W.E.B. Du Bois: A Towering Intellectual
“Well, you can say Marx, and then you can say Freud, but then you’d better say Du Bois really quickly in the triumvirate of seminal minds,” says John Edgar Wideman, novelist, essayist and distinguished professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Dr. David Levering Lewis, the Martin Luther King Jr. professor of history at Rutgers University, agrees. “Today, it’s considered sufficient for a person to have one good idea to be called a genius. Du Bois had many.”
His first major idea was contained in The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, which Lewis calls “an extraordinary doctoral dissertation… It ended by saying that slavery was the result of the Founding Fathers blinking and was the first in the Harvard Historical Studies series. I’ll never know how he got away with making those moral judgments at the end. Objectivity was a god at that time; men of science were to be passionless.”
Next came The Philadelphia Negro, which Dr. Joe Feagin, graduate research professor of sociology at the University of Florida and a past president of the American Sociological Association, says virtually invented urban sociology. “It was the first urban field study by an American sociologist,” he explains.
“Du Bois famously went out and knocked on 7,000 doors,” Lewis adds. “Just imagine opening your door to this man with a handlebar moustache and a cane who then proceeds to ask a set of very personal questions. Why he wasn’t hit over the head is astonishing.”
Then there was The Souls of Black Folk —“an electrifying book,” according to Lewis. “Nothing like it had been written before.”
Black Reconstruction followed, a book that singlehandedly overturned an entire school of historiography, the Dunning School, which posited a “prostrate South” raped and pillaged by corrupt and incapable Negro politicians during Reconstruction.
In the midst of all these scholarly projects, Du Bois founded “the most robust journal of public opinion in the country, The Crisis,” notes Lewis. At its peak, The Crisis had a circulation of 100,000 — higher than The New Republic and competitive with The Nation.
And then there were the areas that were not central to Du Bois’ concerns but where he made important contributions. The word Feagin uses frequently to describe Du Bois is “prescient.”
“The Souls of White Folk” from Darkwater anticipates the entire field of Whiteness studies, Feagin says, though it’s almost never cited — while “The Damnation of Women” from the same volume, notes Dr. Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, political science and history at Columbia University, is a radical call for the political, intellectual and economic emancipation of women.
However, as Dr. Nellie McKay, the Evejue-Bascom professor of American and African American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out, Du Bois was never able to implement his radical principles in his dealings with the women in his own life: his first wife, Nina, who suffered from his serial affairs; his daughter, Yolande, of whom he was alternately demanding and neglectful; and strong-minded women such as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, with whom his clashes were legendary, and others.
But as Du Bois said of his sometime-nemesis, Booker T. Washington, “Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force.” For Du Bois, a man of capacious and even voracious intellect, all relationships in the personal realm suffered.
“People basically couldn’t stand him — but that didn’t alter the fact that he was still the towering intellectual on the American continent,” Marable says.
Throughout the course of his long and extraordinarily varied life, “the Doctor,” as he was not always affectionately known, showed a real genius for making enemies. Indeed, Du Bois joked in his autobiography that he would have been sincerely mourned had he died at age 50, but “at seventy-five, my death was practically requested.”
His death, when it came, was quite dramatic. “He knew how to make an exit,” Marable says. The report of his death came during the 1963 March on Washington — moments before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium. As NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins asked for a moment of silence, one aged Black woman in the crowd is said to have wept: “It’s like Moses. God had written that he should never enter the promised land.” The words were to prove prophetic.
“Great leaders see things further than others and desire things more greatly. Great scholars like Marx, Freud, Du Bois, Einstein see further than other people, see the deeper patterns of history,” Marable says.
Du Bois was, in effect, “trapped by history,” Marable explains. He was a great forerunner and visionary who was also blunt, curt, apolitical and, most of the time, abominably rude. He battled Washington and the Tuskegee Machine — though the dimensions of that conflict have been overdrawn in many accounts, note Lewis and Marable — he feuded with Oswald Villard and Walter White over leadership of the NAACP, and took on Marcus Garvey. A grudge match with the U.S. government eventually led to his seeking expatriate status in Ghana.
Feagin is deeply chafed by the fact that “no major American university ever offered Du Bois a position. People knew he was a giant. Any dummy did by 1915. And with Black Reconstruction in the ’30s, everybody knew,” Feagin says. But Du Bois remained marooned in Black colleges with their comparatively heavy teaching loads, low salaries and poor libraries.
“His counterparts at Harvard — and who’s heard of them today — would quibble and gripe, ‘The citations aren’t as precise as they should be. There aren’t any original sources.’ How racist can you get!” Feagin exclaims.
“The man is producing path-breaking book after path-breaking book without research assistants, without libraries, without big grants — the entire apparatus that any White scholar would have had available any day of the week. And the work is still fresh. There’s probably no scholar of his generation who’s less dated in terms of his arguments.”
Marable recalls asking Dr. Herbert Aptheker — the prolific race scholar and literary executor of Du Bois’ papers — how he would sum up Du Bois as a man and a thinker. “He looked at me with surprise. He said, ‘Manning! He was an artist.’ “
Feagin agrees: “If Du Bois were alive today, he’d open up another book. It would probably begin, ‘The problem of the 21st century…’ ”
— By Kendra Hamilton
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