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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

W.E.B. Du Bois

A Biography 1868-1963

David Levering Lewis

Henry Holt and Co.



Postlude to The Future

The announcement of W.E.B. Du Bois's death came just after Odetta finished singing, a mighty trumpet of a voice that had accompanied the nonviolent civil rights movement from early days. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), broke the news in his precise midwestern voice that always reminded you of a proper Protestant pastor or one of the older men behind the counter at Brooks Brothers. From late morning into mid-afternoon, the scalding sun and suffocating clamminess had exacted their toll from more than 250,000 men, women, and young people who crowded the length of the Reflecting Pool of the nation's capital in extraordinary response to the charge of Asa Philip Randolph, grand old man of civil rights and the moving force behind the March on Washington. Tall, white-maned, and as ebony as an African chief's walking stick, Randolph had summoned Americans to Washington that twenty-eighth day of August, 1963, in all their professional, social, and ethnic variety to act, as he said in his cathedral baritone, as "the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom."1

Before Wilkins's brief, epochal announcement, speaker after speaker had stepped up to the altar of microphones to music and song by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Marian Anderson; and Mahalia Jackson. As the sun blazed down, the marchers witnessed a who's who of America's civil rights, religious, and labor leadership. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches, with a speech too dry for this evangelical occasion, was followed by young John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose speech in its original draft, threatening to lay waste to the white South, had brought down upon his militant head the collective wrath of the civil rights elders and Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle of the Washington archdiocese. Lewis finally agreed to soften his words, but not by much, and the crowd cheered when he intoned, "Listen, Mr. Kennedy, listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizens—the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a ‘cooling-off' period." The United Automobile Workers' ebullient Walter Reuther almost matched Lewis's cautionary rhetoric, telling a nation on guard against Soviet imperialism that it could not "defend freedom in Berlin, so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham." Then came Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to read James Farmer's powerful speech. Had Farmer not insisted on staying in jail in Plaquemine, Louisiana, his baritone delivery would surely have made eyes water and pulses rise even more than the intense McKissick succeeded in doing. Whitney Young Jr., the handsome, gregarious new head of the National Urban League (NUL), was more at home in the boardrooms of corporate donors than in trying to stir crowds, and his too rapidly read message showed it.2 When Matthew Ahmann of the National Conference for Interracial Justice (NCIJ) used up his ten minutes in moral generalities, the thermometer stood at eighty-two humid degrees and attention spans evaporated.

Now Roy Wilkins was at the microphone, to be followed by Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress. But instead of beginning his prepared address straightaway, Wilkins opened by saying that he was the bearer of news of solemn and great significance. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was dead. He had died in his sleep around midnight, on the twenty-seventh, in Ghana, the country of his adopted citizenship. "Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path," Wilkins told the suddenly still crowd, "it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause." The NAACP head asked for silence, and a moment almost cinematic in its poignancy passed over the marchers. Saddened, though unsurprised by Wilkins's announcement, Rachel Davis DuBois ("the mother of intercultural education") wondered aloud at that moment if Du Bois's spirit, "now free from his body, in some mysterious way might have hovered in our midst." Unrelated by ties of blood or marriage to the legendary old icon, she had known and loved him deeply much of her life. Jim Aronson, another white Du Bois stalwart, would write in the Socialist weekly, the Guardian, of an aged, black woman in the crowd weeping, " ‘It's like Moses. God had written that he should never enter the promised land.' "3 Aronson left unsaid what all who had known him at the end understood, that Du Bois had finally concluded that this weeping woman's promised land was a cruel, receding mirage for people of color. And so he had chosen to live out his last days in West Africa.

Legendary Dr. Du Bois (for few had ever dared a more familiar direct address) appeared to have timed his exit for maximum symbolic effect. Someone told the actor Sidney Poitier and the writers James Baldwin and John Killens the news while they were standing with several others in the lobby of Washington's Willard Hotel early that morning. " ‘The Old Man died.' Just that. And not one of us asked, ‘What old man?' " Killens recalled.4 In a real sense, Du Bois was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, as the paramount custodian of the intellect that so many impoverished, deprived, intimidated, and desperately striving African-Americans had either never developed or found it imperative to conceal. His chosen weapons were grand ideas propelled by uncompromising language. Lesser mortals of the race—heads of civil rights organizations, presidents of colleges, noted ministers of the Gospel—conciliated, tergiversated, and brought back from white bargaining tables half loaves for their people. Never Du Bois. Not for him the tea and sympathy of interracial conferences or backdoor supplications, hat in hand and smile fixed, in patient anticipation of greater understanding or guilt-ridden, one-time-only concessions. From an Olympus of scholarship and opinion, he waved his pen and, as he wrote later, attempted "to explain, expound and exhort; to see, foresee and prophesy, to the few who could or would listen." Many, many listened, and one who did, Percival Prattis, the aggressive editor of the influential Pittsburgh Courier, wrote proudly at the time of the Old Man's McCarthy-era trial as a foreign agent, "They could not look at him and call me inferior."5

Born in Massachusetts in the year of Andrew Johnson's impeachment and dead ninety-five years later in the year of Lyndon Johnson's installation, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois cut an amazing swath through four continents (he was a Lenin Peace Prize laureate and his birthday was once a national holiday in China), writing sixteen pioneering or provocative books of sociology, history, politics, and race relations. In his eighties, he found time to finish a second autobiography and produce three large historical novels, complementing the two large works of fiction written in the first two de cades of the twentieth century. The first African-American to earn a Harvard doctorate, he claimed later that it was a consolation for having been denied the few additional months needed to take a coveted doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin. The premier architect of the civil rights movement in the United States, he was among the first to grasp the international implications of the struggle for racial justice, memorably proclaiming, at the dawn of the century, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line.

Du Bois was one of the founders of the NAACP and fearless editor of its monthly magazine, the Crisis, from whose thousands of heated pages scholarship, racial propaganda, visionary pronouncements, and majestic indignation thundered and flashed across America for a quarter of a century. In its peak year, the magazine reached one hundred thousand devoted subscribers. Professor, editor, propagandist, he was also once a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and, at least until the last decade of his Promethean life, civil rights role model to an entire race. In its transcendence of place, time, and, ultimately, even of race, his fabulous life encompassed large and lasting meanings. Always controversial, he had espoused racial and political beliefs of such variety and seeming contradiction as to bewilder and alienate often as many of his countrymen and women, black and white, as he inspired and converted. Nearing the end, Du Bois himself conceded mischievously that he would have been hailed with approval if he had died at fifty. "At seventy-five my death was practically requested."6

Wilkins was into his speech now, mincing no words about the "sugar water" of civil rights proposals of the Kennedy administration. As the ovation for the NAACP secretary died down, Mahalia Jackson electrified the great crowd with "I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned." A few minutes later, at 3:40 p.m. on that catalytic August day, Martin Luther King Jr., the new shepherd of the 'buked and scorned, soared into one of the noblest speeches in the history of the American republic. Meanwhile, in Accra, Ghana, preparations for the elaborate state funeral were already well along that Wednesday, before the network-television eyes for the planet turned away from the March on Washington at 4:30 p.m. Osagyefo president Kwame Nkrumah of the Republic of Ghana had commanded that the farewell for his friend and teacher, the Father of Pan-Africa, be movingly splendid. The Osagyefo was the second African to take command of a state south of the Sahara (even seasoned Africa watchers routinely forgot that the leader of the Sudan had assumed his duties in January 1956, more than a year before Nkrumah); his title was a self-created one derived from the Akan language, and roughly meaning "Redeemer." With three hundred million pounds sterling in its treasury and the most educated population in the sub-Sahara, Ghana's ruler advertised his republic of seven million as the lodestar of black Africa, the beacon for independence and unity throughout the continent. The state funeral for W.E.B. Du Bois on Thursday afternoon, August 29, 1963, was meant to celebrate and symbolize Ghana's claim to Pan-African leadership.

The body lay in state in the spacious white bungalow at 22 First Circular Road. It was a long barge of a house, a gift of the Ghana government, moored gently in Shirley Graham Du Bois's flourishing garden. This was the second Mrs. Du Bois, musicologist, novelist, playwright, former American Communist Party (CPUSA) activist, now, by her own admission, in her fifty-seventh year of tempestuous willpower and talented improvisation. A handsome African-American woman of fair complexion and features strongly imprinted by Native American ancestry, her take-charge personality, piercing eyes, and prominent nose made her seem even handsomer and taller than her five feet two inches.7 From 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. on the twenty-ninth, Shirley Graham Du Bois had received those coming to pay final respects. Efua Sutherland, a tall, cocoa-brown woman of great beauty, arrived to console and stayed to help with the last-minute oversights of African occasions. She was the director of the Ghana Drama Society and had brought William Branch, a young black American actor and freelance journalist, with her. Branch's coverage of the funeral in Harlem's Amsterdam News would be a trove of detail. A broad spectrum of the diplomatic corps (but no one from the embassy of the United States), officials of Ghana government, representatives from state-supported academic and cultural organizations, and many people from the large resident African-American community came to offer condolences, to express what the widow's husband had meant to the world, to Ghana, or simply to themselves, and to gaze silently for a few seconds upon the remains in the bronze casket. Du Bois lay deep in his burnished vessel, bronzed flesh encased in bronzed metal, cravated and light-suited, his features even more refined in death, the finely spheroidal cranium and trimmed Wilhelmine mustache and goatee completing the effect of assured apotheosis.8

The script for the last rites called for a triple ceremony of leave-taking: first, in the bungalow, largely among close family friends and a few persons of position in government, diplomacy, and the burgeoning cultural community of the capital; a second, public and photographed, on the grounds of the compound beneath a thatched, stone-pillared gazebo that had been completed too late for the deceased to enjoy in the evenings; and a final march and symbolic fanfare among thousands by the ocean. Shortly after two, a general's signal sent a detachment of infantry in full dress to enter the rear of the bungalow. Shirley Graham Du Bois stood silently, comforted by Efua Sutherland and others, as the soldiers entered in lockstep, closed the lid of the coffin, and removed it to the red-carpeted gazebo. A traditional libation was poured on the ground. The coffin, resting on a silver catafalque, was reopened. Four soldiers in crimson jackets, heads bowed, rifles reversed, stood beside each pillar. Above the body lying in serene repose, a Chinese lantern glowed and, occasionally, swayed slightly.9

By then, the grounds of the bungalow were packed with the grieving and the curious. Men, women, and children of all classes—market women, cabinet ministers, and Europeans—reverently filed past the bier. The easy fellowship of the day was underscored by a pennanted Rolls-Royce gliding up to disgorge Prime Minister Hastings Banda of Nyasaland, an energetic little man who self-importantly acknowledged greetings as he bounded through the crowd into the gazebo. President Nkrumah was convinced that such freewheeling contact with his own people was too dangerous. A bomb in a potted plant in a far-north place called Kulungugu had nearly killed him the year before. Shortly before 3:00 p.m., therefore, the commissioner of police ordered the compound cleared. Fellowship gave way to maximum-security autocracy in a wail of sirens and backfiring motorcycles as a behemoth Russian Chaika limousine arrived. (There were only three of these machines in the country—Nkrumah's, the Du Boises', and the Soviet ambassador's, whose country's gift they were.) The leader of Ghana, a trim, slight man with a polished forehead, descended briskly, wearing his customary frown of deep concentration. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored, black version of the Nehru jacket, now his signature on state occasions.

As Nkrumah strode down the red carpet to the gazebo, Mrs. Graham Du Bois, in black dress and veiled hat, descended the steps of the bungalow to greet him. She leaned slightly upon the chief of state's left arm as they approached the casket together. Nkrumah stood head bowed for three minutes. Then, solemnly, he placed his right hand upon Du Bois and allowed something of the moment's deep emotion to play across his face. Shirley Graham Du Bois followed, repeating the gesture, her tender expression of the moment before giving way to one of ineffable grief. The stillness was broken by what the Evening News described as the chanting of a "state linguist" (the witch doctor of mocking Europeans) pouring a traditional libation upon the ground and asking God in Akan "to lead Africa's son into the next world." The newspapers tell us that "at that precise moment," rain fell in sheets, an unmistakable sign to Ghanaians that the gods had granted Du Bois citizenship in their world. Nkrumah briskly returned to his limousine, under an attendant's umbrella. As he drove away, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had come.10

Precisely on the hour, the chief of the defense staff of the Ghanaian army and the commissioner of police presented themselves to Mrs. Graham Du Bois. Army pallbearers began sealing the coffin, lacing the red, gold, and green colors of Ghana around it, then hoisted it atop a howitzer gun carriage drawn by a black Land Rover. On the one-mile drive to the staging area at the old printing office, Shirley sat deep in the rear plush of the Chaika that had given her husband so many hours of plea sure and contemplation. Following several cars back with Efua Sutherland, William Branch wondered to himself how his own country's officials could behave so pettily, as the cortege passed the American embassy and he caught sight of its staring personnel and the Stars and Stripes at full staff in front.11 Within a few minutes, they reached the Old Government Printing Office, where the funeral parade would assemble.

Thus it was that a few minutes after 3:00 p.m., in keeping with the punctuality always insisted upon by Nkrumah, the bronze casket began the final leg of its ceremonious journey. To Nkrumah—who approved as the American title of his life story, Ghana: The Autobiography—a sense of history and of occasion were second nature. "Arrangements for the Burial of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois" were intended to advertise abroad and to enhance at home, with solemnity and pageantry, the reality of an African nationhood still being consolidated.12 "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" filled the heated air as the trombones and tubas of the Central Army Band followed behind the Chaika and the slow-moving caisson. Next came two double columns of elite infantry in gold-braided tunics of crimson—rifle stocks reversed and cradled in underarm position—executing the distinctive, ceremonial glide, the famous Slow March, learned from British drillmasters. The three-thirty sun spangled off medals won during the Ghana army's participation in the United Nations peacekeeping action in the former Belgian Congo. The shh-wutt-shh-wutt of the Slow March and the mournful notes of the band funneled through the great arch at Black Star Square, where several thousand hushed onlookers watched from bleachers under skies now blown blue and clear of clouds.

Osu Castle, old Christiansborg, sits on a spit of land less than fifty yards from the Atlantic, one of the half dozen stone holding-pens built along the coast by Portuguese, Danish, and Dutch slave traders. For the Europeans, the gold of the old Gold Coast had become, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, not mineral but animal. Few sacks of gold dust were ever stored in Portugal's infamous Elmina Castle ("the Mine") one hundred miles west southwest of Accra. Instead, a ghastly collaboration had come to pass as the smart, corner-cutting Fanti people of the coast leapt at the opportunity to enter into the European spiderweb market of rum, cloth, trinkets, firearms, and chattels gradually interlacing four continents. For four hundred years, African slave magnates fed several million black men, women, and children to Elmina, Christiansborg, and the other grim, dank coastal entrepots from Senegal to Angola that supplied the rapacious Atlantic slave trade. Of the between ten and fifteen million people estimated to have been shipped out of Africa between 1450 and 1860, millions of them came from the Gold Coast.13 But all this was now understood to be part of a history best left to historians. For the people of postcolonial Ghana, Osu Castle symbolized, in its reincarnation as the residence of their head of state, the re-assertion of sovereignty and the resolve to become players on the modern world stage.

So, with fitting ceremony, the people of Ghana took their Pan-African Moses down to the sea, to entomb him just outside the white walls of looming Osu Castle. The Ghanaian Times would wax conventionally metaphoric the following morning about "that enigma of a fighter, that phenomenon of a sage, sleep[ing] the long sleep in a spot that symbolizes his true return to the home of his ancestors."14 Yet his burial in the soil of Ghana meant much more than that, as Nkrumah certainly knew and intended his people to appreciate over time. It implied mitigation of African peoples from collusion in slavery—not through alibi or justification but through a recognition that, in selling Du Bois's ancestors into bondage, the Africans who had profited were, in reality, no more free than those who ended on auction blocks. The message of Karl Marx delivered by Du Bois to all Africans, as to the rest of the less developed world, was that the market economy perfected in northern Eu rope always made the weak weaker—and most of the strong weaker.

Du Bois had shaped and launched upon the rising tide of twentieth-century nationalisms the idea of the solidarity of the world's darker peoples, of the glories in the forgotten African past, of the vanguard role destined to be played by Africans of the diaspora in the destruction of European imperialism, and, finally, as he grew older but more radical, of the inevitable emergence of a united and Socialist Africa. Master of seductive syntheses of scholarship and prophecy, only Du Bois would have serenely foretold, but a few months into the din of the guns of August 1914, that "a belief in humanity means a belief in colored men" and that the "future world will, in all reasonable probability, be what colored men make it." In what were virtually his last words of warning, he had written that a "body of local private capitalists, even if they are black, can never free Africa; they will simply sell it into new slavery to old masters overseas."15 Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, then, meant enormously more than the ethnic romanticism of roots traced and celebrated. It signified militant, anticapitalist solidarity of the darker world.

Standing before the starkly white walls of Osu Castle, Ghanaian ambassador plenipotentiary Michael Dei Anang read Du Bois's "Last Message to the World," composed six years earlier in the deceased's Brooklyn home. As he read, eight bareheaded officers threaded ropes underneath the gleaming casket in preparation for its final descent. Speaking through Ambassador Dei Anang's clipped British accent, the old sage told the world that he had "loved people and my play, but always I have been uplifted by the thought that what I have done will live long and justify my life; that what I have done ill or never finished can now be handed on to others for endless days to be finished, perhaps better than I could have done."16 Among the honorary pallbearers was an unusually tall, gaunt, and handsome African-American whose priestly bearing and ideological fervor had earned him the rare honor of intimate collaborator and de facto editor of the Great Man's last large undertaking, the Encyclopedia Africana, funded by Nkrumah's government through the Ghana Academy of Sciences. Alphaeus Hunton, once professor of literature at Howard University, intended to devote the remainder of his life to the monumental task whose creator was being lowered into the ground to the bugled notes of the Last Post.

Nkrumah's farewell message was read over Ghana Broadcasting that night a few hours after Martin Luther King described his incandescent dream in another time zone. The Osagyefo must have been deeply moved when writing his speech. It was plain yet vibrant, and as the Ghana Broadcasting announcer read of shared experiences and plans, something of Nkrumah's sense of personal loss entered his own voice. It recalled the time in 1945 when Nkrumah and George Padmore, the brilliant Trinidadian journalist who had been Nkrumah's intellectual sibling until his death in Ghana three years before, had organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, En gland, with Du Bois's blessings and mediating presence as chairperson. "I knew him in the United States and even spoke on the same platform with him," Nkrumah boasted of his days as a university student in America. (Du Bois had had to be rather carefully reminded of the occasion years later.) The man Padmore called the greatest scholar the Negro race had produced became a "real friend and father to me," Nkrumah continued. He had asked Dr. Du Bois to "come to Ghana to pass the evening of his life with us." The president's radio apostrophe ended after a few more phrases with a perfect summation: "Dr. Du Bois is a phenomenon. May he rest in peace."17

During the next few days, the newspapers would tally the impressive cable traffic—from J. D. Bernal of the World Peace Council, Gus Hall of the American Communist Party, Chief Awolowo of Nigeria, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Mohammed Ben Bella of Algeria, Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Walter Ulbricht of the German Democratic Republic wished that "the memory of Dr. Du Bois—an outstanding fighter for the liberation and prosperity of Africans—continue to live in our hearts." The cables from Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai were appropriately lengthy and less formulaic than most of the others, reflecting the political and personal camaraderie that had been so much advertised during the Du Boises' two sojourns in China. Chou En-lai's farewell remarkably summed up the course and meaning of his friend's near hundred-year odyssey as "one devoted to struggles and truth-seeking for which he finally took the road of thorough revolution. His unbending will and his spirit of uninterrupted revolution are examples for all oppressed peoples." The day after the state funeral, the Ghanaian Times carried a moving front-page editorial under the Akan headline, "NANTSEW YIE!" (Farewell!). The following day, the rains came again, heavily and steadily.18

Excerpted from W.E.B. Du Bois by David Levering Lewis.
Copyright 2009 by David Levering Lewis.
Published in First Edition 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.