Why Does W.E.B. Du Bois Matter Today?

In their new book, W.E.B.  Du Bois: A Life in American History,Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne pose the question that every scholar of African American history, a central part of all US history, must sooner or later approach. W.E.B. Du Bois is without question one of the largest, perhaps the very largest, figure in African-American history. Fellow Pan African C.L.R. James argued vociferously, a half century ago, that even describing Du Bois as a giant of “Black History” made it too easy for establishment intellectuals, liberal as well as conservative, to push him  and his work to the side of “American history” or “World history.”  He belongs in the center of our picture.

This is an unusual book in a number of ways. It draws upon, edits down in part, and significantly expands a standard volume in Du Bois scholarship, a 2009 biography by Gerald Horne. Here, Charisse Burden-Stelly has made the text more classroom-accessible with topical sidebars, a chronology of Du Bois’s life, and an extensive bibliography of the constantly growing literature around his biographical studies and his work. She has also expanded upon and highlighted a number of areas including his controversial concept of American blacks as a ”nation within a nation,” Du Bois’s struggles for world peace and against the persistence of imperialism as neo-colonialism.

That Du Bois was and remains controversial is beyond debate. The young man was a literary genius, as an excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk at the close of this volume demonstrates convincingly. But from early on, he was so much more.

That he took on Booker T. Washington, at the apex of Washington’s fame as the advocate of black people lifting themselves up by their own purported bootstraps rather than demanding changes in white America, was for its time a phenomenal event in politics and culture. That he became a socialist, and even in supporting (for a time) the US entry into the First World War and then turning around to denounce the imperial intent of American leadership—indeed, supporting the Russian Revolution— was more than a scandal. It eventually destroyed his relationship with the NAACP that he had helped found, not to mention damaging his own considerable literary reputation in elite circles. How dare a prominent American black writer, amid the Red Scare, consider the Bolsheviks sympathetically?

Du Bois had a thousand other things to do between 1920 and 1940. From his understanding of the Harlem Renaissance to his rallying of support for victims of racist attacks (including the notorious Scottsboro victims) to the struggle for balance between black autonomy and political alliance to the overarching purposes of Pan Africanism, he wrote widely and placed himself at the center of many a controversy. His life, on the eve of the Second World War, was about to enter a new phase.

A new, vast historical study by Gerald Horne—obviously the result of decades of scholarly work—might easily be regarded as a counterpart volume to the one under review: White Supremacy Confronted:U.S. Imperialism and Anti-Communism vs the Liberation of Southern Africa, from Rhodes to Mandela (1920). In a real sense, Horne has been seeking to complete Du Bois’s own anti colonial mission.

Late in life, the great Pan Africanist C.L.R. James sought to explain why Paul Robeson, the friend of his youth—even closer to Du Bois than to James—had not deserted his loyalty to the Soviet Union.  James answered in the same vein: as the anti-colonial revolutions after the Second World War, Russians supplied the overwhelming material support for these revolutions, as those close to Communist parties around the world most loyally supplied the Movement support. No more reason was needed.

Burden-Stelly and Horne remind us that Du Bois’s travels to Europe during the 1930s riveted his attention to the rise of Fascism. But his first trip to China was even more important: he could see what imperialism had done, was doing, to the historic center of a continuous civilization a millennium  and more in the making.

Du Bois returned to the US changed. At the advanced age of 70, already ruminating his studies of Marxist texts, he taught courses applying concepts of Marxism to the study of African American life and prepared himself for his premier scholarly work: Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a history of the Part Which Black Folk Played int he Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1936). No more important work in US history had ever been written and, some would say, none has yet been written.

Du Bois had now (or perhaps again) reached a turning point in his life. If the major African American organizations had begun to turn away from him,  the division did not sharpen until  after the NACCP sent a copy of Color and Democracy, his current volume on race, to all the American delegates at the newly formed United Nations, in 1945. NAACP leader Walter White, a committed Cold Warrior, soon moved against Du Bois. The “Faustian bargain” (p.157)  of concessions to black Americans in return for absolute support of US foreign policy, the non-white world emphatically included, would now become the measure of propriety.

The grounds for persecuting Du Bois had also been established. The authors title their Chapter 11 “A Life on Trial,” and rightly so. Running for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket at the height of the Red Scare, in 1950, could only intensify intensify the campaign to make him an outlaw in his native land, purported agent of a foreign power. Taken to court in handcuffs at age 83,  repudiated by some of his highest-placed allies, he went onward with the allies courageous enough to continue with him.

Du Bois barely escaped imprisonment and, undaunted, founded Freedom magazine (1950-55), ran again for Congress and departed for good from the US in 1960. In Ghana, near the end of his long life, he became a member of the CPUSA. The following year, at the famed March On Washington, Du Bois was spiritually present if physically absent, as even mainstream black leaders felt compelled to observe.

Burden-Stelly has wrapped up the text nicely with a  summarizing chapter of her own, “Why W.E. B. Du Bois Matters,” and dozen pages of Du Bois’s writing. Students digging into this book—more likely, sections offered them from an ebook edition—will find themselves enriched again and again. We hope their teachers can keep up!

W.E.B.  Du Bois: A Life in American History.
By Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne.
Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2020, 241pp., $63.00.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.