Heart and Souls
The Strange Education of W. E. B. Du Bois.

by Sean Wilentz


Du Bois was a pioneer race relations rhetorician, who straddled the integrationist tradition of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass and the emerging separatist-nationalist movement. His concepts of Black American cultural identity are analyzed.

In his mysterious Education, first printed in 1907, the aging Henry Adams belatedly ushered out the nineteenth century with a scientific prophecy of expanding chaos and accelerated historical time. A few years earlier his fellow New Englander, the young W. E. B. Du Bois, ushered in the new century with his poetic, equally mysterious The Souls of Black Folk, and with a prophecy of his own: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." Both prophecies still live; and some recent commentaries have suggested that Adams's and Du Bois's observations carry as many portents for the coming century as they did for the one now ending.

The two men apparently never met or corresponded. (Adams left the Harvard history department eleven years before Du Bois arrived, though Du Bois did wind up studying with Adams's disciple, Albert Bushnell Hart.) Their temperaments and their generational experiences, let alone their family backgrounds, were utterly different: the one was the chronicler of insider-hood, the other was the chronicler of marginality. Yet their careers and their legacies bear comparison. Both trained in Berlin as well as at Harvard, absorbing the new spirit of Germanic scholarship without completely enslaving themselves to its ponderous prose style. (In this respect Du Bois was the more successful of the two.) Neither intended to become a historian, and both wrote masterworks of American history, fixed on what each believed was the crucial passage in the nation's democratic development (for Adams, the administrations of Jefferson and Madison; for Du Bois, Reconstruction). Both wrote novels in which a woman was the major protagonist. More famously, both were men of autobiographical imagination, who wrote achingly of leading doubled lives, grandly equating the burdens of that doubleness with America itself.

Long after his death, Adams was remembered as an important historian, but was read mainly by professionals. His reputation revived, achieving cultic proportions, roughly forty years ago, mainly because of The Education. The postwar vogue for American studies picked up Adams as the great ironist of the Gilded Age; and The Education became an undergraduate talisman of bookish sensitivity in the beat 1950s, a declaration of alienated sophistication and the quest for an illumination--the refined sophomore's On the Road.

Du Bois, who lived until 1963, is now enjoying a different sort of revival. Always admired by liberals as the architect of the modern civil rights movement, Du Bois suffered in America for his fellow traveling (capped by his formal enlistment, at age 93, in the Communist Party) as well as his Pan-African nationalism. By a cosmic coincidence he died in Ghana on the eve of the famous March on Washington; and the next day, when Roy Wilkins respectfully informed the marchers of the news, he prefaced his announcement with a careful remark that "in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path" from theirs. (Less measured tributes arrived in Accra from Gus Hall, Jomo Kenyatta, Walter Ulbricht and Mao Zedong.) It took the upheavals of the later 1960s and two decades of continuing racial turmoil for a new generation of professors and critics to repair Du Bois's reputation, not simply as a propagandist and organizer but as an intellectual. Whatever else it has done, the black studies movement deserves credit for retrieving The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, which belong in any collection of American classics.

Indeed, on campus and off, Du Bois and his writings have become so respectable that they are almost impossible to avoid. Du Bois's major books and essays (although not, curiously, Black Reconstruction) are enshrined in the Library of America. There are endless conferences, symposia and lectures dedicated to race, race consciousness and the color line, often with Du Bois's work as their touchstone. The United States Postal Service has even issued a first-class stamp in his memory, something unthinkable even thirty years ago. And now has come the impressive first installment of the first full-dress biography, written by a well-known scholar and greeted with acclaim.

David Levering Lewis's greatest strengths are his thoroughness and his tone. Because Du Bois lived so long and wrote so often about himself--in three full-length autobiographies, one briefer memoir and numerous shorter pieces--his biographer is faced with an unusually large amount of detective work. He must first gather the facts and then judge them against his subject's own not always reliable accounts. Lewis is an expert gatherer; he presents more details than the average reader needs to know, right down to Du Bois's college courses and grades. The trickier task, which Lewis performs well, is to avoid either debunking or apologizing. His Du Bois is a man of stark polarities and huge contradictions, not least the double standards of his Victorian private life and his genuine commitments to sexual as well as racial equality. Lewis reports faithfully, often gracefully, keeping as his main narrative line Du Bois's complex rise to political and intellectual leadership, first as a scholar and agitator, then as the editor of the NAACP monthly, The Crisis and as a budding Pan-Africanist.

Lewis's account of Du Bois's central writings is less energetic. Theirappearance is noted, as is their reception and their connection to Du Bois'spersonal formation and political views; their main points are explicated alongside some interesting judgments (not always friendly). Lewis pays ample tribute to the prodigious range of Du Bois's output, from the pioneering sociological study The Philadelphia Negro to poems and short stories. But Lewis prefers not to dally too long or to pull together his thoughts on this large body of work before picking up his narration of Du Bois's life. His contribution, in this first volume, lies not so much in advancing the case for Du Bois as a major American thinker (which Lewis plainly believes he was) as in helping his readers approach Du Bois's thinking historically. Given the superheated air that surrounds racial conversation these days, and the frequency with which Du Bois's observations on race (especially in The Souls of Black Folk) are invoked as timeless and authoritative, that contribution is not small.

From the moment it appeared in April 1903, The Souls of Black Folk caused a sensation. Among black readers, James Weldon Johnson later claimed, it had sensation. Among black readers, James Weldon Johnson later claimed, it had the greatest impact of any single book since Uncle Tom's Cabin. William James, Du Bois' undergraduate mentor at Harvard, dispatched a copy to his brother Henry, who privately praised it (a little backhandedly) as "the only `Southern' book of any distinction published in many a year." In Germany Max "splendid" effort and went to work finding a translator. Within two months the publishers had to arrange for a third printing, as the book became the subject of discussion in periodicals across the country, with the conspicuous exception of most white Southern newspapers and those controlled by the friends and allies of Du Bois' nemesis, Booker T. Washington. For a collection consisting mainly of reworked, previously published essays on race relations and the Negro by a young sociologist and historian at Atlanta University, it was an extraordinary success, unprecedented in the history of American letters.

The flashpoint of controversy was the book's third essay, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others." Du Bois had once been an admirer of Washington--he had praised him for his famous Atlanta Compromise speech urging racial accommodation in 1895--but he had moved in a more radical direction over the previous five years. Du Bois's objections were political: he was scornful of Washington's circumspection about civil rights for blacks. But they were also cultural (l.) Like Washington, Du Bois was appalled by the debased condition of the Negro masses, barely one generation out of bondage; but Washington's view was tainted by a fundamental pessimism about the worth of black people's cultural resources. He had little faith that black people's potential extended beyond gaining the most practical know-how about raising pigs and getting on in the world. To Du Bois, who was all for practical knowledge, Washington's pessimism was a lie, vaunting a philistine materialism that denied the black man's soul.

Or more precisely, the black man's "souls." The plural was critical to the book's larger purpose of establishing black America's cultural presence and identity. Du Bois, who as Lewis points out mounted his essays with a jeweler's precision, was very exact about his title: The Souls of Black Folk, not The Soul of Black Folks. "After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian," he asserted in the book's most cited passage, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--his longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

These are heartfelt, brave and seductive words, an anatomy of racial alienation unlike any that preceded it, and they thrilled and persuaded DuBois's admirers. Indeed, the words are so seductive that even today it is easy to miss their intense ambiguity--and how they blend a painful self-consciousness with a muddled late-Victorian mysticism.

At the core of Du Bois's thinking was the fiction of the folk--"the unifying ideal of Race" that would elevate the Negro people and redeem America. In his early writings, Du Bois's racialist categories were deeply beholden to racial science, reinforced by his reading in the Anglo-Saxon school of American historiography and in the German romantic nationalists from Herder to Treitschke, his teacher in Berlin. His first important foray into the subject, in an address to the newly founded American Negro Academy in 1897, posited the existence of no fewer than three primordial and eight historic races; by the time he wrote Souls, he had reduced the number to seven.

White racism, he acknowledged, had led many blacks to minimize race distinctions and to seek instead full participation in a reformed, color-blind American democracy. But Du Bois thought it was absurd for Negroes in America, no less than for Mongolians on the Asian steppes, to deny the realities of race. "The history of the world is the history not of individuals but of groups, not of nations but of races," he stated emphatically. American blacks could, however, undo the unjust and unnatural subordination of their race. And for the purpose of such a transformation, Du Bois espoused, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, "what Sartre once called ... an `anti-racist racism.'"

The themes of racial solidarity and pride, and the rejection of assimilationism, were hardly new at the turn of the twentieth century. As Lewis notes, Du Bois's remarks belonged to "an old love-hate tradition" among black writers and activists that stretched back before the Civil War and that had become, by Du Bois's time, two distinct tendencies: an integrationist tendency, upheld most eloquently by the aging Frederick Douglass, and an emerging nationalist tendency, associated with Martin Delany, James Holly and one of Du Bois's mentors, the Rev. Alexander Crummell. (Washington, with his outward placating of whites and his ideology of self-help for blacks, seemed, in contrast to both tendencies, an exemplary moderate.) In his declarations on the indissolubility of race, DuBois aligned himself with the nationalists, gathering their scattered perceptions into a statement of racial theory, raising that theory to the level of conventional racial philosophy and then overturning all conventions by celebrating the Negro race's capacities, achievements and strivings.

It was in these celebrations that the prose of The Souls of Black Folk reached its lyrical heights, foreshadowed by the pairing, as the epigram of each chapter, of a portion of "high" verse (from Byron, the Bible and so on) with a musical transcription from the black spirituals. Writing in a mélange of genres--history, fiction, biography, autobiography--Du Bois turned the everyday racist characterizations of the black peasantry on their heads. Where white Americans (and some blacks) saw indolence, mindless sensuality and an imitative culture, Du Bois discerned deep spirituality, historical purpose and sublime artistic gifts, especially in the Negro's religious music--"the rhythmic cry of the slave" and the plaintive melody of the spirituals (or Sorrow Songs), which, despite caricature and defilement, remained "the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas."

Not that Du Bois romanticized black people's condition, either in the South or in the North. Slavery, he wrote, had bred a "dark fatalism" and "a spirit of revolt and revenge" in the Negro. After Reconstruction's demise, the despair reappeared, driving the black masses into dissipated self-destructiveness while goading the better-off to flee from any sense of consanguinity and responsibility. It would take extraordinary, cultivated, prophetic heroes such as Crummell (to whom he devoted an essay in Souls) to raise the race. This notion of individual leadership was in tune with Du Bois's German philosophical proclivities (especially as translated into Anglo-American letters by one of his intellectual heroes, Thomas Carlyle), and it would quickly develop into his doctrine of the Talented Tenth. Yet without turning sentimental, Du Bois's retrieval of the cultural gifts of the most ordinary of the folk underwrote his case for their cultural potential and their essential unity and separateness.

Separateness, however, was not the only fact of racial life in Du Bois's America. Instead of settling for a choice of nationalism over assimilationism, Du Bois offered up a dialectic of doubleness; he wrote of a divided American Negro soul, part American, part Negro, the two parts ever in conflict with each other but headed toward an eventual merging. Although the intellectual origins of the doubleness idea remain obscure in the text, various scholars have had little difficulty in recovering them.

Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalist," written in 1843, had fixed the term "double consciousness" in New England letters as a division between contemplation and the clatter of everyday thought. A more direct influence on Du Bois was almost certainly his beloved William James, whose lectures and writings on psychology used the term in a medical sense (borrowed from the French psychologist Binet) to denote the simultaneous existence of more than one consciousness in a single brain--what today is known familiarly as a split personality. And in college Du Bois would have encountered the word "consciousness," used interchangeably with "soul," in any number of idealist philosophical works. But none of his teachers and predecessors applied the idea to the social psychology of race relations; nor did they fully anticipate Du Bois's stress on the intense and constant awareness of the Negro of his doubleness.