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W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race,…

W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 [1868]

by David Levering Lewis

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2699 W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race 1868-1919, by David Levering Lewis (read 28 Jan 1995) (Pulitzer Biography prize for 1994) This book I never would have read if it had not won a Pulitzer prize, but it was of interest. Du Bois was very contentious and very pro-Negro--as opposed to being only for equal rights--but his positions from 1902 to 1919 are ones I readily endorse. In fact, the passion I felt for fairness to the Negro is still with me, even thought political correctness--and this turgidly written book getting a Pulitzer is a good example of political correctness-- leaves me unenthused. But particularly from 1909--when the NAACP was founded-- to the end (1919) this book was well worth reading, even though Du Bois fighting with others about his role at The Crisis--the NAACP magazine-- is not super-interesting. ( )
  Schmerguls | Mar 20, 2008 |
I just don`t lead the sort of life that allows me to read books like this without interruption, so I`m going to review it in instalments.

Levering Lewis` approach is to provide a wealth of period detail to accompany his account of each stage of his subject`s life, presumably in an effort to paint a portrait of the age and not just the man.

In the early years, as young Willie Du Bois is growing up, the effect is stunning, and really does bring the picture to life.

As we progress, I`m not always convinced the effect is so well-judged. At times, we do seem to get sidetracked into looking at people and events of only indirect relevance. the author is a little inclined also to raise questions which even he acknowledges cannot be answered ! I have a friend who does that, and much though I like him, it always makesme want to hit him ! I don`t as yet want to hit David Levering Lewis, and I will certainly refrain from doing so.

In fairness, to Mr L, his aim seems to be to present Du Bois with all his complexiity, contradictions and quirks intact - quite a bit to go at there, I would think - as distinct from Manning Marable, who chose to emphasise a thread of consistency running through du Bois` thinking. I have sometimes felt with this book, that the more Mr L denies that consistency, the more it seems to appear. Having said that, I wouldn`t like to compare the two too much - it`s like two men doing different jobs, who can say which did his job the best ?

Will resume this review when I get the chance to read more (and when I`m less tired). So far, despite some reservations, I would rate this as, say 4 out of 5, so pretty good overall.
  nickhoonaloon | Jul 24, 2007 |
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. New
York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

In his famous “Atlanta Compromise€? speech, Booker T. Washington used the image of a hand to illustrate his understanding of how African Americans must work in order to improve their social condition. “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers,â€? the Wizard of Tuskegee claimed, “yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.â€? In W. E. B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race, 1868-1919, David Levering Lewis aptly applies a similar image, with Du Bois as one of the “fingersâ€? and the African American race as the larger “hand,â€? to the life of one of Washington’s most vocal and opinionated opponents. Ultimately, while his treatment of both the “fingerâ€? and the hand is worthy of admiration, Lewis struggles to bring the two together into a powerful fist.
In the first of two monumental volumes devoted to one of the most fascinating leaders of the African American quest for civil rights and social equality, David Levering Lewis leaves virtually no stone unturned in his quest to capture the life of W. E. B. Du Bois. After a brief excursus to the last moments of Du Bois’s life, Lewis retreats nearly one hundred years only to arrive in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s birth on February 23, 1868. From this point on, Lewis treats his subject with scrupulosity unmatched in most modern biographies, constantly emphasizing certain key themes through roughly the first half of Du Bois’s ninety-five years of life.
One such theme that Lewis notices in the different stages of Du Bois’s life is his existence within a “double consciousness of being,â€? one concerned both with issues of race and with issues of class. Whether in a classroom in Great Barrington or Fisk University, Du Bois, according to Lewis, came to recognize the two-ness of his existence. Whether in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berlin, Germany, Du Bois knew that these certain issues dominated his life. Lewis traces this double consciousness through his teaching years, his early work as a civil rights activist, and his writing (both as an academic and an advocate).
A similar concept focused on by Lewis is that of education as a way of salvation. He applies this first in the life of Du Bois. Even while in Great Barrington, Du Bois distinguished himself as an eager and bright student. Regardless of what members of his race and class were thought to be able to achieve, W. E. B. Du Bois made it obvious early in his academic career that he was not confined to such social limitations. This exceptionalism provided an opportunity for him to transcend the expectations of many people around him. From Great Barrington High School to Fisk University to Harvard to the University of Berlin, Du Bois demonstrated his capacity to achieve what many certainly deemed impossible, saving himself from what society had planned for most African Americans of the late nineteenth century. He also demonstrates the ways in which Du Bois, throughout much of his life, saw education as a way to elevate the rest of his race. Consequently, he devoted much of his career to teaching young African Americans. In this manner, to his credit, Lewis does not fail to look beyond the life of W. E. B. Du Bois to the “handâ€? of the African American race during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
His analysis of the social context of this era is every bit as logical, coherent, and compelling as his treatment of Du Bois. One could read this volume and come away with much more than a grasp of the first fifty-one years of Du Bois’s life. In particular, Lewis’s treatment of the intricate connections of the African American community, his examination of the political machinations of that community, and his focus on the methods of racial uplift promoted by Du Bois and other members of the African American upper class make these portions of his narrative a delight to read. Du Bois never had to worry about standing completely alone. Lewis makes this clear by spending vast amounts of his time focusing on the men and women around Du Bois. Thus, even a casual reading of this book illustrates the intricate network that permeated the African American community.
These associates, however, were not always working in conjunction with Du Bois. On the contrary, Lewis clearly demonstrates the complex political relationships that made the task of racial uplift that much more perilous. Not only did Du Bois have to worry about the dangers of white supremacists, but he also had to remain concerned with other African Americans whose plans did not align with his own. As Lewis makes abundantly clear, the Tuskegee Machine was not the only engine at work.
Of course, for the most part, these machines were working for the same end, namely, that of racial uplift. Again, this is a contribution that Lewis’s volume makes to the African American historiography. While he does not necessarily introduce entirely new material, he allows one to see the enthusiasm with which many African American undertook the cause of elevating the race. Whether describing Washington’s plea for accommodation or Du Bois’s plan for resistance, Lewis prompts his reader to see the hope such strategies gave African Americans struggling with discrimination and Jim Crow.
While David Levering Lewis focuses both on the “finger,â€? Du Bois, and on the “hand,â€? the African American community, he fails to bring the two together into a tightly clenched fist for several reasons. First, he seems preoccupied with providing psychosexual analysis of many of the decisions and comments that Du Bois made. Whether it was if he had sex with any of the ladies of Great Barrington’s American Methodist Episcopal Zion Sewing Society or why he had sex with Mrs. Dowell, his landlady in Wilson County, Tennessee, or his desire to know Jessie Fauset (described as an intimate friend in one of the illustrations) or his flirtatious teasing with Mary White Ovington, Lewis seems fixated on Du Bois’s sexuality.
Second, at times Lewis is prone to speculative imagination. As he seeks to fill in some of the gaps of Du Bois’s life, Lewis perhaps allows his imagination to get the better of him. For example, as he describes the tennis player who attracted the attention of female observers, Lewis visualizes “Willâ€? as “lightly mustached, with fine buttocks and well-shaped calves that filled tennis whites appealingly.â€? In another place, he describes the Du Bois’ second child, Nine Yolande, as “café-au-lait in color.â€? His tentative reconstruction of the “nature of Will and Nina’s early married life and the circumstances surrounding their son’s deathâ€? is another such instance of Lewis’s fanciful reading of his evidence.
In conclusion, Lewis paints two brilliantly detailed portraits, but he fails to bring them together. The primary one is of W. E. B. Du Bois—a strong mighty finger working “separatelyâ€? for the good of his race. The second image is one of the African American community of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—a hand made up of some of the community’s most fearless and fervent leaders. If read to perceive one or the other of these pictures, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 is an excellent choice. If one hopes to see how these two images work together, however, Lewis’s penchant to emphasize nearly every detail obscures the view.
1 vote rbailey | Oct 7, 2005 |
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First volume of the author's W.E.B. DuBois / David Levering Lewis, published 1993-2000; do not confuse with the single volume condensation (2008) with title: W.E.B. Du Bois : a biography / David Levering Lewis
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