Comrades in the Struggle for Black Freedom: Gerald Horne and W.E.B. Du Bois

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing some of our favorite BP articles. We continue with this essay by blogger Phillip Luke Sinitiere as part of our forum on Gerald Horne’s Radical History.

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1963.

Gerald Horne’s first encounters with the work of W. E. B. Du Bois included reading Black Reconstruction (1935), The World and Africa (1947), and In Battle for Peace (1952). These works, Horne stated in 2014, “were catalytic in helping me to understand the impact of the international situation on the plight and/or progress of black Americans in particular, and the concomitant necessity for black American leaders and intellectuals to engage forcefully on the global stage as a pressure point here on the North American mainland.” Relatedly, in his editorial Introduction to Du Bois’s 1945 text Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace republished by Oxford University Press in 2007, Horne wrote that Du Bois “did not just engage Africa and black America . . . He also recognized that the fate of both was influenced decisively by global currents” (237). It is significant that these books date to Du Bois’s late career, defined here as the post-1934 period to 1963, the year Du Bois passed away in Ghana; Horne’s work on Du Bois emphasizes this period.

While the trend has changed considerably within the last decade due to the efforts of scholars like Amy Bass, Eric Porter, and Bill Mullen, well over half a century after his death the vast majority of Du Bois scholarship stiff-armed his twilight years. This perspective, which reflected a residual post-Cold War anticommunism, held that Du Bois’s increasingly leftist radicalism throughout the 1940s, but especially the 1950s and early 1960s, displayed an unfortunate political and intellectual descent into ideological blindness. However, in 1986 Gerald Horne’s first book Black & Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963 moved the scholarly dial of Du Bois studies (as did Manning Marable’s W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, published the same year). Black & Red started to repaint, and reframe the prevailing anticommunist rendering of the noted Black intellectual.

Black & Red anticipated Horne’s career-long contributions to the scholarship on Black radical internationalism, and rendered the importance of Black radical intellectual and cultural networks in resisting repression through self-determination and creative insurgency. One of the book’s signature contributions analyzed Du Bois’s second stint at the NAACP from 1944 to 1948. During this time, his commitment to international Black freedom and decolonization, as well as his support of Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, conflicted with the Association’s U. S.-based legal strategies for civil rights, and its nascent anticommunism, not to mention the personal animosity between Du Bois and NAACP executive secretary Walter White. Analysis of Du Bois’s second term at the NAACP, and the Association’s mid-century internationalism, vis-à-vis Black & Red, among other scholarship that documents the Black Left, remains critically contested territory, as Carol Anderson’s illuminating Bourgeois Radicals (2015) contends by “de-centering Du Bois.”

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1946 by Carl Van Vechten (Photo: Library of Congress)

Black & Red also narrated Du Bois’s thought regarding Black American contributions to decolonization, from his late career publications on Africa, to his relentless reporting on African affairs in Chicago Defender, Guardian, and People’s Voice columns. It spotlighted his efforts in the peace movement, including his work with the Peace Information Center. In addition, Black & Red showed the networked constellation of Black radicals in Du Bois’s circle who collectively and persistently assaulted Jim Crow, some of whom, as Charisse Burden-Stelly’s post shows, became Horne’s future biographical subjects: Ben Davis, Ferdinand Smith, Shirley Graham Du Bois, William Patterson, and Paul Robeson.

Beyond these major contributions to Black intellectual history Black & Red made, perhaps most impressive is the deep and thorough documentary trail upon which the book depends. Reviews of Black & Red uniformly praised the extensive archival work Horne’s research exhibited. Writing in the Journal of Southern History, F. Palmer Weber marveled at “the vast and accurate detail” Black & Red’s documentation revealed and Linda Burnham’s assessment in The Black Scholar remarked at the “impressive factual substantiation” of Du Bois’s late career that Horne’s research delivered.

These observations about Horne’s expansive research early in his career, as we learn in a 2011 autobiographical essay “One Historian’s Journey” published in The Journal of African American History, foreshadowed archival practices, a wide reading regimen, and extensive engagement with current events that became routine in the performance of his intellectual labor. Other roundtable contributors add to these observations, while we also encounter Horne’s “groundbreaking scholarship,” as Erik McDuffie put it, his “stunning use of historical archives,” to enlist Ula Taylor’s apt description, his “exhaustively researched” books, to echo Brenda Gayle Plummer, and his “exceptional scholarship,” as Robeson Taj Frazier observed, that models exemplary research habits at which his scholarly peers marvel and from which his students continue to learn.

A group of the founding members of the Niagara Movement superimposed over an image showing the Niagara Falls. Du Bois is in the center row with the white hat. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In 2001, with Mary Young, Horne edited W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia. This reference volume canvasses Du Bois’s long and distinguished 95 years of existence; however, it is particularly rich with entries that offer details about the individuals, institutions, and organizations that intersected with Du Bois’s final three decades. The Encyclopedia’s international dimension runs throughout the volume, which marks another of its important features. Horne’s observation in the Introduction speaks to the comprehensive treatment the volume gives to Du Bois: “He was a man of encyclopedic interests and actions, and for this reason alone, there are few figures more worthy of encyclopedic treatment than W. E. B. Du Bois” (xxiii). A closing section of selected bibliographic entries presents a useful list of primary and secondary sources, although now nearly twenty years after the Encyclopedia’s publication, the secondary sources appear somewhat dated. Nevertheless, while there are other reference volumes on Du Bois’s long and distinguished life—for example, Herbert Aptheker and Paul Partingtonauthored bibliographic works, and Meyer Weinburg published a quotation sourcebook titled The World of W. E. B. Du Bois—Horne’s Encyclopedia remains an unparalleled resource for students of Du Bois specifically, and Black intellectual history more generally.

Nearly a quarter century passed before Horne again approached Du Bois biographically, this time for a popular audience book with Greenwood Press. W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography (2010) begins where we might expect with one of the major episodes of Du Bois’s twilight decades: the February 1951 arrest of the esteemed Black scholar, and his eventual acquittal during the tense days of McCarthyism. In addition, the cover of the book features an image of Du Bois from 1946, a symbolic marker of Horne’s scholarly focus on his later years. While Horne’s short biography does not look exclusively at Du Bois’s closing years, and whereas the book emphasizes the role of his ideas as opposed to a fuller examination of Du Bois’s private life and personal dimensions, an angle that David Levering Lewis’s 2-volume Du Bois biography takes, it postulates more specifically about the relevance of his legacy in our own day. “Though by the time he passed away, he was hardy hailed in the land of his birth,” Horne concluded, “it is no accident that today he is recognized as one of the most prolific and protean intellectuals and skilled political activists that this nation as a whole and black America in particular has produced” (191). While the descriptors “prolific” and “protean” can just as easily describe Gerald Horne’s scholarly career, it is equally true that as comrades in the struggle for Black freedom Horne’s scholarship has helped in no small measure to establish greater and wider recognition of Du Bois’s stupendous and enduring artistic, political, and cultural contributions to Black intellectual history.

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Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.