Review | The World War I editorial that W.E.B. Du Bois regretted for years


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At the height of World War I, W.E.B. Du Bois published a controversial 1918 editorial, “Close Ranks,” in the NAACP publication the Crisis. In it, he counseled his readers to “forget our special grievances” with U.S. racial democracy and to throw their full weight behind the Allied war effort. The response was not positive. Readers were gobsmacked that Du Bois — the nation’s most distinguished Black scholar and public intellectual, as well as a pacifist — would direct them to join what many perceived as a “White man’s war” with no relevance to Black life.

Rather than use the war to leverage Black political interests, as some may have expected, Du Bois encouraged his readers to set aside their struggles in the name of patriotism and national unity.

Not without cause, observers wondered what the eminent author stood to gain from such a position (at the time, Du Bois was being considered for a captaincy in the U.S. military). Members of the Washington branch of the NAACP passed an unprecedented resolution denouncing the editorial. Disdainfully, Black labor activists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen compared “Close Ranks” to Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895, in which Washington urged Black people to refrain from agitating for equality and, instead, to work hard, pursue vocational training and contribute to the building of the Southern agrarian economy. (“Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities,” Washington exhorted.) Du Bois’s hard-won credibility and prominence stood in jeopardy.

He would spend the next two decades attempting, with mixed results, to account for this judgment and justify his war advocacy to his devoted readers — and to himself.

Du Bois reckoned with his judgment and the tumult enshrouding it chiefly through writing. In “The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War,” historian Chad L. Williams narrates the impact of the war on Du Bois and his anguished effort to write a definitive history of Black participation in the Great War. In some measure, Du Bois sought to vindicate his war advocacy by telling the epic story of Black soldiers in the war — how they maintained dignity, composure and resolve in the face of unrelenting American racism; how they introduced jazz music to Europe; how they earned the respect and gratitude of the French military; how they created profound meaning out of the absurdity of battle.

Yet for reasons that become clear in Williams’s prodigiously researched and compulsively readable account, Du Bois was never able to complete this project, and “The Black Man and the Wounded World” remains his most substantial unpublished manuscript.

Du Bois was celebrated for his notion of “double consciousness” as a defining feature of Black American identity; he described this “peculiar sensation” as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Du Bois viewed the war as an occasion to harmonize these dual and warring selves. If Black men (and he viewed the war as a test of, and opportunity for, Black manhood) proved their valor and acumen in Europe’s war theaters, then Whites would have no choice but to recognize the value and commitment of Black people to U.S. democracy and grant them full citizenship and respect.

That was his thinking, at least. In fact, the opposite ensued. Lynching escalated nationwide — in Chicago, East St. Louis, Houston and elsewhere. Segregation continued unabated. With their pride boosted, Black veterans became targets of vicious racists who were determined to put these soldiers back in their place.

Du Bois’s thinking about World War I, however, was far more complex than the “Close Ranks” article suggests. In the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois published an essay, “The African Roots of War,” in which he analyzed World War I as the fallout of inter-imperial rivalry. “In a very real sense,” Du Bois asserted, “Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see.” He zeroed in on the Berlin Conference of 1884, where European powers convened to partition the African continent and divide the spoils of plunder among themselves. European officials and captains of industry camouflaged naked theft and profiteering in the name of progress. “This new imperialism,” Williams writes, “underwrote the maturation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century global capitalism.” The result, Williams adds, summing up Du Bois’s words, “was the World War, a tangle of national jealousies and suspicions arising from the ‘spoils of trade-empire’ and the desire for expansion, ‘not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa.’” What, then, was the answer? For Du Bois, democracy was the answer — but democracy extended to “yellow, brown, and black peoples,” not only to Whites.

Compared with the United States, Du Bois saw glimmers of democratic possibility in France, despite that nation’s colonial history. On a trip to France immediately after the war, Du Bois met with Blaise Diagne, the Senegalese deputy to the French National Assembly, who revealed to Du Bois an explosive, confidential document composed by U.S. officials defaming Black men and instructing the French military to discriminate against them. Thunderstruck at this disclosure, Du Bois partnered with Diagne and parlayed his role as a foreign correspondent into facilitating the monumental Pan-African Congress of 1919 in Paris, which connected people of African descent in the global diaspora and enabled them to formulate an agenda for decolonization and national self-determination.

After this reinvigorating experience, Du Bois returned to the United States, where he wrote penetrating essays on world affairs. “From his editorial perch,” writes Williams, Du Bois used the Crisis “to assess the state of the world and Black America in the wake of the war: the formal signing of the peace treaty, colonial unrest in Egypt and India, continued labor strife, the push to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. The tumult of 1919 showed no signs of abating.” By connecting the battlefields of Europe with the crucibles of Jim Crow, Du Bois linked the war to imperialism and the global spread of racism. By that logic, the Armistice may have signaled the end of conflict in Europe, but the war was just beginning in America.

A key word in Williams’s study is “disillusionment.” For a conflict imagined as the War to End All Wars — one that introduced industrial slaughter to the world and halted the progressive spirit of modernity — profound disillusionment is understandable. Many commentators naively believed that the war would end in a few weeks. But for Black soldiers and colonial conscripts, disillusionment assumed a grotesque significance. Black officers, Du Bois later recalled, were “bitter and disillusioned at the seemingly bottomless depths of American color hatred.”

Disillusionment quickly evolved into militancy. Disgusted by his country’s betrayal, Du Bois tried to keep pace with the growing radicalism among Black America. “Brothers we are on the Great Deep,” he wrote in the Crisis. “Today we raise the terrible weapon of Self-Defense. When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with bricks and clubs and guns.” Previously, Du Bois shied away from advocating armed self-defense; after the war, no longer.

Not surprisingly for a book about World War I, the story told here is filled with the exploits of male figures and infused with a palpable masculine energy. Like most of his contemporaries, Du Bois made little effort to incorporate the unheralded contributions of Black women into his drama of world war. But what stands out to me is an episode involving Du Bois’s teenage daughter, Yolande, who during the war was a student at the Bedales boarding school in England. An ocean away, she missed her father. “I haven’t had a letter from you for years,” Yolande wrote in June 1915. “Do you think America will join in the war, don’t you think she ought to?” she asked. “I do.”

According to Williams, Du Bois did not offer his daughter an answer. “He instead reminded Yolande to stay focused on the ‘interesting worlds’ buried within her books.” But unlike her father, Yolande had an up-close experience of the war and was living it as a resident in battle-scarred England. Her experience was highly unique. I wondered: Instead of paternalistically enjoining Yolande to remain focused on her studies, what if Du Bois had engaged his teenage daughter as a young intellectual?

Such episodes as recounted in “The Wounded World” reveal Du Bois as prone to ordinary human shortcomings — lapses in judgment, indulgence in petty rivalries, promises reneged on — but also as unwavering in his commitment to Black liberation and democracy.

Regarding his unfinished manuscript, Williams writes, “He chose to be less than honest with potential publishers, would-be supporters, and, most disheartening, many of the Black veterans who entrusted him with their personal artifacts and historical memories.” Many Black Americans longed for the published book that never materialized.

As Williams illustrates, numerous obstacles blocked the completion of Du Bois’s book. The NAACP wavered in its support and finally abandoned the project. White philanthropic institutions offered grants over the years but never supplied adequate financial backing. Balking at the study’s pro-Black orientation, publishers predictably questioned Du Bois’s objectivity or doubted the massive book’s market value. Eventually, other book projects, such as his beguiling novel “Dark Princess” (1928) and his landmark study “Black Reconstruction” (1935), consumed Du Bois’s attention.

Yet ultimately the greatest barrier to completion of “The Black Man and the Wounded World” was Du Bois himself. Haunted by his “Close Ranks” article, he never quite reconciled his belief that Black participation in the war would result in full citizenship with the realization that history had proved him wrong. “Who was I to talk of forgetting grievances,” he asked in later years, “when my life had been given to protest against them?” Back in 1918, he offered Black America misguided counsel, and Du Bois never figured out how to incorporate that devastating truth into his study.

The lessons he bequeathed, however, remain as relevant as ever. If one takes a long view of history, was Du Bois wrong to advocate for Black participation in the war? Did he allow his personal ambitions to cloud his judgment? Williams wisely refrains from answering these questions or judging his subject, instead allowing Du Bois’s biography to unfold in all its messy, captivating, inspiring complexity. Specialists and general readers alike will profit from Williams’s sensitive reconstruction of the most challenging period, ethically and politically, of Du Bois’s long life.

Along with his second wife, Shirley Graham, Du Bois expatriated to Ghana in his final years, where he joined an ensemble of Pan-Africanists dedicated to President Kwame Nkrumah’s extraordinary experiment in postcolonial nation-building. In Ghana, he dreamed of completing another long-standing project, the “Encyclopedia Africana,” but was denied the chance when, in 1963, the 95-year-old scholar-activist passed away in his sleep. He was buried and celebrated in Accra in an official state funeral. Poignantly, in a statement he composed for his memorial, Du Bois expressed his wish for future generations to take up his unfinished work. His tone is humble; his hope simple but sadly elusive. “Peace,” he wrote, “will be my applause.”

Vaughn Rasberry is associate vice provost for graduate education and an associate professor of English at Stanford University, where he teaches African American and African diaspora literature. He is the author of “Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination.”

W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 530 pp. $30

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