“Herein lie buried many things which, if read with patience, may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the 20th century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”.
This prophecy may have seemed far-fetched when first published in 1903, but it was to prove more and more compelling as the century advanced. Its author was WEB du Bois, the greatest of the early civil-rights leaders, a figure of towering significance in American politics and letters, whose life and work are – alas – little known on this side of the Atlantic. Remembered for his single-minded commitment to racial justice and his capacity to shape black consciousness, Du Bois used language and ideas to hammer out a strategy for political equality and to sound the depths of the black experience in the aftermath of slavery. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to paint a vivid portrait of black people in the decades after emancipation in 1862 – how they lived and who they really were: and thus to enlighten white America – still profoundly attached to the myths of black inferiority – as to the true meaning of being black in post-civil war America.
The book was, as Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis describes it, “like a firework going off in a cemetery… sound and light, enlivening the inert and despairing. It was an electrifying manifesto, mobilising people for bitter, prolonged struggle to win a place in history.” It combined life portraits of characteristic individuals, based on Du Bois’s travels in the south, with descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the rural poor, a deeply historical understanding of American race relations, and reflections on leadership and the role of education.
It also included fiction, poetry and musical scores. His chapter, “The Sorrow Songs”, expands on the significance of the bars of music from famous Negro spirituals which, alongside verses of English poetry – the two representing the Negro’s divided inheritance – are threaded through as epigraphs to each chapter. Despite his own agnosticism, the vernacular “sorrow songs” became the privileged vehicle for expressing “the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart” – the soul of black experience. The biblical echoes and cadences of the black church in the book’s language made it for later generations, as critic Arnold Rampersad has said, itself “a kind of sacred book”.
William Edward Burghardt du Bois (he insisted on the pronunciation “Du Boyce”) was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, a small, Republican New England town set among the rivers and hills of south-west Massachusetts. He was a mulatto, of Huguenot Calvinist and Bantu African slave descent. His father, Alfred, disappeared early, and Willie was brought up by his mother, Mary Silvina, and her family, the Burghardts, free blacks who prospered in small farming, and had lived in Great Barrington since the 17th century. Precociously clever as a boy, and moving easily in Great Barrington’s inter-racial society, Du Bois was nevertheless the only black child in his class; an episode when a white girl refused to accept his visiting card made him aware that he was “different from the others”. Later, he expanded this sense of isolation into a fully-fledged philosophy.
He went to Fisk University in Nashville, his first experience of the black south, and taught for two summers in rural Tennessee, where he “touched the very shadow of slavery”. “Hence forward,” he said, “I was a Negro.”
He came to understand how emancipated slaves who, as Levering Lewis observes, had come “singing, praying and aspiring out of slavery”, had so swiftly fallen into poverty, degradation and indifference as a result of their marginalisation. Du Bois aimed to show instead the spiritual depth and complexity of life behind “the veil”. This was one of two metaphors he coined to characterise the black experience; the other was the concept of “double consciousness”.
The veil has biblical associations; double consciousness, philosophical ones. Du Bois argued that racism and the practices of segregation excluded blacks from mainstream American life – “shut them out of their world by a vast veil”. Exiled within, a stranger in his own home, always looking at himself through the eyes of another race, being both African and American, the Negro was destined to have a double self, a divided soul, the bearer of a “double consciousness… One ever feels his two-ness… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Du Bois offered no resolution, accepting that blacks were destined to live permanently with this tension. Paradoxically, he also believed that the veil offered the Negro a profound insight into his divided nation. As in Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, the slave, confronting “the mortal terror of his sovereign master”, was driven by this struggle-to-the-death to a higher consciousness of freedom than that of white Americans.
Du Bois went on to Harvard, the summit of his educational ambitions (he said he was “at – but not of – Harvard”), where he fell under the influence of teachers such as Josiah Royce, William James and George Santayana. After graduation, he became the first African-American to study in Berlin. There, this prickly, somewhat arrogant young man was liberated. He found the relative lack of racism in Europe remarkable. He mimicked the German student style, grew a Kaiser-like moustache and adopted Bismark as a hero. He discovered classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
Lohengrin plays an important part in the fictional “Of The Coming of John” chapter, where John, a southern black man returning from a northern education, murders his white “double” (the other John) for taking liberties with a black woman, and faces lynching by his townsfolk. Du Bois read German literature and philosophy – Goethe, Heine, Schiller, above all Hegel. The imprint of Hegel’s view of the progress of the World Spirit as a series of stages marked by successive conceptions of freedom, remained with him throughout his life, as sociologist Paul Gilroy has suggested. More significantly, he made contact with the powerful tradition of the German social sciences – Alfred Wagner, Schmoller, Max Weber – and became fired with the desire to turn these critical tools on the racial situation in the US.
He returned to Harvard to complete his PhD – another African-American first – before launching his unprecedented programme of sociological research. His work on the conditions of life among Negro communities in Philadelphia and around Atlanta provided the foundations of several chapters in The Souls of Black Folk as well as underpinning the avalanche of political journalism, novels and other writings he launched on the world.
Passionate about the power of ideas, Du Bois was also a determined political activist. He wrote, lectured and travelled everywhere. In 1905 he launched the Niagara Movement, the first black-led organisation committed to civil and political rights, and subsequently co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the most powerful integrated civil-rights organisation until the upheavals of the 1960s. He began to edit its enormously influential campaigning journal, The Crisis, writing polemical editorials that addressed every conceivable topic of interest to black Americans.
By the 1890s the abolitionist dream had faded, and Black Reconstruction, designed to build emancipated slaves into the political system, had been defeated. The old southern white oligarchy and the “new rich”, in collusion with northern industrialists, who wanted to invest in a south with a plentiful supply of cheap black labour, began to roll back the tide. Ex-slaves, without incomes or capital, were driven off the land into the indebtedness and poverty of share-cropping. Following the Plessy v Ferguson decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld Homer Plessy’s conviction in Louisiana for travelling in a whites-only train carriage, “Jim Crow” legislation spread through the south, segregating public facilities. White supremacist ideas began to circulate again. Then the lynchings began…
The Souls of Black Folk was Du Bois’s attempt to stem this reversal. It was distinctive for its unswerving commitment to the black ballot and the liberal education that had helped Du Bois to expand his own mind. This brought him into collision which the most powerful black leader of the time, Booker T Washington – known for his manipulative cunning as “the wizard” – with his influential base at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and his supporters among the northern philanthropists. In his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) and elsewhere, Washington advocated an accommodation with the south- the famous “Atlanta com-promise” – based on trading the black right to vote against better economic opportunities, and advocating a narrow, vocational training for blacks, designed to equip them to be industrial workers.
This quarrel split the black movement down the middle, and was compounded by Du Bois’s ideas on leadership. In Souls, Du Bois criticised Washington’s charismatic style and educational programme, and called for a “saving elite”, or “talented tenth” of educated African-Americans to give direction to the civil-rights struggle, offering “leadership by exceptional men” (though it should be pointed out that Du Bois was passionately pro-feminist and forged political as well as emotional relationships with many women activists).
Was Du Bois’s “talented tenth” idea, as Washington and others charged, elitist? Du Bois had spent long periods in, and learned much from the south: his experiences there had transformed his political outlook. However, he was formed, intellectually, among northerners. His peers and political associates were largely drawn from the talented sons and daughters of urban, middle-class, northern black professionals, with privileged backgrounds and university educations. Washington claimed to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, poor southern blacks who lacked such prospects. For Du Bois, this was no reason for denying them their political and educational rights.
Certainly, Washington’s “industrial training” was not designed to produce committed political leadership. Besides, where was the leadership of the immediate post-slavery decades likely to come from other than the ranks of the educated, politically conscious, free black professionals of the north? This elitist/populist tension recurred in the later split between Du Bois’s integrationist perspective and the Afro-centric approach of Marcus Garvey, whom Du Bois strongly opposed. It surfaced again during the “Harlem renaissance”, Du Bois, in this instance, finding the leaders of the “arts and letters movement” too removed from the concerns of ordinary black folk. In different versions, it continues to haunt African-American politics today, for example in the suspicion shown by black community activists towards mainstream politicians.
In fact, though Du Bois was constantly locked in argument of this kind about the future direction of the struggle, his outlook was constantly expanding. He spent more time in Europe, began to learn more about the plight of colonial peoples of African descent, and met the leaders of the anti-imperialist struggles of the day. He helped organised several Pan-African congresses, including the famous fifth held just after the end of the second world war in Manchester, and attended by Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. This growing Pan-Africanism helped him to place the race issue in a wider, trans-Atlantic context.
In the later part of his life, as the situation for African-Americans worsened during the depression years, Du Bois became increasingly pessimistic about the chances of equality, and disillusioned with the land of his birth. His racial thinking shifted emphasis, from the integration of a new group into an old nation, to the creation of a new, black nation. He mistrusted the motives behind the American Communist party’s growing involvement in race issues during the 1930s, arguing that the racial division between white and black workers made America an “exception” to Marx’s class-struggle theory.
However, as his disillusionment grew, he showed increasing communist leanings. After his 1947 appeal to the UN on behalf of the black struggle was supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the US, he gravitated towards the far left, defending the Rosenbergs and eulogising Stalin. He joined the Peace Information Centre, defined by the US government as an “agent of foreign interests”, was refused a passport and, when finally allowed abroad in the late 1950s, met Khrushchev, Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai before attending independence celebrations in Ghana and Nigeria. He had supported Martin Luther King in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-6, but had become deeply alienated from America, partly as a result of continuing passport problems, and in 1961 he accepted Nkrumah’s invitation and went into self-imposed exile in Ghana, becoming a Ghanaian citizen in 1963.
On August 27, aged 95, on the eve of the great civil rights march on Washington, he died and was given a state funeral in Accra. His place in history was publicly acknowledged from the Washington march platform by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP – “at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause”.