Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Genius in Motion: Tracking Du Bois' Intellectual Journey

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Genius in Motion: Tracking Du Bois' Intellectual Journey

Article excerpt

W.E.B. DU BOIS Biography of a Race By David Levering Lewis 701 pages, Henry Holt, $35

A DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY of one of the great minds of the 20th century has finally been published. The product of eight years of research, "W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race" is the first of a projected two-volume work. The research is derived from personal papers and other records that did not become available until 1980, 17 years after the subject's death. The author, David Levering Lewis, is a professor of history at Rutgers University.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868. He was the product of a family that could trace its New England roots back to the American Revolution. Du Bois' first exposure to segregation did not occur until 1885, when he travelled to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University. After graduating in 1888, Du Bois enrolled at Harvard, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1890. He subsequently pursued graduate studies in History and Economics at Harvard and the University of Berlin in Germany. Du Bois returned to the United States in 1894 and was awarded a Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1895, the first African-American to receive this distinction.

Despite his remarkable credentials, Du Bois' race precluded him from the mainstream of academia. He was eventually able to obtain a position as an assistant instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. During this period he prepared a groundbreaking study, "The Philadelphia Negro," which was one of the seminal works in the then-emerging academic discipline of sociology. In 1897, Du Bois joined the faculty at Atlanta University where he began a years-long study of African-American life and culture. In 1903, he published his best-known work, "The Souls of Black Folk." It was highly acclaimed then and it remains one of the outstanding contributions to American letters. It was in this text that Du Bois made his visionary and oft-quoted prediction that "the problem of the 20th Century would be the problem of the color line." Half a century before academics began to criticize Eurocentrism and to consider multiculturalism, Du Bois was engaging in what decades later would become known as critical theory.

Lewis' biography provides the reader with a vivid description of life within the upper reaches of the African- American community at the turn of the century. He explains, among other things, the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington. At the turn of the century the founder of Tuskegee Institute exercised on unprecedented amount of power and influence. Washington's accommodationist approach to race relations won the support of wealthy patrons and was calculated to appease Southerners intent on nullifying rights granted to black citizens by the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Acquiescing to the suppression of black political and civil rights enraged progressive thinkers like Du Bois. These philosophical differences evolved into a bitter personal animosity. Washington eventually used his considerable influence to block financial support to Atlanta University. …

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