U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s Left to Say About W.E.B. Du Bois?

August 27 was the 51st anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest intellectuals the United States has ever produced. Reflecting on the life, death, and legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois allows us a chance to consider the enormous corpus of scholarship he left behind. However, more than that I’d like to consider a question of immense importance to historians and other scholars of American intellectual history: just what else is there to say about W.E.B. Du Bois? After several generations spent writing, debating, and researching Du Bois’ life and career, what stone or stones are left unturned in regards to scholarship on the man?

I’ve joked with my colleagues at the University of South Carolina that I’ll find some way in every graduate seminar I’m in to mention Du Bois. Yet, it’s no exaggeration to say that he wrote some type of commentary on almost every subject imaginable in American history. Even that statement is an understatement of Du Bois’ own interests, as he also wrote extensively on Africa, Europe, and Asia during his long career. He was involved in debates about civil rights and human rights, citizenship at home and human freedom abroad. Since his death in 1963 (a day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech) scholars all across the humanities have wrestled with his commentary on a variety of subjects.

Recent scholarship on Du Bois has attempted to look at his career and his many WEB_Du_Boiswritings through new lenses. I’ll offer a few examples here, but there’s much, much more to choose from. For example, Stephanie Shaw’s W.E.B Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk is yet another look at the book he’s most known for. Shaw’s book re-examines all of Souls and includes sections on the influence of Hegel on Du Bois’ book. The point here is that Shaw found a way to dig deeper into Souls of Black Folk, a book about which much has been written. In addition, Souls is without question the Du Bois work most assigned in high school and college courses. Shaw demonstrated in her book that the slim volume of essays by Du Bois still has much to say about the world we live in today.

Robert Gooding-Williams In the Shadow of Du Bois offers plenty of reasoned, well-considered commentary on the impact of Du Bois on African American intellectuals. Gooding-Williams refers to Souls as a book among “most great works of political philosophy” and is part of what he refers to as “Afro-modern” political philosophy.[1] This Afro-modern concept stretches from the 18th century to the present and includes a wide variety of writers, from Olaudah Equiano to Walter Rodney, from Martin Delany to Frantz Fanon. In particular, what distinguishes it from other political philosophies is an overriding concern with white supremacy and the development of black consciousness. It’s no surprise, then, that Du Bois casts such a large shadow over this political and intellectual tradition.

Du Bois in an international context has also picked up more interest among scholars in recent years. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Lines of Descent which focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ time as a graduate student at the University of Berlin argues for considering Du Bois’ later writings on identity as formed when he was a student in Wilhelmine Germany. The impact of Germany on Du Bois isn’t a new topic, but it’s indicative of further trends in Du Bois scholarship that emphasize the international dimensions of his thought and activism. The international dimensions of Du Bois’ work are also examined in Eric Porter’s The Problem of the Future World. This book also offers something else that points to another element of Du Bois scholarship that offers some promise: his post-World War II career.

For Porter, the period from 1940 until 1952 constitutes Du Bois’ was an intriguing one for study. He argues that there’s a “scholarly deficit” in understanding Du Bois’ work before he became increasingly attuned to Communism in the mid and late 1950s. This period, Porter wrote, was important because “Du Bois’s thinking was clearer and more rigorous during this period than at the very end of his life.”[2] Porter’s research also reminds readers of Du Bois’ emphasis on fighting colonialism and continuing the Pan-African tradition in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I can’t emphasize this enough: to understand Du Bois, one must remember that his fight for self-determination recognized no political boundaries. It was a fight against racism and economic exploitation around the world.

To consider Du Bois and the potential directions we can go in with scholarship on him is to also recognize the untapped avenues of discourse left in American and African American intellectual history. I was inspired to write this post not only by Du Bois’ death but by reading the excellent work being done over at the African American Intellectual History Society on an almost daily basis. They’ve shown the many directions that can be taken within African American intellectual history. Here at S-USIH we’ve made it a tradition to consider so many facets of American intellectual history (not that the two fields should be separated—I’d like to think my own work on this blog, among others, shows why they’re inseparable). Considering potential directions for scholarship on Du Bois is a wonderful way to consider what else can be said about intellectual history, American history, and transnational frameworks.

[1] Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, pgs. 1-2.

[2] Eric Porter, The Problem of the Future World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Midcentury. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010, pg. 3.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, and thanks for mentioning Gooding-Williams’ book, I hadn’t come across it. This is probably no surprise to you but I’m working on Du Bois’s humanism and place in the black freethought movement. This will be both a chapter in my book and one in a collection that Phillip Luke Sinitiere is editing to explore Du Bois’s thought post-1930.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. And work on Du Bois and the black freethought movement is definitely needed–can’t wait to read it!

  3. And I hadn’t heard of Appiah’s new book, and am glad to do so.

    I’m curious if you know of any excellent recent work connecting Du Bois’ narrative fiction to his historiography. I’ve always thought this would be a worthwhile thing to pursue.

    • You know, I’m currently digging to see if there’s anything. I can tell you that I’ve encountered two individuals on Twitter, thanks to this post, who are at two different universities but both working on Du Bois and his novels. I hope they’ll post here today because they both offer plenty of insight into this particular field.

  4. Great post, Robert. I hope you plan to post on this topic more in the future. It is timely, and extremely interesting.

    As you suggest, there is a substantial amount of work on WEBD yet to be done, both in terms of his earlier career around the turn of the 20th century as well as his twilight years post-1935, post-Black Reconstruction. While I’m doing a bit to add something to the WEBD’s late career period, I’d point to two projects (of many). Yuichiro Onishi’s Transpacific Antiracism: Afro-Asian Solidarity in 20th century Black America, Japan, and Okinawa (NYU Press, 2013), has a chapter that looks at what Onishi calls WEBD’s Afro-Asian philosophy, helping to connect the dots in WEBD’s global analysis of the color line. Turning to the earlier years, Nahum Dimitri Chandler’s forthcoming The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays, to be published with Fordham UP next month, promises to advance WEBD studies with new unpublished work. Chandler has a track record of bringing to light unpublished WEBD writings (see, for example, his essays in New Centennial Review), so I’m very much looking forward to this volume.

    Now that WEBD’s papers at UMass are fully digitized and searchable, I would expect some new work to commence as we now can make connections between documents and ideas that would otherwise have taken years to piece together. For instance, in my own work on WEBD and Prairie View A & M, through combing the digital archive I discovered not only that he visited campus regularly during the 1930s and 40s, but that he exchanged hundreds of letters with PV’s president W.R. Banks and his spouse Glovina Banks. They were both WEBD’s students at Atlanta in the early 20th century, and they retained a correspondence well into the early 1960s. Among other topics, WEBD’s PV visits tie into his educational thought and economic philosophy, for example.

    As Chris suggests, religion (very broadly defined) remains an important area of exploration in WEBD’s thought. The work of Ed Blum and others changed the conversation on these points, and it has only just started. And having done some work on WEBD and The Crisis magazine, I think there’s tons more to do on the history of The Crisis, as well as WEBD’s work as a journalist more generally especially his post-Crisis writings in venues such as Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, National Guardian, etc.

    Finally, as Robert’s post suggests, now that we are over a half-century after WEBD’s death, we must continue to contend with his intellectual and political legacy. WEBD’s late career membership with the CPUSA remains controversial, especially in light of the minimal work done on his closing decades (as compared to his early years). It seems that an anticommunist residue hovers into the present. Other interesting topics include WEBD’s work and its role in the origins of the black studies movement, or even black power. Much to say and discuss, thanks for your great question Robert!

    • This is a wonderful response, thanks very much! The Transpacific Racism book’s very important–Du Bois’ views on Japan and Asia in general are often only mentioned in passing, but that book puts them front and center. Your work on Du Bois and Prairie View A&M sounds promising and much needed. We can’t forget his links to HBCUs around the country!

      And his legacy in regards to his late Communist life is fascinating. Porter’s book tries to get at the early part of that phase of Du Bois’ career. It’s worth noting that MLK gave a speech on what would have been Du Bois’ 100th birthday in 1968–in which he attempts to rescue Du Bois from the red-baiting that his legacy suffered from. Here’s the speech in full: http://links.org.au/node/3674

      • Thanks for posting a link to MLK’s speech. As you know, it is such an important address, not just in light of King’s latter days, but crucial to understanding WEBD’s legacy. Thanks!

  5. The brilliant Chris McAuley, one of my committee members, who teaches in Black Studies at UCSB, is finishing up an extraordinary comparative study of DuBois and Max Weber. I am very looking forward to that!

    • Tell him I’ll get that book the moment it comes out! I’d love to read that. I gave a presentation on Weber and Habermas in a theory course last year and mentioned Weber’s praise of “Souls of Black Folk.”

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