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An Essay by Ishmael Reed on W. E. B. DuBois

"Eminent Contrarian"
by Ishmael Reed

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of Race, David Levering Lewis covered the scholar's life from his birth in 1868 to his becoming the editor of the influential magazine Crisis. In an arched, dense prose style, he also wrote about Du Bois's Massachusetts childhood, Harvard education, and his important works—The Suppression of the African Slave Trade and The Souls of Black Folk. The second volume of W.E.B. Du Bois carries us to the culmination of his career as the editor of Crisis, his bitter feud with Marcus Garvey, leader of an African colonization and race purity movement, his continued involvement with the Pan-African movement, and his struggle with an American government caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria and his eventual repatriation to Ghana.

All of these subjects are mined with Mr. Lewis's devotion to detail, his busy prose style and often worshipful regard for his subject. The parts of the book that will attract the most attention, however, address Du Bois's ambivalent attitude toward Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Perhaps it is not surprising that the philosopher of the Talented Tenth would find something to admire in dictatorships. (The Talented Tenth is a phrase coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 to identify the intellectual elite who would lead the black masses.) Du Bois's defense of Japan is not surprising, since the Japanese defeat of the Russian navy in 1905 was seen by some African American intellectuals as a victory of a colored nation over a white one.

The leader of the Talented Tenth comes across as a brilliant, arrogant intellectual in constant oscillation between integrationist and segregationist positions. A man who had contentious relationships with both whites and blacks, criticizing, but then adopting some of the ideas of his foes. And like a true Talented Tenther he, in public, was a devoted feminist, but exhibited patriarchal attitudes toward the women in his life. (Soothed by the doting he received from Japanese women, he characterized American white women as "impudent and aggressive.") Du Bois was someone who saw himself, in the postwar period, as the spokesperson for "750,000,000" people living under colonial domination, and champion of the world's working class, yet he was also a man who enjoyed rare food, good drink, and aristocratic mistresses.

But regardless of his weaknesses, his longevity (he died at age 95) enabled him to accomplish the work of several lifetimes, and take a second look at the positions of some of those with whom he had fought so hard. In the 1960s, when a student visiting his home in Ghana made a disparaging remark about Du Bois's old nemesis, Booker T. Washington, Du Bois defended Washington. He recalled his aunt's words: "Don't you forget that that man, unlike you, bears the mark of the lash on his back. He has come out of slavery. . . . You are fighting for the rights here in the North. It's tough, but it's nothing like as tough as what he had to face in his time and in his place."

He also discovered in Ghana that, while he was the intellect of Pan-Africanism, whose aim was to bring Africa under African control, Marcus Garvey was its soul. Because of their rivalry (Garvey was a foreigner from Jamaica, and, in the view of the T.T., a charlatan, a con man, and even a "lunatic"), Du Bois and his Talented Tenthers waged a relentless and sometimes vicious and racist campaign against Garvey. Garvey could give as well as he got. He called Du Bois an "ante-bellum Negro" and referred to the the Talented Tenth as "Octoroons married to Octoroons," a remark that revealed the racial and class divisions among African Americans.

But the main difference between Du Bois and his opponents was that Du Bois addressed a world audience, while his adversaries, like NAACP leaders Walter White and Roy Wilkins, were men obsessed with the day-to-day issues of black survival in the United States. In comparison to the suave and worldly Du Bois, a pioneer in black studies, whose knowledge of European civilization was deeper than theirs, his white enemies were academic backwoodsmen, many of whom were professors invested in maintaining the myth of "white" superiority. During his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936, on an Oberlaender Fellowship, he observed that a German academic had treated him better than his white colleagues at Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard. (Gustav Oberlaender has been identified by Werner Sollors as a Nazi sympathizer who had received an award from Hitler.) It was perhaps his experience in Europe as a young man that gave him an international outlook, and his devotion to German culture.

While he was traveling through Nazi Germany, Levering writes, "Du Bois's reading of National Socialism ran from equivocal to complimentary. . . . Dictatorship had been unavoidable, had been 'absolutely necessary to put the state in order,' he allowed, after the implosion of the Weimar economy." Also, Du Bois said "he found National Socialism to be neither 'wholly illogical,' nor hypocritical, but to be still 'a growing and developing body of thought' in which he divined an 'extraordinary straddle' between capitalism and communism. . . . " After leaving Germany, Du Bois expressed his horror at the treatment of the Jews. He wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier that "it is an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade. It has set civilization back a hundred years." Nevertheless, some will find his report to the Pittsburgh Courier troubling. "He [Hitler] showed Germany a way out when most Germans saw nothing but impenetrable mist." He went on to praise the accomplishments of the regime: "They have domestic peace after a generation of wars; they have a nation at work, after a nightmare of unemployment."

In the late '50s, Du Bois complained about being treated like a "nigger" in the United States. Perhaps the V.I.P. treatment accorded his celebrity caused him to ignore the unsavory aspects of the host countries he visited. After the Cold War began, Du Bois, who represented the United States at ceremonies and conferences, experienced persecution from the government he once served. He was pro-Soviet at a time when the United States began conducting a Cold War against its former ally, and he got mixed up in organizations that were considered Communist fronts. He eventually left the United States for exile in Ghana, but not before delivering a warning after joining the Communist Party: "Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction."

Lewis's The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois succeeds, not only because of its meticulous scholarship, but because, unlike the average American history book, it places African Americans at the center of important events of the 20th century and not outside them. This impressive work also reminds us that at one time in this country, opinion wasn't just a plaything, something that could be packaged as entertainment by showbiz "Public Intellectuals." Du Bois paid dearly for his defiance. Like Paul Robeson, he sacrificed wealth for his anticapitalist positions and would probably be outraged that his name and concepts are being merchandised by an alliance of Talented Tenthers and megacapitalists like Microsoft, AT&T, and Time Warner. And who knows? Du Bois may have the last word. As more evidence emerges that our brand of capitalism values profits over human life and is waging premeditated murder against the public and the planet, capitalism may one day find itself buried in a shallow grave next to its old enemy, Communism. Put there, not by a working class hopelessly divided by white racism, but by consumers.

from Village Voice (October-November 2000) Online Source

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