W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History

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

In 2018, scholars celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois via published essays, symposiums, and commemorative celebrations, such as the one held in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts—a community that once rejected the scholar due to his communist affiliation. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne’s W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History is a timely book, addressing Du Bois’s challenges as a radical, with contemporary issues in mind. Today, terms like socialism, communism, and hash tags pronouncing Black Lives Matter are trendy among those suspicious of the police state and capitalism; however, one is reminded throughout this book of his exhaustively yet committed life devoted to socialism, democracy, and the souls of Black folks. And his work was not just confined to the Jim Crow South; the crisis of the race problem extended beyond its periphery to Du Bois’s home in New York. “It was no accident that African Americans were sited mostly in segregated neighborhoods, such as Harlem, and were subjected to harassment by often trigger-happy police officers” (131).

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History is a well-crafted compilation of primary and secondary sources. Burden-Stelly and Horne skillfully navigate the reader through twelve chapters of exquisite narratives, and ninety-five years of Du Bois’s life, using illustrative constructions of his transformation from his childhood in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, to his resting ground in Accra, Ghana. Along this journey, the reader is captivated by Du Bois as a global and domestic intellectual, an activist prophesying within an ever expansive radical framework. The authors persistently juxtapose the American color line to the endemic forces of global imperialism and capitalism, and how they were construed in a fashion shaped by a paradoxical Du Bois. A man who sought justice for Black Americans, but found himself rejected, particularly when it came to his regrettable endorsement of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and again when he campaigned to support the war effort (80-81). “Du Bois had failed African Americans, who no longer trusted him and now rejected his leadership” (86). The nuance of such complexity entices the reader by examining his desire for a better world.

From the start, the reader senses Du Bois’s emotional longing for friendship during his adolescent years, when he was reminded of the color line, as a “[white] girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused my peremptorily with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life, and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (3). This early dawn of race and the power of white supremacy sets the stage to further his intellectual prowess as an anti-racist—a thread referenced throughout the book. Moreover, it humanizes Du Bois as a man who often sought companionship, forcing one to empathize with the savior of a race. He is showcased as a disciplined Du Bois, one who managed an ever increasing travel, speaking, and writing schedule that seemed incomprehensible to mere mortals. The reader is reminded of the emotional toll Du Bois carried. His first wife, Nina Gomer (1896-1950), was invisible at times in the book, as she was in the life of Du Bois. As noted by Du Boisian biographer David Levering Lewis, she had “a sad record of psychosomatic debility and superego…and their relationship ended at the borders of Du Bois’s cosmic concerns.” While a great champion for the plight of women, a radical arguing for the expansion of the franchise to encompass women’s equality, such passion did not extend to his first marriage. As such, “while [Du Bois] has been criticized for his ‘masculinism,’ detractors have nonetheless acknowledged his vehement opposition to patriarchy and misogyny” (80). Unlike Nina, he found such stimulation and equality in his second wife, Shirley Graham—who helped move him further to the left (1951-1963) (170). Du Bois’s apex in marital bliss was aptly addressed as Burden-Stelly and Horne examined Du Bois distancing himself from Nina, after the death of his first born son.

His grief was exacerbated by the lynching of Sam Hose, ”[whose] mangled knuckles were on display in a store window—when he espied this ghastly sight, Du Bois could hardly contain himself” (31). However, a resilient Du Bois did not reside in self pity. The professor turned activist, feeling as though facts were not enough to challenge white supremacy and the Tuskegee Machine. Thus, what really mattered for the American Negro was political power.

Readers who are marginally familiar with Du Bois will find a home in the narrative of his combative rivalry with Booker T. Washington, yet such nonfiction is just a silhouette of their relationship. Burden-Stelly and Horne delve into a Faustian dual, pitting two giants against one another. Du Bois, who is depicted as the protagonist in this struggle, faced escalating odds against Washington, who engendered a northern capitalist class of insurmountable wealth and power, aided by industry and the White House of Theodore Roosevelt. Readers will quickly feel sympathy with Du Bois, and a sense of disdain toward Washington throughout this narrative; however, in an attempt to be fair to Washington, the authors balanced the complexity of this dual rivalry, and, noted that Du Bois was unaware of Washington’s double-dealing when it came to his legal support for suffrage in the Deep South, or how he funded lawyers to combat racist discrimination (37). While this was Washington incognito, the public battle centered on political power. In the end, one is drawn to a climax where the activist in Du Bois drives him to contest by organizing the NAACP. The reader escapes any notions of pedestrian storytelling, and is ushered into his life of rivalries, which extended well beyond Washington.

The portrait of Du Bois, as a pronounced intellectual framing a synthesis of analysis for the American Negro, and the darker people of the world, was captured throughout his political thought and evolution into the Communist Party USA. Starting from his sojourn to Germany, “Du Bois began attending socialist meetings in his neighborhood and took notice of their spectacular electoral rise and the wafer-thin distinctions that separated one faction in this fractious movement from another” (17). Burden-Stelly and Horne further their outline of Du Bois’s radicalism in an exemplary way, from his membership in the Socialist Party (SP) in 1911 to his evacuation of the SP in 1913, due to the exclusion of nonwhites (54).

There is a rich narrative of Du Bois’s burgeoning formulation in his radical orientation, as noted by the tension created from his teachings of Marxism while at Atlanta University. Du Bois struggled with a Republican Party that sought industry over the Negro, and a Democratic Party that placated Negroes in support of lynching. A great deal of space is devoted to him as an internationalist—organizing major conferences devoted to resolving colonialism as a globetrotter. Burden-Stelly and Horne analyze his concerns not only for the darker people of the world, but the changing dynamics regarding democracy. During his travels to Germany in 1933, he was alarmed at Germany’s xenophobia, as he notes, “there is a campaign of race prejudice carried on, openly, continuously, and determinedly against all non-Nordic races but specifically against the Jews, which surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen and I have seen much” (140). Such articulation draws a synthesis to the American empire of white supremacy, as Du Bois writes “[t]he Nazis made a mistake in beginning their propaganda in New York…. They should have started in Richmond or New Orleans. Hitler himself could learn a beautiful technique by visiting [the United States]” (141). Du Bois saw Stalin as a tyrant, however, followed that with “I still believe in Russia”, which provided the world the greatest revolution ever. After all, Du Bois proclaimed to be a Bolshevik.

W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History provides the reader with much contextualization: a study of both the United States and world history. His motives were on stage, as he contemplated and ran for the U.S. Senate, and his fears of living out his life in a U.S. prison for treasonous acts. Burden-Stelly and Horne’s use of historical synthesis nicely fosters a pattern of development to the activist work of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A cautious reader will note a number of themes presented, such as the surveillance state, gender, police brutality, Black-Jewish relationship, propaganda, and Black liberation. While very little is discussed about Du Bois’s proclivities toward religion, there is enough to force the curious reader to take pause, and ask questions. I particularly enjoyed not only the primary sources and timeline of Du Bois’s life, but the clever use of sidebars in exploring a vast array of historical topics. Students and scholars will greatly enjoy this delightful read. One must compliment both Burden-Stelly and Horne for capturing Du Bois’s life in 228 pages.

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Edward Carson

Edward Carson is the Dean of Multicultural Education at The Governor's Academy. His research explores 20th century American race and religion. Joined by Gerald Horne and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, he is the co-editor of the book, Socialism and Democracy in W.E.B. Du Bois's Life, Thought, and Legacy.