W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War: An Interview with Chad L. Williams

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

This is an interview with Black Perspectives blogger Brandon James Render, an Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Chad L. Williams, the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University. The two discuss Williams’ latest book, The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023).

Brandon James Render (BJR): In the acknowledgements of your book, you mention finding Du Bois’s unpublished manuscript, The Black Man and the Wounded World, when you began researching your dissertation and first book project on Black soldiers during World War I, Torchbearers of Democracy. How do you think completing your first book-length project prepared you to take on this manuscript about Du Bois?

Chad L. Williams (CLW): In my dissertation, which was also titled Torchbearers of Democracy, I devoted a full chapter to Du Bois using his archive and his World War I book manuscript. So even when I was working on the dissertation, I was fascinated with Du Bois. This book (Du Bois’s The Black Man and the Wounded World), that no one apparently knew much about that he spent many years trying to write and publish to no avail – I knew that I wanted to say much more about it. So I scaled it down in Torchbearers of Democracy knowing that I wanted to return to it. Completing Torchbearers certainly gave me a foundation for understanding the breadth of the complexity of the Black experience in World War I that Du Bois himself was grappling with in trying to write his book. But I also think it gave me confidence to actually tackle Du Bois himself. He’s such a monumental figure, such a revered figure – he holds an exalted status in American history, and intellectual history in particular. So  my first book gave me the historical foundation in terms of knowledge of World War I, but also the confidence to take the next step in tackling someone of Du Bois’s stature and approaching him critically – being able to look at him as someone who certainly made a tremendous contribution to our understandings of World War I and beyond, but to also critique him in terms of the mistakes that he made along the way to try and to write and ultimately fail to finish his book.

BJR: In studying Du Bois as closely as you have for this project, how has it changed you as a scholar/historian?

CLW: Studying Du Bois has certainly given me a deeper appreciation for the Black intellectual tradition and for his central place in the Black intellectual tradition. But it’s also given me a deeper appreciation for the challenges that Black intellectuals have faced, particularly in writing about subject matters that they are so intimately connected to, which is something that we all struggle with – these questions of objectivity, which you know, continue to pervade discussions about intellectual life and the role of the Black intellectual.. Specifically, one of the challenges Du Bois faced when writing about World War I was his proximity to it. He was part of the history that he was trying to make sense of.  He made the controversial decision to support the war, a decision that he would come to regret throughout the rest of his life. And as I argue in the book, Du Bois was trying to find ways to not only make sense of that decision, but to atone for it as well. So, in terms of the relationship between history as a field of study and as an intellectual practice and the political context in which Black intellectuals have always had to do their work, studying Du Bois has really allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for how complicated that nexus is, and how even for someone as great and monumental as Du Bois, it’s not easy to navigate.

BJR: An international approach to race in the early-twentieth century is a major component of your argument in The Wounded World. How does this book help us understand the global dimensions of race during and immediately after World War I? And through this perspective, what aspects of Du Bois’ life do you illuminate that may otherwise go unnoticed or critiqued without this work?

CLW: One of the main objectives of my book is to demonstrate the significance of World War I in African American history. In the history of the broader African diaspora, World War I was a pivotal moment in the growth of Black internationalism, in diasporic movements for social political economic change as well. Even though there’s been a tremendous amount of recent scholarship on World War I and the war era, I believe there’s still so much rich terrain that we can explore to truly understand the ways in which World War I shaped the twentieth century as we know it and the ways in which the Black experience was central to that historical development. So we can’t understand the movements for Black independence and freedom in the 1940s and ‘50s without understanding how World War I laid the groundwork for those movements, both domestically as well as internationally.

The second part of your question is really at the center of The Wounded World. We obviously know a tremendous amount on Du Bois; the amount of Du Bois scholarship is voluminous. One of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is to make the argument that we cannot understand Du Bois – his life, his work, his politics – without understanding the intimate connection that he had to World War I and how the war shaped so many aspects of his work that we may be familiar with, but don’t fully understand how they were informed by his connections, his politics, and intellectual engagements. So, for example, in the book I talk about (Du Bois’s) Black Reconstruction and how at one point he envisioned his unfinished book on World War I as a sequel to Black Reconstruction, how his conception of the Reconstruction Era was, in a way, connected to his ongoing reckoning with the history and legacies of World War I in terms of what it meant for democracy for African-Americans or other peoples of African descent. So, I think in looking at Du Bois and his connections to World War I, The Wounded World illuminates aspects of his life, his work, and his political evolution that we are just not familiar with.

BJR: Were there any sources that surprised you or made you stop writing for a moment to think deeply about the direction of this project?

CLW: his project and its very long lifespan, going back to graduate school in 2000, was full of surprises. My first surprise was actually learning about Du Bois’s incredible manuscript – 800 pages long, produced over a 20-year period – that he never finished. All of the research materials that he accumulated, all the correspondence. So, finding that archive, or re-finding that archive I should say, was certainly a surprise. Learning that very few scholars knew anything about this massive project that Du Bois devoted so much of his life and time to was certainly another very big surprise, which still surprises me to this day. I’m the first person to tell the story at length, to solve the mystery of why The Black Man and the Wounded World was never published.

Also, delving into the manuscript and the archive, learning and being surprised at how long, how obsessed – and I use that word carefully – Du Bois was with writing this history, trying to find a way to get it published, to get it funded, to get it finished. It just really spoke to how deeply World War I impacted him. And I would always find one example after another as I was doing my research of how not only on an intellectual level, but on a deeply personal, even emotional, level World War I impacted him. The decision that he made, going against his anti-war principles to support the war and then facing the deep disillusionment after that, realizing that he had made a tragic error in supporting this war and trying to understand why. Why did he make that decision? What are the implications of it? There were so many different surprises that I encountered especially in Du Bois’s own words where he’s reflecting upon his decisions and ultimately the regret that he felt. To hear Du Bois talk about himself, in terms of regret and shame, was quite shocking to hear because that’s not the Du Bois we know. He was never one to admit to making a mistake. And in this case he did and I think that, in part, explains why he was unable to finish the book – that the weight of the history that he felt was too much for him to make historical and intellectual sense of this history that he was so connected to.

BJR: Why do you think that no other scholar, up until this point, has decided to go this deeply into the unpublished manuscript?

CLW: That’s a great question. There were some efforts, as I write in the epilogue, from Herbert Aptheker and Vincent Harding to explore publishing the manuscript. When Aptheker had a chance to look through it, he was overwhelmed by the size and scope and state of it, mirroring Du Bois’s sense of being overwhelmed by the history in some ways. So that was the last serious effort to do something with the manuscript. It speaks to how the history of World War I had been minimized in our understanding of African-American history. Certainly, I would argue that, until the early early 21st century, there was a sense that World War I was this moment of hope, of disillusionment, but ultimately didn’t matter for the social and political evolution of civil rights and Black history. We just didn’t have a serious appreciation for how World War I shaped Du Bois beyond our narrow discussions of “Close Ranks,” of really thinking about why he was connected to World War I in various ways. So, I think it’s a question of not being familiar with the archive itself, not being familiar with the microfilm edition that I initially encountered in the materials, but also a larger lack of appreciation or significance of World War I. When I started working on my dissertation and my first book, again, I wasn’t familiar with Du Bois’s unfinished, unpublished manuscript. I made the commitment to study the Black experience in World War I through the experiences of Black soldiers and veterans. Otherwise, I might not have encountered this manuscript.

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Brandon James Render

Brandon James Render is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. His current book project, Colorblind University: A History of Racial Inequity in Higher Education, explores the intellectual genealogy of racial colorblindness throughout the twentieth century. He has been a member of the AAIHS since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @brandonjrender.

Comments on “W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War: An Interview with Chad L. Williams

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    The criticism of “Close Ranks” written by Hubert Harrison was widely read at the time and influenced the younger generation of Black activists. This is discussed in detail in Jeffrey B. Perry’s biography of Harrison.

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