House GOP whip Tom DeLay will do his best to pull the President to the right.
John Ashcroft's nomination as Attorney General is the first installment on George W. Bush's enormous political debt to the radical right. Remember back in early February when Bush's campaign for the Republican nomination was on the ropes? John McCain had beaten him badly in New Hampshire and had just broken through Bush's attempt to keep him off the New York State primary ballot. The McCain campaign was on fire in South Carolina, and the so-called Bush firewall in Michigan was collapsing. A loss in South Carolina would have all but ended the Bush campaign. A shaken Bush did what he had to in order to win there--he sold his soul at Bob Jones University. The rumor was that he made a Faustian bargain with the radical right to give them the Justice Department and the federal judiciary if they would save his candidacy. Apparently it worked. Right-wing religious fundamentalists defeated McCain in South Carolina and provided the shock troops to derail him in Republican-only "closed primary" states, where McCain was cut off from his natural constituency.
After Bush secured the nomination, he seemed to signal his acceptance of the deal by praising Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The radical right responded with a surge of support and, more important, with the gift of silence spared Bush from having to acknowledge his debt. Five members of the Supreme Court, including Scalia and Thomas, sealed the deal by anointing Bush as President-elect without the formality of his winning the election. Now the debt to the Christian right has come due.
Ordinarily, Presidents have the right to use Cabinet nominations to pay political debts. If Gore had not only won the most votes but had actually been allowed to become President, organized labor and the civil rights movement would now be lining up to collect their debts. In an ordinary presidential election, the winner enjoys the right to call the shots on policy as the political surrogate for the electoral majority. Thus, if this were an ordinary election it would be wrong to oppose John Ashcroft's nomination on political grounds. But Bush didn't win an electoral majority. He lost the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. He may have lost the Electoral College as well, obtaining Florida's crucial twenty-five electoral votes through a Supreme Court opinion that prevented an accurate vote count.
Don't get me wrong. George W. Bush is the President-elect. Respect for the rule of law requires us to follow the Supreme Court's ruling imposing Bush on the nation. But a President-elect who has been rejected by the majority of voters, and who may be taking office only because the Supreme Court refused to permit all the ballots to be counted in Florida, has no automatic right to saddle us with an extremist Attorney General who has just been rejected by the voters of his own state and who is pledged to wage war on behalf of a right-wing ideology that has been firmly rejected by most Americans.
Democratic senators who would ordinarily be inclined to allow the President-elect to form his Cabinet without opposition should not hesitate to oppose Ashcroft's nomination. The radical right hasn't earned control of the Justice Department, or the right to pick federal judges in the image of Scalia or Thomas. What President-elect Bush is entitled to from all Americans is respect for his office and cooperation in attempting to form and administer a centrist government. But there is no duty to cooperate in forming an extremist government. That is why the Democrats must use their "earned" 50-50 split in the new Senate to block the Ashcroft nomination. Not because Ashcroft is a bad man. He is, by all accounts, a decent man. Not because Ashcroft is a racist. He is, apparently, free from overt racial bias. But because he stands for terrible policies that would strike at the core of the American consensus. He stands for denying women freedom of choice. Unlike many principled foes of abortion, however, Ashcroft's reverence for human life does not prevent him from being an enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment. He stands for weakening the civil rights laws. He stands for eroding the wall between church and state. He stands for more censorship of free speech.
For once, let's have a vigorously contested confirmation hearing on Ashcroft that doesn't spiral down to character assassination. This is not about Ashcroft's competence. This is not about his honesty or his decency. It's about his politics--and whether George W. Bush has the right to impose the agenda of the radical right on a nation that has rejected it. If there is an iota of courage left in the forty-one Democratic senators it would take to sustain a filibuster, they'll rise up and say to President-elect Bush: We will not cosign the payment of your debt to the radical right by surrendering the Justice Department and the federal courts. The price for the nation is just too high.
Just how bad an Attorney General would John Ashcroft be? And is his nomination worth fighting? To answer the first question, talk to those who have experienced Ashcroft up close and personal. Like Harriet Woods, Missouri's lieutenant governor during the first of Ashcroft's two terms as that state's chief executive: She calls him "a disaster for minorities and for women." Or like retired Missouri Supreme Court Judge Charles Blackmar. Blackmar--a Republican appointee--accused Senator Ashcroft of "tampering with the judiciary" by blocking the federal court nomination of the amply qualified Missouri judge Ronnie White. Ashcroft opposed Judge White, an African-American, on the ostensible grounds that he voted against too many death sentences, leading Blackmar to this pungent assessment of the philosophy guiding Bush's chief law officer in the the crucial job of appointing federal judges: "The senator seems to take the attitude that any deviation is suspect, liberal, activist."
Ashcroft's sense of what constitutes "deviation" is broad even by the standards of the right, and his hard-line opposition to abortion isn't the half of it. The list of things Ashcroft is on record opposing is a catalogue of American social progress: contraception, school desegregation, solar energy, government assistance for woman- and minority-owned businesses, fuel efficiency standards for cars, workplace-discrimination protection for homosexuals, campaign finance reform and the nuclear test ban treaty. As governor, he even prohibited over-the-candy-counter sale of bonbons with liqueur centers.
It is African-Americans who will first take it on the chin from an Ashcroft Justice Department. As Missouri attorney general in the 1970s, Ashcroft initially honored the moderate, integrationist legacy of his mentor and predecessor, John Danforth. But he soon learned the value of playing hard-line race politics, fighting tooth and nail against desegregation of the massively unequal schools in Kansas City and St. Louis all the way to the US Supreme Court and spurning every attempt at an out-of-court settlement. Ashcroft won a tough GOP primary for governor in 1984 with attack ads accusing his opponent of being soft on desegregation. In the words of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page, he has "built a career out of opposing school desegregation...and opposing African-Americans for public office."
Reports have it that Bush's first favorite for AG was the more moderate Governor Marc Racicot of Montana--who, the story goes, was shot down by the far right. That creative spin control allows the administration-elect to play to both its flanks--deferring to the right with the nomination while assuaging moderates with the fiction that this nomination doesn't reflect Bush's deepest convictions. In fact, Ashcroft's nomination embodies one of the fundamental lessons of the first George Bush Administration: that the justice system is the arena that counts for right-wing patronage. The permanent elite of Republican technocrats like Donald Rumsfeld can have the run of the store as long as Justice turns out a steady stream of antiabortion briefs and far-right judge nominees.
Watch for a confirmation strategy that echoes fellow Danforth protégé Clarence Thomas in 1991, beginning with Ashcroft lobbying individual senators, followed by a confirmation narrative emphasizing Ashcroft's childhood--how his minister father befriended black missionaries--over the substance of Ashcroft's record as segregationist and antichoice absolutist. Once again, leading the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats will be Joe Biden, whose vanity and strategic incompetence contributed mightily to Thomas's narrow confirmation. Biden, reprising his fatal 1991 indecision, has declared he is "inclined" to support Ashcroft.
So is this a nomination worth fighting? Other Bush Cabinet nominees also pose direct threats to specific constituencies, but there is real urgency to laying down a marker on Ashcroft. The threat his nomination poses cuts across constituencies and issues, and the stakes are every bit as high as in the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination fights. The Justice Department has expanded its authority as has no other agency in recent years. Through appointments to the federal bench, Supreme Court arguments and priorities, the appointment of US Attorneys and the enforcement of civil rights and antitrust law, any Attorney General can change the country in profound ways. All the more so with Ashcroft: not just because of his regressive constitutional views but because Bush appears likely to vest more power in his advisers than any President in memory.
And this is a fight that is winnable, despite Biden's early bumbling and the irrelevant conventional wisdom that the Senate will defer to one of its own. (Remember John Tower, whose Senate record could not rescue his nomination as Bush Senior's Defense Secretary?) The Clinton impeachment hearings and trial showed repeatedly that most Americans have little patience with moral extremists like Ashcroft, and it shouldn't take much to convince a broad segment of the public that he is out of touch. Civil liberties and corporate regulation have a currency and a constituency they lacked when public-interest groups beat Bork in 1986. With public support for the death penalty falling, with even GOP governors questioning the wisdom of the drug war, with Republican Supreme Court Justices reaffirming Roe v. Wade and a Republican Congress softening the Cuba embargo, Ashcroft looks like a dinosaur, the anachronistic spawn of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.
Besides, whatever the outcome, a fight against Ashcroft will generate rather than expend political capital for civil rights and civil liberties advocates. Democrats gained from the Bork and Thomas confirmation fights as the public became educated about the real agenda of conservatives and as Beltway-bound liberal lobbies reconnected to grassroots constituencies. There is every reason to think Ashcroft could be defeated--and even if he is not, fighting his confirmation could lay the foundation for a new coalition, a shadow Justice Department that will dog the Bush Administration's every judicial nomination and every reversal of civil rights. This is no time to roll over.
Christians are drifting away in their support of the death penalty.
There's a growing movement to add livable hours to calls for a living wage.
On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.
Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.
Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.
That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
Amid all the partisan sniping, talking-head screeching and judicial decisions, there are two indisputable facts that go far toward explaining the true tragedy of the Florida recount.
Fact one: In this election, punch-card voting machines recorded five times as many ballots with no presidential vote as did the more modern optical-scanning systems. A New York Times analysis of forty-eight of the state's sixty-eight counties found that 1.5 percent of the ballots tallied under the punch-card method showed no vote at the top of the ticket, while only 0.3 percent of the ballots counted by the newer machines registered no vote for the President. An Orlando Sun-Sentinel examination concluded that counties using the best optical-scanning method recorded presidential votes on more than 99 percent of the ballots, and counties using the old punch-card devices counted presidential votes on only 96.1 percent of the ballots.
Fact two: Punch-card machines were more widely used in areas where low-income and African-American citizens vote. Two-thirds of the state's black voters reside in counties using punch cards, while 56 percent of white voters do.
Put these two undeniable facts together and the conclusion is inescapable: A statistically significant slice of the Florida electorate was disfranchised by voting technology. That is, a disproportionate number of voters done in by the error-prone punch-card machines were low-income and black Floridians, who generally favored Al Gore over George W. Bush. Presumably, some no-vote ballots actually did not include a vote for President. But given the closeness of the election--decided by .008 percent--it is likely that presidential votes missed by the punch-card machines would have decisively affected the contest. Bush "won"--among other reasons--because of voting-machine discrimination.
This crucial part of the tale has been overwhelmed by dimple-mania and the usual campaign back-and-forth. But ten days after the election, the Sun-Sentinel reported that "Florida's different vote-counting machines resulted in more GOP votes." For example, Brevard County, the home of space-shuttle launches, spent $1 million on more advanced machines in 1999, moving from punch-card tabulators to optical scanning machines that read pen-marked ballots (and that immediately return to the voter a ballot with a problem). Under the new system, the voting machines in this Bush-leaning county found presidential votes on 99.7 percent of the ballots. In 1996 the county's punch-card machines read presidential votes on 97.2 percent. Which means Bush, thanks to the upgrade, likely banked an additional 453 votes for his statewide total--practically his post-recount victory margin. The paper noted that the twenty-five counties that used the punch-card machines went for Gore over Bush 51.8 percent to 46 percent and produced 144,985 ballots with unrecorded presidential votes. Had the people who cast these ballots entered voting booths equipped with the more efficient machines, Gore no doubt would have collected hundreds--if not thousands--more votes than Bush.
There have been allegations that black Floridians encountered racial intimidation at voting sites. (The Justice Department has initiated an informal assessment, not an investigation.) And Bush benefited from the all-too-routine bias by which minority areas receive poorer government services. Unfortunately not just for Gore but for the victims of this quiet bias in Florida, this inequity was unaddressed by the Florida circuit court and the US Supreme Court, partly because the Gore campaign didn't raise it.
The Gore legal challenge focused on 14,000 or so supposedly no-vote punch-card ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, not the statewide problem, and called for a manual review only of those ballots. The Veep's lawyer did not argue that the county-by-county patchwork voting system operated less effectively for blacks, a constituency that Democrats rely on to win elections. In his ruling against Gore, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls noted that the record "shows error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach Counties." But Sauls declared that Gore's legal team had not established "a reasonable probability" that the statewide results would turn out differently if those ballots were counted in a better fashion. Either Gore's attorneys screwed up big by not making this point more obvious--which they might have done had they filed contests based on the wider issue--or Sauls misread the math. As for the US Supreme Court, it displayed no eagerness to adjudicate such a touchy and fundamental voting-rights matter as systematic disfranchisement through technology. Its decision--in which it told the state Supreme Court to try again--indicates that the Court wanted to approach the Florida case narrowly, at least in the first go-round.
If a system is decisively skewed to one group's advantage, does that amount to theft? Or is that just the way it is? Clearly, a more equitable vote-counting system in the state--punch-cards for all or optical-scanners for all--would have yielded a different final count. This is an injustice that no court has confronted, on which Bush may well ride into the White House, and that should not be forgotten.
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.
A land-claim suit is pitting Oneidas against other upstate residents.