On His 149th Birthday

In honor of the birthday (yesterday) of one of my intellectual heroes, I thought I’d write a few words.

I first encountered W.E.B. Du Bois in a college US history survey in my second year. We read an excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk and I was moved to read the whole book that summer. It was the first extended introduction I’d had to the black experience in the United States. Coincidentally, my first date with my wife was to lunch and a lecture about Du Bois. Later that day I had an opportunity to speak with the visiting scholar who had delivered the talk. When he recommended Du Bois’s obscure novel, Dark Princess, I – perhaps charged by the prospect of blossoming love – immediately hunted it down to read. I had recently read Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois’s peculiar “autobiography of a race” and so was primed to see the autobiographical aspects of Dark Princess. Eventually, that interest blossomed into a summer research fellowship devoted to studying Du Bois and an undergraduate history thesis on his autobiographical and historical thinking. In part, it was my love for Du Bois that sent me to pursue my Ph.D.

Du Bois was born in 1868, on the eve of Southern Redemption and Jim Crow, and died in 1963, an event marked with a moment of silence during the March on Washington. His life thus spanned a significant period of African American history, from the gains of the Civil War, through the ‘nadir’ of black rights, to the blossoming of the Civil Rights Movement. From the turn of the century onward he was one of the foremost black intellectuals of his era: clashing with Booker T. Washington, suspicious of Marcus Garvey, participating in the Niagara Movement, founding the NAACP, editing The Crisis, lecturing Progressive politicians, standing for American freedoms as an anti-anti-communist, dabbling in socialism, fighting the Dunning School of pro-Southern history, and laying the groundwork for the fields of sociology, Black Studies, and Whiteness Studies. In short, he was both “public” and an “intellectual” in the finest sense of both words.

And yet, he also struggled to fit in with the people he hoped to lead. As a northerner (born in Massachusetts), the Southern home of many African Americans was initially foreign to him. He was the first black man to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard and made his living as a scholar rather than a laborer. After a few poorly-fitted academic appointments, he earned a steady income from his teaching, research, publications, and work for the NAACP. He was a world-traveler and opinion-maker.

He felt his distinction from his fellow black men and women keenly. On the one hand, he knew precisely what it felt to be black in America and wrote about the subject eloquently. On the other hand, he recognized how different (even unique) his own experience of blackness had been from the vast majority of his fellow black Americans (or, internationally, his fellow black Africans, Caribbean Islanders, South Americans,Europeans, etc.). He addressed this in his historical works (trying to illuminate the lives of the masses), in his autobiographical works (in which he often gave outsized attention to experiences with physical labor, poverty, etc.), and especially in his fictional works (as in Dark Princess, when a thinly-veiled Du Bois character works as a Pullman porter, a subway digger, machine politician, and other ‘typical’ black occupations). His thinking on the ‘Talented Tenth’ and search for a universal ‘black culture’ were rooted in an attempt to make sense of the disconnect between a growing educations, middle-class black leadership and the majority of blacks who remained stuck in poverty. He was thus, by circumstance, forced to be both an elitist and a democrat at once. Reading him wrestle with those contradictions – and wrestling with them alongside him – has been one of the most rewarding intellectual exercises of my life.

Since college, I’ve gone back to Du Bois frequently. I’ve read more widely in black literature and history, expanded my knowledge of the dynamics of race and racism, and now follow some contemporary black authors and scholars I greatly respect. But Du Bois was the beginning of all of that for me and still the foundation of my thinking about much of what makes America what it is. That’s not all liberal or progressive or Christian. Racism, at least as much as Freedom, was present at the beginning of the “American Experiment” and continues to be a defining characteristic of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Du Bois understood that contradiction at the heart of the American promise and spent a lifetime trying to make sense of an improve it. I would be lucky to follow his example even in a small part.

I remain forever grateful for how he had shaped my thinking.


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