perspective and deepened his “double consciousness.” Moreover, though he would later be attracted to Marxism, Du Bois’ political views at this time were conservative, even reactionary. For example, he denounced the Populists and applauded the (unjust) executions of the Haymarket anarchists in 1886.

Du Bois’ relationship with Hart, a professor of history at Harvard, is especially interesting. Hart encouraged and supported Du Bois during and after his Harvard days, and the dissertation that he wrote under Hart’s direction would later develop into Du Bois’ first published book: The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896). (The book was the first, and remains one of the most valuable, studies of the subject.) Yet even as Du Bois was demonstrating his brilliance as...

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Fikes, Robert, Jr. “Surprise: There Are Black History Professors Who Don’t Teach Black History.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 31 (Spring, 2001): 124-128. Short essay observing that Lewis and other African Americans teach a large variety of courses in colleges and universities.

Lemert, Charles. Review of W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, by David Levering Lewis. Contemporary Sociology 24 (March, 1995): 164-166. Emphasizes Du Bois’s importance to the development of sociology.

Lewis, David Levering. “Harlem Renaissance.” In Africana, edited by Henry...

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