Book: W.E.B. Du Bois

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W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963

Author: David Levering Lewis
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company

The second volume of the Pulitzer Prize—winning biography that The Washington Post hailed as “an engrossing masterpiece”

Charismatic, singularly determined, and controversial, W.E.B. Du Bois was a historian, novelist, editor, sociologist, founder of the NAACP, advocate of women’s rights, and the premier architect of the Civil Rights movement. His hypnotic voice thunders out of David Levering Lewis’s monumental biography like a locomotive under full steam.

This second volume of what is already a classic work begins with the triumphal return from WWI of African American veterans to the shattering reality of racism and lynching even as America discovers the New Negro of literature and art. In stunning detail, Lewis chronicles the little-known political agenda behind the Harlem Renaissance and Du Bois’s relentless fight for equality and justice, including his steadfast refusal to allow whites to interpret the aspirations of black America. Seared by the rejection of terrified liberals and the black bourgeoisie during the Communist witch-hunts, Du Bois ended his days in uncompromising exile in newly independent Ghana. In re-creating the turbulent times in which he lived and fought, Lewis restores the inspiring and famed Du Bois to his central place in American history.


A pioneering sociologist, educator, essayist, activist, and political theorist, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of America’s great intellectuals. This second volume by David Levering Lewis picks up where his Pulitzer Prize-winning W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race left off, chronicling his life from 1919 until his death in Ghana in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington. “In the course of his long, turbulent career,” Lewis writes, “W.E.B. Du Bois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.”

Lewis’s lean and lyrical writing rescues Du Bois’s stuffy, Afro-Victorian speech from historical documents, breathing life into his letters, memos, and numerous articles, both published and unpublished. He takes us through Du Bois’s battles with the NAACP (which he cofounded); his ideological wars with “Back to Africa” nationalist Marcus Garvey; his many Pan-African conferences; and his tours of Africa, Japan, Russia, and China. He probes deeply into many of Du Bois’s books, including Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil and Black Reconstruction, adding marvelous new insights into the neglected novel Dark Princess. Lewis also details Du Bois’s relationships with friends and foes alike, including James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Alain Locke, as well as his triumphs, such as his acquittal in the infamous trial in which he was accused of being an “unregistered foreign agent,” and his defeats, notably his failure to publish his Encyclopedia Africana.

A foremost authority on this great man, Lewis summarizes Du Bois as having “an extraordinary mind of color in a racialized century … possessed of a principled impatience with what he saw as the egregious failings of American democracy that drove him, decade by decade, to the paradox of defending totalitarianism in the service of a global idea of economic and social justice.” A reading of this magnificent work is nothing less than a reading of modern black America. —Eugene Holley Jr.

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