Exemplar of African-Americans

Article excerpt

WILLIAM Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a prophet, poet, and pioneer in social science scholarship, and an activist in the cause for civil rights and self-determination for African-Americans and Africans. David Levering Lewis's biography, a finalist for this year's National Book Award, is a significant addition to the celebrations of Du Bois's life, work, and writing.

"W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919," the first volume of a projected two-volume study, is rich in detail. It draws on Du Bois's autobiographies and published writings and is the first biography of him that uses his now-unrestricted personal papers. It is also replete with information garnered from the personal papers and writings of large numbers of black and white scholars and activists who were contemporaries of Du Bois.

Lewis skillfully uses this new material to extend, clarify, and correct preexisting knowledge of Du Bois the person, intellectual, and activist.

We learn more about Du Bois's ancestry, his New England upbringing, education, and travel in the Northeast, South, and Germany. His cultural and intellectual growth in those places are fleshed out; his academic career and scholarly output are not neglected. Relationships with family and colleagues inside and outside the academy cast additional light on his character and personality.

The public Du Bois appeared with the publication of "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903), continueed with his charter membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and advanced the next year with his founding of the NAACP's monthly magazine, The Crisis.

By the time he was 50, Du Bois was actively organizing the 20th-century pan-Africanist movement. Though he would later be a peace activist, in 1918 he was not above combining "personal vanity and civil rights aspirations" to promote the recruitment of African-Americans for the segregated armed forces with his controversial "Close Ranks" editorial in The Crisis.

Lewis introduces the biography by reenacting Du Bois's state funeral in Ghana in 1963, where he died peacefully in his sleep the night before Martin Luther King's march on Washington. Du Bois was this century's true "drum major for justice." It was a task he deliberately chose, unlike Dr. King, who had it thrust upon him.

Speaking of the evolution of his racial identity, Du Bois became, in his own words, "quite willing to be a Negro and to work with the Negro group." Lewis sees in this attitude the rise of Du Bois's superiority complex, for which there is considerable evidence in this book.

The subtitle of this biography presents Du Bois as "exemplar" of the black race. Lewis regards him as "the paramount custodian of the intellect that so many impoverished, deprived, intimidated, and desperately striving African-Americans had either never developed or found it imperative to conceal."

One may dispute the notion that he, or indeed any individual, can perform such service, but it is indisputable that the history of African-Americans in his first 50 years involved him in practically every aspect. …