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After the Renaissance | The Nation

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After the Renaissance

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A quarter-million people thronged Abraham Lincoln's Memorial that day. In the sweltering August humidity, executive secretary Roy Wilkins gravely announced that Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois--NAACP founding father and "senior intellectual militant of his people"--had died in exile the day before.

About the Author

Kevin Brown
Biographer, essayist and translator Kevin Brown has authored or contributed to four books. His articles and reviews on...

It's easy to forget. What we now think of, monolithically, as the civil rights movement was at the time a splintering half-dozen special-interest groups in ill-coordinated pitched camps. Thurgood Marshall, never known for tact or political correctitude, called the Nation of Islam "a buncha thugs organized from prisons and financed, I'm sure, by some Arab Group." The NOI viewed the Urban League as a black front for a white agenda. A fringe figure gaining notoriety for his recent Playboy interview with an obscure journalist named Alex Haley, Malcolm X irreverently dismissed both "the farce on Washington" and the young minister just moments away from oratorical immortality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as "Bishop Chickenwings."

If the legacy of Du Bois's long life was unclear then, what can it all mean now? What possessed him to renounce the widely coveted citizenship for which those gathered there that day--inspired in part by his example--were marching? What can a scholarly biography of the patron saint of African-American intellectuals--written by a tenured professor for a prestigious publishing house, impatiently awaited by specialists and educated generalists alike--what can all this mean to 101 million eligible nonvoters "entirely ignorant of my work and quite indifferent to it," as Du Bois said in his time, much less to 30 million African-Americans beyond the Talented Tenth and those few old-timers in Harlem who remember Du Bois as being, mostly, a remarkably crotchety old man?

With these mixed feelings of pleasure, gratitude, frustration and momentous occasion, I read the monumentally ambitious sequel, seven years in the making, itself a National Book Award finalist, to David Levering Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.

"I remember well," Du Bois wrote, famously, "when the shadow swept across me." He was born "a tangle of New England lineages"--Dutch, Bantu, French Huguenot--within living memory of the Fourteenth Amendment and The Communist Manifesto, one generation removed from slavery. And though he laid claim to both his African and European heritage, still it was a peculiar sensation. "One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Yet Du Bois knew full well that had he not felt, very early on, this double-consciousness, he might easily have become just another "unquestioning worshiper at the shrine of the established social order."

Willie D. charted his course as early as his teens, inaugurating his writing and public-speaking careers with articles in the Springfield Republican and a high school valedictory address on abolitionist Wendell Phillips. He arrived at the Harvard of Santayana and William James, who thought him easily among the most gifted of his students, already notorious for the "arrogant rectitude" others would resent all his life. He graduated cum laude, honing his prose with a rigorously liberal education in Latin, Greek, modern languages, literature, history and philosophy. But for a graduate student in sociology during the 1890s, Max Weber's Berlin, not Cambridge, was the place to be. And it was there, chain-smoking fluent German, celebrating both his 25th birthday and "his own genius," that W.E.B. Du Bois spelled out his life's ambition: "to make a name in science, to make a name in literature, to raise my race." Only because his scholarship ran out did Du Bois return to America for the consolation prize: Harvard's first African-American PhD.

Atlanta, after Europe and the North, came as a shock. Not that the recent lynching was in itself any great surprise. Du Bois simply wasn't prepared, passing by the local grocer, to see the souvenirs of severed fingers on display out front. Headquartered at Atlanta University, for the next twelve years he taught history and economics. By the time Frederick Douglass died in 1895, the Tuskegee model of black higher education was dominant, and Booker T. Washington its leading lobbyist. That same year Washington, whose power had been growing since 1885, had delivered his famous Atlanta Exposition speech: "In all things purely social," he said, holding up both hands, digits spread wide, "we can be as separate as the [five] fingers"--he paused dramatically, clenching each hand into a fist--"yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Convinced that Washington's appeasement had paved the way for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Du Bois and other black intellectuals felt sold down the river. Du Bois's scathing review of Washington's Up From Slavery (1901), declaring war on merely vocational training of a "contented and industrious peasantry," was collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois and Washington came, notoriously, to ideological blows. It was the beginning of the end for Booker T. Washington.

Yet there was no personal animus between them. Shrewdly, Washington tried to hire Du Bois away to Tuskegee, even taking him along on one of his fundraising junkets. But once at Andrew Carnegie's office, Washington--who knew where his bread was buttered and that Du Bois could be counted on not to keep his mouth shut--left him waiting downstairs. "Have you," Washington asked, "read Mr. Carnegie's book?" W.E.B. allowed he had not. "You ought to," said Booker T. "Mr. Carnegie likes it."

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