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.”