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Kevin Brown | The Nation

Kevin Brown

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Kevin Brown

Biographer, essayist and translator Kevin Brown has authored or contributed to four books. His articles and reviews on art, cinema, dance, literature, music and politics have appeared in the London Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post Bookworld and others. He
can be reached at info.kevinbrown@gmail.com

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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.

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."

Around 1909, certain Niagara Movement radicals and Jewish abolitionist holdovers formed a coalition that became the NAACP. Du Bois moved to New York, where, as editor of The Crisis for the next twenty-five years, his word was gospel.

Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey addressed a Harlem crowd of 2,000 in 1917, preaching black economic independence and resettlement. He even offered, to the resurgent Klan's delight, to transport them back to Africa. Now, the masses might be fooled by the plumed and gold-braided pretensions and Napoleonic pageantry of

the Emperor Marcus Mosiah Garvey--self-proclaimed High Potentate and Provisional President-General of all Africa, Commander in Chief of the Black Star Line, an entire fleet of three dubiously seaworthy vessels--with his back-to-the-motherland schemes, his dukes and duchesses of Uganda and Niger, his knight commanders of the Distinguished Order of Ethiopia and the Nile. But Du Bois, who had just returned from Firestone's Liberia as diplomatic envoy, knew better. (Besides, everybody who was anybody knew that what Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association really stood for was "Ugliest Negroes in America.") As far as Du Bois was concerned, Garvey was either a lunatic or a traitor. Whereas, it seemed to Garvey--who saw Du Bois's NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People--that the lunacy was for blacks to expect equality in America. In the end, his daring, energy and charisma were surpassed only by his ignorance of finance. Du Bois sounded the rallying cry: "Garvey Must Go." The FBI agreed. And if deportation on the grounds of being an undesirable alien wouldn't hold up in court, mail fraud would do nicely. Arrested in 1922, tried and convicted in 1923, Garvey took up residence at Atlanta Federal two years before Malcolm X was born.

Remember, back before they were Jim Crowed into academic ghettos, when history was literature and vice versa? When nonspecialists read Macaulay, Michelet? Poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist as well as historian, Du Bois was by no means master of all the genres he assayed. But he electrified African-American literature as writer during the twentieth century's first decade. Then, as editor, he paved the way for younger writers during subsequent decades. Biography, however, is a late development in the tradition. What advances have eminent African-Americans like David Levering Lewis made in that "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing"? And do his tomes amount to a "masterpiece of the biographer's craft"?

With their cast of legendary characters, colorful set locations, gripping storylines and virtuoso draftsmanship, they certainly aspire to it. For analytical rigor, judicious gossip and subtle insight into the social, political and economic "roots and ramifications" of "racial, religious, and ethnic confrontation, and assimilation in America" between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Lewis is fully equal to the task of his formidable subject. And his lucid, downright old-fashioned good writing, so full of fine flourishes and phrases, is mostly innocent of academic jargon. So much so that for years--visiting the same archives, examining the same documents and cross-examining the same witnesses while working my way carefully through these volumes, underlining passages in mechanical pencil, leaving yellow flags on every other page--I kept trying to figure out my misgivings.

And then it hit me. The problem here is not one of length--Boswell's massive Life of Samuel Johnson still startles, 200 years later--but scale, of Turgenev's "right relation" among a dozen or so vivifying narrative elements beyond character and what used to be called "plot." All of these together in a constant juggle of transitions--abstract to concrete, poetic to prosaic, description to dialogue, sentence length and rhythm--can create compelling momentum. Any one of these, overrelied upon in a fact-filled narrative of 1,500 pages, can be lethal. "With the 20th century," said Virginia Woolf,

a change came over biography, as it came over fiction and poetry.... the author's relation to his subject is different. He is no longer the serious and sympathetic companion, toiling slavishly in the footsteps of his hero.... Moreover, he does not think himself constrained to follow every step of the way.... he sees his subject spread about him. He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.

Cautious of overstepping the bounds of the historically permissible, the distinguished professor has crafted a straightforward chronicle. Far too often, characters are molded not organically from suggestive situation but by accretion of meticulous archival detail--endless lists of academic pedigree heaped, all at once, in static inventories of naturalistic description--then left to atrophy in the reader's mind. A compelling narrative begins where the dossier leaves off. And a good biographer is a historian, but a good historian isn't necessarily a biographer. The progression from one to the other is no more formally inevitable than that from short-story writer to novelist. But don't get me wrong. The aesthetic quibble is really by way of illustrating how close this life might have come to greatness, to the artistry of all that Lytton Strachey left out in tending toward that "becoming brevity...which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," and which, "surely, is the first duty of the biographer."

Du Bois's influence on African-American literature, as both writer and editor, is hard to exaggerate. Between Phyllis Wheatley, the publication of Souls, the silence of Charles Chestnutt and the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar from drunken disillusionment in 1906, dozens of poets, authors and pamphleteers emerged, boycotting the happy-blacky-nappy, banjo-strumming, watermelon-eating, darky dialect of previous eras. Of this work, says James Weldon Johnson in the classic history Black Manhattan, "Some was good, most was mediocre, much was bad, and practically all of it unknown to the general public." As late as 1914, with the exception of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there wasn't much in the way of African-American literature, and Du Bois thought things looked bleak. By 1920, New York was America's greatest city, and Harlem--a two-square-mile city within the city where a quarter-million African-Americans boasted more poets, journalists, musicians, composers, actors, dramatists and nightclubs than any other spot on earth--became the world-famous capital of black America. It seemed to Du Bois that a renaissance of American Negro literature was now due.

His lover/literary editor Jessie Fauset, to put the arts on equal footing with social policy, urged an editorial shift in the pages of The Crisis. In short order, she published Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 and prose poetry by Jean Toomer, later collected in Cane (1923). For the first time in history--just when Du Bois feared he'd have no worthy successors--a literature of African-Americans, by African-Americans and for African-Americans and anyone else who cared to listen was not only a possibility but a reality. The Harlem Renaissance was under way.

One prodigy Du Bois particularly delighted in was pinky-ringed young poet Countee Cullen. Companionable, uncombative, anxious for the kind of credibility a tidy résumé and Harvard degree could confer, Cullen idolized Du Bois to a degree perhaps predictable in a cautious orphan risen from impoverished obscurity to international fame by the age of 22 yet lacking, in the final analysis, the kind of intellectual and artistic daring that could sustain it. Du Bois, for his part, perhaps projected onto Cullen some of the paternal pride and ambition long buried with the infant son he'd loved and lost. And so he married off his only daughter. Langston Hughes rented a tuxedo, an organist played Tannhäuser and sixteen bridesmaids wore white. The only problem--aside from the fact that Countee Cullen was gay--was that the girl admired but didn't love him. It was a match made in Hell, a dramatic example of how "spectacularly wrongheaded" Du Bois could be.

For a decade or more, the Harlem Renaissance promised 10 million African-Americans "taken for granted by one political party and despised by the other, poor and overwhelmingly rural, frightened and disunited," the illusion of an era of freedom, justice and equality undreamed of since Reconstruction. To his immense credit, Du Bois was not lulled into submission, mistrusting the impulse toward "salon exotica" and a smattering of prizes for prodigies. Then as now, the means of production--the Hollywood studios, the recording studios, the theaters--were for the most part white-owned. As early as 1926, he warned about "the politics of patronage," challenging that African-Americans would get the art that they deserved--or were willing to pay for: "If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has to get a white publisher and a white newspaper to say it's great; and then [black people] say so." (Ain't a damn thang changed.) By 1934 it had become embarrassingly clear that civil rights would not follow logically from "forceful prose" and a demonstration of artistic excellence on the part of a few Ivy League Negroes. The movement was dead, "scuttled," as chief publicist Alain Locke put it, as much from within as from without, by faddish market swings and stock speculations of Zora Neale Hurston Niggerati, on the one hand, and the liberal Negrotarians on the other.

For Du Bois, as for most African-Americans, the Depression hit harder and faster and lasted longer than for the country at large. The royal wedding had wiped out his savings, and his Crisis salary hadn't been paid for months. He was broke.

Du Bois became increasingly radicalized during the 1930s and '40s. As he saw it, the NAACP, by focusing almost exclusively on legal strategy, was beginning to work "for the black masses but not with them." In 1934, out of sync with the mainstream leadership, he left in disgust. He returned to Atlanta University, reading Das Kapital and writing Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Du Bois, who first visited the Soviet Union in 1926, returned in 1936. Home from History's frontlines a self-professed "Bolshevik," even though, as a Socialist, he combined "cultural nationalism, Scandinavian cooperativism, Booker Washington and Marx in about equal parts," Du Bois remained unconvinced that the Communist Party, which never attracted more than a few hundred black members, was their last best hope. In any case, African-Americans did not "propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution."

During the McCarthy era, the black leadership, bending in the prevailing ideological winds, began to distance itself from the left. Back in New York, involved in nuclear disarmament activity declared subversive by the US government, Du Bois was arrested and tried as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He was acquitted in 1951, but the State Department confiscated his passport, prohibiting travel abroad. It was the last straw.

The prophet was without honor only in his own country. So when the government embargo was lifted in 1958, Du Bois went on lecture tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, becoming a kind of poster boy in the Communist effort to discredit the States. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959, and in Red China, his birthday was declared a national holiday by Chou En-lai. Did the party use Du Bois? Or did Du Bois use the party to further his own agenda? Both, most likely.

In 1960, seventeen African states, including Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, gained independence. At Nkrumah's invitation, Du Bois exiled himself, renouncing his American citizenship. He officially joined the Communist Party in 1961. Shrunken now and a bit stooped, his memory not quite as sharp as it once was, the scholar-citizen spent his last days in a spacious house with a view of flowering shrubs in Accra's best neighborhood, an honored guest of state, surrounded by busts of Lenin and Chairman Mao and an impressive library of Marxist thought, editing the Negro encyclopedia and receiving visitors the world over. At last, on August 27, 1963, the visionary whose long life--spanning Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, two World Wars, Brown v. Board of Education and now the civil rights movement--had been the literal embodiment of the nineteenth century's collision with the twentieth, died in Accra, where he was accorded an elaborate state funeral.

The bioepic ends, as it began 1,500 pages ago in Volume I, with the death of W.E.B. Du Bois. A living institution, he was "productive, multiple, controversial, and emblematic." His influence--as cultural ambassador, as writer and editor, as activist whose spectrum of social, political and economic thought seems refracted in phenomena as varied as Ho Chi Minh, the Negritude of poet-statesmen Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor as well as the Black Power movement that peaked after his death--is ubiquitous.

A difficult man as capable of coldness to old friends as he was reluctant to admit mistakes, a prickly Brahmin who walked with kings but failed to acquire the common touch, Dr. Du Bois emerges a kind of tragic hero as flawed as he was gifted. At times you wonder whether he wasn't his own most formidable enemy. But whatever his blind spots, he was only too well aware, looking backward, that battling racism real and imagined at every turn had twisted him into a far less "human" being than he might otherwise have been.

Fifteen years and two computer crashes in the research and writing, these volumes were a lifetime, literally, in the making. As a boy born in Little Rock two decades before the civil rights movement began, Lewis had a portentous encounter with the great man. Fisk man and author of books on South Africa and the Dreyfus Affair, he's now a professor of history at Rutgers. And just as Renaissance scholarship would be incomplete without When Harlem Was in Vogue, the twenty books and 100 articles of W.E.B. Du Bois's eighty-year publishing career, so handsomely anthologized in Nathan Irvin Huggins's Library of America Writings, are indispensably complemented by what is, if not a masterpiece of biography, then almost certainly the standard social, political and intellectual history of his life and times.