W. E. B. Du Bois, World War I, and the Question of Failure

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing our recent online forum on W.E.B. Du Bois in recognition of the anniversary of his passing on August 27, 1963. 

W. E. B. Du Bois with black officers in Le Mans, France, 1919 (The Crisis, June 1919)

2018 marks both the sesquicentennial of W. E. B. Du Bois’s birth and the continued centennial of World War I. That convergence of commemorations offers a unique opportunity to reflect on Du Bois’s legacy as it relates to the war, a pivotal moment in his long life and career.

From the opening guns of August 1914 until his final days, Du Bois wrote extensively about the war and reflected on its significance. For Du Bois, the war marked not only an epochal historical event, it was deeply personal.

In his book Darkwater, completed in the wake of the armistice and in the midst of the “Red Summer” of 1919, Du Bois asked a poignant question: “How great a failure and a failure in what does the World War betoken?”

This question remains haunting. But what would it mean, in the context of the history and memory of the war, to view Du Bois himself as a failure? Approaching Du Bois this way is generative for not only understanding his complicated relationship to the war, but also for problematizing his commanding, yet often romanticized, presence in African American intellectual history.

In reckoning with the idea of Du Bois as a failure in the context of the First World War, I am less interested in what he published than I am in what he did not publish. For most of the interwar period, Du Bois labored to write what he believed would be the definitive history of the Black experience in the war: The Black Man and the Wounded World. He produced an 800-page manuscript comprised of twenty-one chapters that examined the causes of the war, its impact on the African diaspora, and, most centrally, the role of Black soldiers in the conflict. It would have been a monumental book, rivaling Black Reconstruction as Du Bois’s most ambitious work of history. But The Black Man and the Wounded World went unpublished.

The story of Du Bois’s failed attempt to write and publish The Black Man and the Wounded World is long and complex. In lieu of telling the full story, I highlight three specific dilemmas related to this project that speak to the troubling place of World War I in Du Bois’s life and mind.

First is the interplay between gender, power and privilege in the production of knowledge. Du Bois’s early efforts to write The Black Man and the Wounded World demonstrated how he and other Black male intellectuals sought to control how the history of the Black experience in the war would be told and published. Du Bois initially attempted to assemble a who’s who of the Black male intelligentsia to work on the project, which included Emmett J. Scott, George Edmund Haynes, Benjamin Brawley and Carter G. Woodson. Clashing egos and competing priorities doomed this alliance from the start. Black women like Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson, as both subjects in and chroniclers of the history of the war, remained absent from Du Bois’s plans. Du Bois eventually decided that he alone was uniquely qualified to write the history. He also saw the book as an opportunity to reestablish his racial leadership at a time when a vocal chorus of New Negro radicals questioned his credibility.

Du Bois’s self-interest proved most damaging for the very men who he wrote about. Du Bois spent three months in France between December 1918 and March 1919, where, in addition to organizing a landmark Pan-African Congress, he met with African American troops and collected documents for his book. Upon his return, Du Bois used The Crisis to request that Black soldiers contribute to the war history project by sending him any potentially useful materials. Du Bois received a flood of letters, diaries, photographs, and official military records that would constitute the bulk of his personal archive. Black veterans were determined to be active participants in shaping the historical record and invested their hopes in Du Bois who, selfishly, did not reciprocate. As the years passed and the book failed to materialize, some veterans grew frustrated and asked for their materials back. Du Bois largely brushed off these requests. Du Bois’s failure to publish his work only further compounded the disillusionment many Black veterans confronted after the war.

Du Bois’s actions speak to a second dilemma in his wrestling with the history and memory of war, that of self-honesty and moral courage. Du Bois approached his sense of vocation, along with his writing, with a fearlessness, focus, and discipline that undergirds his preeminent status in the pantheon of Black intellectuals. His efforts to produce The Black Man and the Wounded World complicates this image. Du Bois’s writing came in fits and spurts. He repeatedly made false promises about the state of the book and when it would be completed. He did publish the opening chapter in the January 1924 issue of The Crisis, a tantalizing preview of what he promised would be a landmark book. However, despite his public and private utterances, the full manuscript–sprawling, disjointed, and lacking in clarity–remained far from finished.

U.S. Army Infantry troops, African American unit, marching northwest of Verdun, France, in World War I (Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division)

While practical challenges, such as time constraints and financial support, certainly played a role in his struggles to write The Black Man and the Wounded World, the most significant challenge was Du Bois himself. He failed to truly grapple with the legacy of the war and his own troubled place in its history. Du Bois initially viewed the war as a potentially revolutionary moment in the global transformation of democracy and the rights of Black people throughout the diaspora. He vocally encouraged Black participation in the American war effort, highlighted by his infamous call in the July 1918 issue of The Crisis for African Americans to “close ranks” and forget their “special grievances.” “I felt for a moment during the war that I could be without reservation a patriotic American,” Du Bois reflected in his 1940 book Dusk of Dawn, further adding, “I am less sure now than then of the soundness of this war attitude.”1 Du Bois was wrong about the outcome of the war and, by his own admission, “ashamed” at his “lack of foresight.” Writing the history of the war would have required a level of moral courage, honesty and humility that Du Bois failed to fully muster.

Finally, there is the issue of historical recovery and vindication. Writing in May 1919, Du Bois declared that, “the imperative duty of the moment is to fix in history the status of our Negro troops.” Aware that high-ranking white officers had already begun to slander Black combat troops as worthless and Black officers as incompetent, Du Bois believed that “the facts exist to disprove it, but they must be marshaled with historical vision and scientific accuracy.” Du Bois recognized the destructive potential of a white supremacist “official” narrative of Black participation in the war. In writing The Black Man and the Wounded World, he sought to recover the contributions of Black soldiers and set the record straight.

Du Bois’s efforts collided with his own desire for personal vindication and the recovery of his tarnished legacy in the war. The backlash from his “Close Ranks” editorial and accompanying dalliance with the War Department to gain a captaincy in military intelligence left Du Bois deeply scarred. “I am not sure that I was right,” he wrote in his posthumous autobiography, “but certainly my intentions were.”2 Du Bois truly believed that in the maelstrom of the war, he could reconcile the strivings of his “double-consciousness” and be fully American. “I am bitter,” he lamented in The Black Man and the Wounded World, “but here I saw all the hurts, the tears, the pain as in one country and that country was mine.”3 The cost of Du Bois’s inability to fully rationalize the decision to put country over race during the war was the completion of his book.

In his 90th year, Du Bois identified the “dichotomy” which formed the central thread of his life and thought: “how far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?”4 By not completing The Black Man and the Wounded World, Du Bois failed to provide answers to these questions. But the cause of his failure ultimately lay in the failure of the United States, along with the broader white world, to make democracy a reality for people of African descent. The painful lessons of the war were therefore instrumental to the evolution of his radical opposition to empire, white supremacy, militarism and capitalist exploitation. The failure of World War I, while exposing Du Bois’s shortcomings, in the end fueled his continued political activism and intellectual genius.

  1. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York, 1986), 739-740.
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of its First Century (New York, 1968), 274.
  3.  The Black Man and the Wounded World (unpublished), Ch. 8 “The Challenge,” folder 5, box 27, Du Bois Collection, Fisk University.
  4. Du Bois, Autobiography, 169.
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Chad Williams

Chad Williams is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. He specializes in African American and modern United States History, African American military history, the World War I era and African American intellectual history. He is the author of the award-winning book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). He is currently completing a new book of W. E. B. Du Bois and World War I. Follow him on Twitter @Dr_ChadWilliams.