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