Nell Irvin Painter


"AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Washington Post Book World, 24 October 1993; Page x5

Biography of a Race, 1868-1919

By David Levering Lewis
Henry Holt. 735 pp. $35

THE LONELY black genius William Edward Burghardt Du Bois has by now become a symbol in African-American life -- perhaps even in American life generally. Du Bois is a static figure -- clear-sighted but silenced, a seer whose wisdom was no less profound for having been ignored by the philistines of the American academy. In 1963 the black-listed, red-baited Du Bois died at the age of 95, appropriately in exile in Ghana, the state that personified the pan-African socialism that he himself had fostered and that seemed then the best of emergent Africa Thirty years after his death, Du Bois still stands for an icy and isolated racial integrity, but with a difference: His formal sartorial style is now very much in fashion with those who would lay claim to his legacy.

Du Bois lived a long life, and he realized that longevity -- his in particular -- caused consternation in the youth-fixated United States. In his last autobiography, published posthumously in 1968, he wrote, "I would have been hailed with approval if I had died at 50. At 75 my death was practically requested." Those later years, when the federal government declared him subversive and stripped him of his passport, have obscured the first 50, which are the subject of this first volume of David Levering Lewis's big, beautiful biography. During that first half-century, Du Bois accumulated his superlative education at Fisk, Harvard, and Berlin, established himself at the forefront of the new field of sociology, and founded and edited The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in which he was initially the only prominent black officer.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Du Bois published widely in the mainstream periodical press and his Souls of Black Folk (1903) became a modest bestseller, he was well-respected and highly visible, and not merely among college-educated African Americans. As a young scholar he addressed the American Historical Association, whose journal published his work (without, however, agreeing with his request to capitalize the word Negro), and his Atlanta University conferences attracted national audiences. His Crisis constituency encompassed tens of thousands of blacks and reform-minded whites. Du Bois's popularity -- which comes as a surprise to those familiar only with his later years -- figures centrally in this remarkable

The turn of the 20th century was also the era in which Du Bois organized opposition to the electoral and educational policies of Booker T. Washington, the accommodationist principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama who, after his "Atlanta Compromise" speech in 1895, became widely recognized as the nation's leading Negro. Washington capitalized on the vogue for industrial (as opposed to liberal) education for blacks and in the 1890s condoned the disenfranchisement of black voters. Both were positions that Du Bois assailed rhetorically and through the Niagara Movement and the NAACP.

Until now, it has been all too easy to caricature the conflict between Washington and Du Bois, but two of the many fine contributions of Lewis's book include a tracing of Du Bois's itinerary out of conservatism and into protest and an extraordinarily sensitive portrait of Washington. The Wizard of Tuskegee emerges from Lewis's pages as a well-rounded southern opportunist who, like Du Bois, changed with the times.

LEWIS -- author of When Harlem Was in Vogue and King: A Biography -- humanizes Washington as he humanizes Du Bois, which is not an easy accomplishment considering the pedestal upon which Du Bois ordinarily perches. Lewis's task is facilitated by his subject's relative youth in this first volume, in which Du Bois, who never grows as old as the author, appears as a supreme egoist who was his own biggest fan. Lewis's Du Bois is self-consciously mannered, well-dressed, and handsome. In tennis whites he cuts a fine young figure with "fine buttocks and well-shaped calves," parts of the anatomy not usually associated with the man known as "Dr." Du Bois.

Du Bois also appears "conduct{ing} himself in public like a wary lion . . . The effect was one of intriguing unapproachability at its best." The coolness extends to his own nuclear family, for although he was theoretically a feminist, his bearing toward his wife, Nina, and his daughter, Yolande, was patriarchal through and through. Lewis's recovery of these two women, whom Du Bois's autobiographical writing obscures, is thoroughly refreshing.

The strengths of this exquisite biography -- a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction -- are innumerable, but the section that struck me most was Lewis's description of Du Bois's long struggle for research funding, which Du Bois (like Carter G. Woodson and his Journal of Negro History) lost to figures such as the Mississippi planter and amateur scholar Alfred Stone. Time and again, the holders of the money strings of early 20th-century educational philanthropy -- men like John Franklin Jameson, then of the Carnegie Institution -- preferred to underwrite the paternalistic work of men like Stone rather than the serious scholarship of Du Bois.

Taking Du Bois's accomplishments seriously, Lewis provides balanced analyses of both deficiencies and vision. His Du Bois is scholar and poet, scientist and novelist, universalist and Afrocentrist. In this engrossing masterpiece, Lewis contrasts the experiences of the younger Du Bois with the older man's writing and manages mostly, but not always, to suppress the "gotcha" syndrome -- dwelling on harmless inconsistencies. Lewis does sometimes seize upon instances in which Du Bois "reinterprets" his life -- commonly known as "autobiographical truths" -- as though they were calculated misrepresentations. In this regard, as in the neglect of analysis of non-written evidence, Lewis neglects certain opportunities. Nevertheless, W.E.B. Du Bois represents a dazzling feat of scholarship performed with Lewis's customary grace of style.

Nell Irvin Painter teaches at Princeton University and is writing a biography of Sojourner Truth

Copyright Nell Irvin Painter

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