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,
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
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. …