The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the History of WWI | Chad L. Williams || Radcliffe Institute


[MUSIC PLAYING] – Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for being here. Thank you, Judy, the master
of the art of introductions. You make us all sound so
good and accomplished. It’s quite remarkable. Also quickly would like to
thank Dean Lizabeth Cohen– I think Liz is there– for your leadership of
the Radcliffe Institute. The entire fellowship
program staff, especially Rebecca Haley– thank you, Rebecca, for all
your administrative brilliance. And all the other
incredible people top to bottom who collectively
make the Radcliffe such a special place. All the fellows–
see you in the crowd here– thank you for your
collegiality, brilliance, and intellectual curiosity. You’re all doing
incredibly amazing work, even though I wish someone was
working on a project on time suspension, because
the time is really going by way too quickly. But in the time that
we have this afternoon, I would like to tell a story. It’s a story about
war and the challenges of being African-American. It’s a story about
race and democracy, about history and memory. It’s a story about hope
and disillusionment, about optimism and tragedy. It’s a story that spans
almost two decades, from one World War to
the next, and features as its central character
arguably the most significant black intellectual
in American history. But it may be helpful
first to take you back to a moment in October
of the year 2000. A young graduate
student just embarking on research for a dissertation
on African-American soldiers in World War I is
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The papers of WEB Du Bois
are housed in the library’s special collections department. This graduate student had
very responsibly in advance gone through the finding
aid and saw a reference to Du Bois World
War I materials. He was intrigued. He goes to the library. He asks the archivist
to see this collection. He’s expecting a few folders,
maybe even a whole box if he’s lucky. Instead, the archivist returns
with six microfilm reels. Hmm. Now what could this possibly be? He loads the first reel– for those of us
old enough to know what microfilm reels actually
are; I’m dating myself, I’m not that young, sorry– loads the reel and turns the
machine, and slowly forwards the film to the first frame. And this is what he sees. Now if you haven’t
figured it out yet, the young graduate
student is me. And what I was looking
at was the table of contents of an
unpublished manuscript by WEB Du Bois on the black
experience in World War I. This was followed by
the actual manuscript– as I kept reeling, followed
by the actual manuscript, along with all of Du
Bois’ research materials and correspondence
related to the project. Needless to say, I was shocked,
thrilled, and overwhelmed. As I began to immerse
myself in this archive and learn more about it,
I realized that it was not completely unknown. Some Du Bois scholars had
mentioned it in their works, with a few– most notably,
historians Jennifer Keene and David Levering Lewis– actually exploring
its significance. But most people when I
tell them of Du Bois’ unpublished manuscript
are surprised as I was that day
in October of 2000. Why this is the
case, given all that has been written about Du Bois,
would be a fascinating story to tell. So, Judy, I might need
another year at the Radcliffe. You’re going to have to
hook me up, for real. Also, as you can
probably imagine from just looking at the table
of contents, the manuscript itself is truly fascinating. Piecing the manuscript
together and analyzing it would make for another
fascinating project. So, two years, Judy? Huh? You wish, all right. But I’m also fascinated with
the story behind this book. What happened? Why did Du Bois write it? What was it about? Why did he spend so
much time working on it? Why did it remain
incomplete and unpublished? Why is it important? So as best I can in the
next 40 minutes or so, let me tell you the story
of The Wounded World– WEB Du Bois, African-Americans,
and the History of World War I. “From the branches of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People to WE Burghardt Du Bois, writer, scholar, seer,
on his fiftieth birthday, February 23, 1918. Given in affectionate
appreciation of his great gifts,
and gratitude for the consecration
of these gifts to the service of his race.” So read the inscription on the
silver cup presented to Du Bois at a New York civic
club gala celebrating his half century of life. Born on February 23, 1868 in
Great Barrington, Massachusetts to Mary Silvina, Du Bois
in his mind and heart was truly destined to serve
his race a young prodigy, throughout grade
school he attended and graduated from Fisk
University in Tennessee before moving back to
Massachusetts, where he earned a second undergraduate degree
from some school called Harvard University. He stayed at Harvard to
pursue a doctorate in history, briefly interrupted by a
two-year transformative stint at the University of Berlin. And there’s Du Bois right
there, second top realm. Returned back to Harvard, where
he completed his dissertation in 1895 titled The Suppression
of African Slave Trade in America, becoming the
first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. From Harvard. He would quickly
establish himself as black America’s foremost
scholar and interrogator of the race problem. In 1903, he published
what is widely considered the
most important book in the history of
African-American letters, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois also helped
lay the groundwork for what we now
commonly recognize as the modern civil
rights movement. In 1905, he founded
the Niagara Movement to challenge the accommodations
program of Booker T. Washington, and in 1909
helped co-found the NAACP, where he served as editor
of its magazine, The Crisis. On the eve of the
World War, in terms of intellect and influence
Du Bois had few rivals. Du Bois closely
followed the World War from the opening guns of August. “Yet in a very real sense
Africa is a prime cause of this terrible
overturning of civilization which we have lived
to see,” he wrote in his landmark 1915
Atlantic Monthly article, The African Roots of War. He pinpointed the origins of
the conflict in the competition amongst the European
belligerence for imperial control of
Africa and its people. France, England, and
Belgium all certainly had blood on their hands. But thirsty for
global domination, Germany, in Du Bois’
opinion, posed a grave threat to the world’s darker races. The Allies had to win. So when the United
States entered the war in April of 1917,
Du Bois, unlike many of his socialist friends in
and outside of the NAACP, was not opposed. He argued that it
presented an opportunity for African-Americans to stake
claim to their citizenship and bring meaning to
Woodrow Wilson’s claim that the world must be
made safe for democracy. Black people had
fought in the past, and now they would do
so again with hopes that the two warring
ideals of being black and of being American, that
Du Bois famously articulated in The Souls of Black Folk,
would at last be reconciled. Du Bois threw himself
into the war effort, encouraging African-Americans
as soldiers and civilians to demonstrate their loyalty
on and off the battlefield. But white supremacy
tested his patriotism– along with other
African-Americans he had to reckon with moments like the
unjust execution of 13 black soldiers following a racial
shootout in Houston, Texas, and especially the East St.
Louis pogrom of July 1917, which left hundreds
of black people dead . While African-Americans
certainly pleaded for Woodrow
Wilson to make America safe for democracy,
they also demanded it, as evidenced by the silent
protest parade in response to the East St. Louis
pogrom, with Du Bois marching in the front. So when Joe Spingarn,
former chairman of the NAACP and one of Du Bois’
closest friends, approached him in
early June of 1918 with an offer to become a
captain in the War Department’s military intelligence
division, he had a momentous and potentially
career-defining choice to make. Du Bois knew that
this appointment would arouse suspicions. But he believed that,
as he wrote in a letter to the director of the
military intelligence division, his decision to accept
the offer reflected “no inconsistency with
or change of attitude from my life long
work and opinions.” Indeed, he viewed his attitude
as one of “far-reaching patriotism.” But just to make sure no
lingering reservations existed about his loyalty, he wrote
Close Ranks for the July issue of The Crisis. The Great War represented
the crisis of the world, Du Bois began. He argued that however
distant the war seemed, black people had no ordinary
interest in the outcome. For this reason,
African-Americans had to make their
allegiances clear. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts,
forget our special grievances and close our ranks
shoulder to shoulder with our own white
fellow citizens and the Allied nations that
are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary
sacrifice, but we make it gladly and
willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills. Closed Ranks unleashed a
firestorm of criticism. The Boston civil
rights activist– and one-time friend– William Monroe Trotter
labeled Du Bois, among other insults, a
rank quitter of the fight for rights. From coast to coast, in
newspapers in barbershops, many African-Americans branded
Du Bois as self-serving at best and at worst a
traitor to the race. For a man who had committed his
life to the cause of freedom and justice for black people,
no charge could be more cutting. The captaincy offer
ultimately crumbled, but the uproar and damage
to his radical credentials left Du Bois deeply scarred. Du Bois’ attempt to
strike a grand bargain with the federal government
and American democracy seem yet more misguided in light
of the US military’s treatment of black servicemen,
a history which Judy touched upon which
I’ll elaborate a little bit more detail. Approximately 380,000
African-American soldiers served in the racially
segregated United States Army. The majority of black
troops in France unglamorously labored in
the services of supply, loading and unloading
ships, digging ditches, laying railroad tracks,
and burying dead bodies. The army reluctantly
agreed to the creation of two black combat units,
the 92nd Division composed of draftees and
the 93rd Division made up largely black
National Guardsmen. While the 93rd Division compiled
a stellar combat record, the 92nd Division became, as
Du Bois later described it, the storm center of
the Negro troops. Racist white commanders and
deliberate neglect from the War Department doomed the
performance of the division from the start, While its black
officers, Du Bois’ shining examples of Talented Tenth
manhood and racial leadership, endured humiliation
after humiliation. African-Americans could point
to several notable battlefield triumphs and moments
of racial pride. But for most black
soldiers, the war for democracy, that Du Bois had
so enthusiastically champion devolved into a personal hell. As the end of the war neared, Du
Bois, his credibility tattered, his leadership in question, sat
in the most precarious position of his otherwise-illustrious
career. Then, quite unexpectedly,
an opportunity presented itself, one
that would profoundly impact Du Bois’ life for
the next two decades. At the October, 1918 board
of directors meeting, the NAACP proposed Du Bois
spearhead production of a book on the history of the black
experience in the war. He leapt at the opportunity. The scholar in Du
Bois was intrigued. But more important, here
was a chance for redemption. As a way of demonstrating
his continued ability to organize and
lead, he initially hoped that the book would
be a collaborative effort. He had two co-authors in mind– Carter G. Woodson,
confounder of the Association for the Study of Negro
Life and History, and Emmett J. Scott, the
former secretary to Booker T. Washington, who had recently
served as a special assistant to the Secretary of War. But Du Bois’ influence
had its limits. Woodson, arguably
the most prominent African-American historian in
the nation next to Du Bois, insisted on receiving sole
credit for the project. Scott, arguably the most
influential African-American in the government
during the war, had plans to write his own book. At stake was the
right to call oneself the historian of
the black experience in the war and the
leadership stature that went along with it. This was a fight that Du
Bois absolutely had to win. Undaunted, he set
his sights on France, where, as he would later
write, the destinies of mankind center. On December the
1st, 1918, Du Bois departed from
Hoboken, New Jersey, as part of the official
press delegation accompanying President Woodrow
Wilson to the peace conference at Versailles. Du Bois spent three
months in France. He organized a landmark
Pan-African Congress in February of 1919. His principal mission, however,
was to conduct research for the NAACP war history. He toured the battlefields
and saw the trenches where soldiers of
the 92nd Division fought until the
11th hour of November the 11th as the armistice
went into effect. He visited the encampments
and experienced, as he recalled, a touch of war. Most important, he talked with
black soldiers and officers. With military intelligence
following his every move, Du Bois absorbed tale after
tale of discrimination, slander, and abuse inflicted
upon black servicemen at the hands of
the American army. A longtime friend, Virgil
Boutte, served as his guide. Boutte was a captain
in the 92nd Division, who had been constantly
humiliated by his fellow white officers, court-martialed on
false charges of inefficiency, seriously injured in
combat, and placed– despite his officer status– in a segregated hospital ward
with regular enlisted men. He entrusted his diary to Du
Bois, where in one pained entry Boutte scrawled,
“no nation on earth has ever hated a group as
the Americans hate Negroes.” “Never in my life have I
heard such an astounding series of stories,” Du
Bois wrote from France in a January, 1919 letter
to his NAACP colleagues. You have not the
faintest conception what these men have been through. It is not only
astonishing, but it will arouse every ounce
of sympathetic blood in your veins. He knew what needed to be done. The task ahead was clear. His commitment had been steeled. “I can say solemnly and
without hesitation– the greatest and most
pressing & most important work for the NAACP is the
collection writing & publication of the history
of the Negro troops in France.” Du Bois returned to the United
States enraged, embarrassed, and determined. He could not help
but to question if his decision to
encourage black people to throw body and soul into the
war effort had been worthwhile. He channeled his
frustrations along with the anguish of the
African-American servicemen he encountered in France
into the postwar issues of the crisis. In the May, 1919 issue,
he informed readers about his mission
in France, exposed the racism of the US
Army, and defended the honor of black troops. The highlight, however,
was returning soldiers, as his words would
serve as a rallying cry for African-Americans
in the aftermath of the war. “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” History would be Du
Bois’ central battlefront in the struggle over
the meaning of the war. “Most American
Negroes do not realize that the imperative
duty of the moment is to fix in history the
status of our Negro troops,” he wrote in an editorial
announcing his plans to produce the study of the
black experience in the war. To assist in this cause, he
tasked readers of The Crisis to help in the compilation
of this history. Elsewhere, he specifically asked
black soldiers and officers to, in his words, “see that
the editor of The Crisis receives documents, diaries, and
information such as will enable The Crisis history of the
war to be complete, true, and unanswerable.” Letters, diaries, photographs,
official military documents, and personal memoirs quickly
flooded Du Bois’ office. In a note to the boys
detailing his battles with racism while
serving overseas, Sergeant Charles Isum
of the 92nd Division expressed his pleasure that
quote “someone has the nerve and backbone to tell the
public the unvarnished facts concerning the injustice,
discrimination, and Southern prejudice
practices by the white Americans against black
Americans in France.” Du Bois promised that his
book, tentatively titled The Negro in the Revolution
of the 20th Century, would appear by the fall. Black veterans like Charles
Isum hoped that Du Bois would tell their story. Du Bois intended to
serve as their muse. Generating further
excitement, Du Bois published a remarkable
article entitled An Essay Toward a History of
the Black Man in the Great War, a tantalizing preview of the
larger book he planned to write and a preemptive
strike against attempts to distort and marginalize
African-Americans in the history and
memory of the war. He wrote, “there is
not a black soldier who is glad he went, glad to
fight for France, the only real democracy, glad to
have a new, clear vision of the real inner spirit
of American prejudice. The day of camouflage is past.” Du Bois’ certainty
would be severely tested throughout the summer of 1919. From Washington, D.C.; to
Chicago; to Phillips County, Arkansas, race riots
and full-scale massacres exploded throughout the country. The number of
lynchings skyrocketed. Black veterans found
themselves quite literally fighting for their lives. James Weldon Johnson
labeled these bloody months the “red Summer.” The horror of the summer was
seared into Du Bois’ memory, as he would remember
1919 as a year of– in his words– “extraordinary
and unexpected reaction.” Du Bois used his
1920 book Darkwater to reflect on the
war, its appalling aftermath, and his
growing disillusionment. He minced no words. In a chapter titled The
Souls of White Folk, Du Bois wrote, “let
me say this again and emphasize it and leave no
room for mistaken meaning– the World War was primarily the
jealous and avaricious struggle for the largest share in
exploiting darker races.” Du Bois also asked a
remarkable question– “How great a failure
and a failure in what does the World War betoken?” On both a personal and
intellectual level, it was a question
that he had to answer. Du Bois therefore
committed himself to the NAACP war project. He devoted significant time
throughout much of 1920 and into 1922 to drafting
several potential chapters for what he confidently
believed would be the definitive history of
the black experience in the war. Still exhilarated from
his Pan-African Congresses of 1919 and 1921,
he wrote chapters on the experiences
of black troops in the French and
British armies, as well as a chapter musing on
the future of the black world in the wake of the war. Du Bois’ early
chapter drafts also reflected an attempt
to try and find redemptive value in the global
catastrophe and his place in it. This was clear in a chapter
titled The Challenge, which summarized the difficult
choices African-Americans and himself faced in
supporting the war. “For the moment– and
it was but a moment, it passed, but for
a moment the country seemed to rise to its
mightiest stature.” Addressing his
disillusionment, he mused, “I have been
called bitter, I am bitter but here I saw all
the hurts, the tears, the pain as in one country
and that country was mine.” Du Bois was glad that at
least for this one brief fleeting emancipatory
moment, he could call himself an American, that
he and the race “Could think with the nation
and not as a mere group. We could rise to
mighty selfishness. The nation, our
country, the allies as champions of the little
hurt folk, democracy.” The only way he could
explain his delusion was to plead temporary insanity. “We were mad– that is
the only word for it, we were mad and let it
not excuse us to say that the madness was divine.” But he still refused
to completely admit that he was wrong. “How in the end did all this
set with our inner problem?” he pondered. “After all it was
not a mere bargain– it was a moving wish.” Du Bois pressed ahead
to finish his book. He held out hope that despite
a lack of financial support and numerous other
commitments and distractions– future book projects,
Crisis editorials, speaking engagements,
Pan-African Congresses, a venomous feud
with Marcus Garvey– it would soon be completed. But the worsening conditions
facing African-Americans and peoples of African descent
throughout the diaspora caused him to further struggle
with the war’s individual and collective meaning. The walls of caste segregation
seemed to only grow higher. Racial violence became
more and more horrific. The grip of Europe
on Africa, in spite of his Pan-African
Congresses only tightened. And then there was
personal tragedy. In January of 1922, Du Bois
lost his closest friend and the man who best
embodied the quest to reconcile race and country,
Colonel Charles Young. Young was the
highest-ranking black officer in the army and black
America’s military hero. He had been unjustly
retired from active service during the war for
dubious health reasons to prevent him from
becoming a general. It broke his heart. The army reinstated him after
the armistice– conveniently– and assigned him to Liberia. He would die in a
Nigerian hospital. Over a year after his
death, Young’s body was finally returned
to the United States and buried with full honors in
Arlington National Cemetery. But Du Bois could not
forgive the government for what he described
in his words the “inexcusable crime” of
sending Young to Liberia. “For if Charles Young’s
blood pressure was too high for him to go to France,” Du
Bois wrote in an editorial, “why was it not too
high for him to be sent to the
even-more-arduous duty in the swamps of West Africa?” “God rest his sickened
soul,” Du Bois concluded, “but give our souls no rest
if we let the truth concerning him droop overlaid with lies.” This ugly reminder
of the war’s legacy provided further validation
for the new title Du Bois had by this time
given his book, The Black Man and the Wounded World. As the title reflected, Du
Bois’ initial conceptualization of the war as a potentially
revolutionary moment in the reconstruction
of global race relations have evolved to an
interpretation of the conflict as one of the darkest moments
in modern world history. The war was a global tragedy. This sense of the war
as tragic was not solely about the incredible loss of
life and physical destruction. For Du Bois, it also had to
do with the strengthening of white supremacy and
continued economic exploitation of peoples of African descent. No surprise then that
he described the war in the opening chapter
of his book manuscript as “a Scourge, an evil, a
retrogression to Barbarism, a waste, a wholesale murder.” Du Bois’ public
announcement in 1924 of The Black Man and
the Wounded World sparked renewed public
interest in the book. Encouraged, he
began writing again. By 1926, he had drafted the
bulk of his envisioned chapters. The book finally seemed on
the verge of completion. But he needed help. He had a massive
manuscript that, judged by his high scholarly
and artistic standards, still required significant
work in revision. Without time and
editorial assistants, he felt that he could
not complete the project. Seeking support,
he sent inquiries to nearly every major
philanthropic organization– the Rockefeller Foundation,
the Russell Sage Foundation, the Slater Fund, the Julius
Rosenwald Fund, the Carnegie Endowment. If it was around,
I’m sure he would have applied to the Radcliffe
Institute for Advanced Study. All have expressed
courtesy interest, but all ultimately
offered their regrets. But beyond the practical
obstacle of financial support– or lack thereof– Du Bois faced an even bigger
and more daunting challenge– himself. If the war he had
supported was indeed a failure, as he pondered
as early as 1920, a war that had no positive
outcome, then perhaps his book languishing
and in limbo was destined for a similar fate. Du Bois’ sizable ego,
however, would not allow for the possibility. As he agonized over what
to do with his book, many of the same
veterans who had once viewed Du Bois as a
savior now grew restless and requested the return
of their personal letters, photographs, memoirs,
and other ephemera they had loaned him
so many years ago. James Johnson, a Harlem
attorney and former Sergeant in the 92nd division,
wanted his stuff back. Du Bois, stubbornly
convinced his book would soon be completed, refused. Eventually, the matter
will be returned to you, Du Bois told Johnson
in a 1928 letter. It cannot be returned now and
I cannot set any exact date as to when it can be returned. Johnson would have none of it. Assuming that he was,
in Johnson’s words, dealing with a
gentleman of honor who would spare no effort in his
endeavor to keep his word, Johnson respond to
Du Bois, I trust that you will see the expediency
of an amicable adjustment of this matter, thereby
saving all parties concerned the needless expense, loss of
time, and further embarrassment that proceedings to compel
compliance will entail. And Martha, I’m sure you know
where that is headed, right? Facing the threat of a lawsuit
and public humiliation, Du Bois somehow found the
time to locate Johnson’s items and return them. But the majority of black
veterans were not as fortunate. Du Bois may not have felt guilty
about his treatment of Johnson and other black veterans,
but he certainly harbored guilt about his
decision to support the war. In 1930, Du Bois participated
in a published discussion for the magazine The World
Tomorrow on the war guilt debate that was consuming
the historical profession. The debate– if Germany was
solely responsible for the war and if American
intervention was justified. In his reply to the
editor, he admitted to being swept off my
feet during the World War by the emotional
response of America to what seemed to be
a great call to duty. The costs had been
immeasurably high. “Instead of a war to end war,
or a war to save democracy, we found ourselves during
and after the war descending to the meanest and most
sordid of selfish actions, and we find ourselves today
nearer moral bankruptcy than we were in 1914.” Then, surprisingly but with
a disclaimer, he admitted, “I am ashamed of my
own lack of foresight.” “And yet, war is so tremendous
and terrible a thing that only those who
actually experience it can know its real meaning.” Du Bois was willing to
acknowledge his error in supporting the
war, but still sought to rationalize his decision
by casting himself as one of the war’s countless victims. It was not his fault. Never content to
remain unproductive, Du Bois turned to
other projects, including his most notable
published work of history, Black Reconstruction. The war, however,
stayed on his mind. In a letter to Alfred Harcourt
proposing Black Reconstruction in 1931, Du Bois
informed the editor quote “I’m going to add
next year as a second volume The Black Man and the Wounded
World, that is the part which Negro troops took in the
World War and its significance for the world today.” Harcourt responded to Du
Bois that the proposed study on reconstruction
quote “promises a really interesting book.” He made no mention of
the book on World War. Following the 1935 publication
of Black Reconstruction, Du Bois again returned to
The Black Man and the Wounded World. A glimmer of hope appeared
in March of that year when he secured a $600 grant
from the Social Science Research Council. By this time, Du Bois’ politics
had moved further to the left and he began to envision The
Black Man and the Wounded World as an explicit lesson about
the horrors of modern warfare. A trip around the world in 1936
brought even greater clarity to the new significance
of Du Bois’ book. Thanks to a fellowship
from the Oberlaender Trust, Du Bois spent seven quite
controversial months abroad, first visiting Hitler’s
Germany, then England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Russia,
China, and finally imperial Japan. He returned to the United
States in December of 1936, having seen firsthand the
seeds of the next World War. The need for his book could
not have been more urgent. This was the moment. He needed people to see
that the still-open wounds from the last World War,
infected and festering, promised an
even-greater disaster in the very near future. In his mind, it
was now or never. Hoping to finally
put the project– along with the memory
of the war itself– behind him, Du Bois reached out
to the American Philosophical Society in March of 1937. “I began my work in this
field as a conventional study of the Negro as a soldier
in the World War, he wrote.” But over time, he
explained, “the whole theme has been expanding and
developing in my min,” more especially since my trip
around the world in 1936. He now conceived the
book, in his words, “on a much broader and
more important scale.” If only he could have time and
leisure, opportunity, to finish this work, he
pleaded, “I think I can do something which will have
influence on future knowledge with regard to war
and colored people.” $7,500 would be
sufficient, he thought– that’s quite a bit of
money at that time. The American Philosophical
Society denied his request. With this final rejection,
Du Bois, disheartened, grudgingly abandoned hope that
he would finish and publish his book. Despite the investment
of almost 20 years, despite a manuscript
of nearly 800 pages, The Black Man and
the Wounded World, Du Bois’ epic history of the
black experience in the First World War, would never
see the light of day. So this could very well
be the end of the story. But we are left with
the question of why. Why didn’t Du Bois finish
The Black Man and the Wounded World? I would argue that
Du Bois suffered from a sort of
intellectual shell shock when it came to writing about
and rationalizing a war defined by its irrationality. In his semi-autobiographical
1940 book, Dusk of Dawn, he wrote, “in my
effort to reconstruct in memory my thought and
the fight of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People during the World War,
I have difficulty in thinking clearly.” Now for those of us who
are familiar with Du Bois, not being able to think
clearly is probably something we wouldn’t
associate with him. He go on to lament that the
whole history of the American Negro and other black
folk in the World War has never been written. He recalled his time in France
and the mass of documents he had collected over the years. “They deserve
publication”– he wrote– “not simply as a part
of the Negro’s history, but as an unforgettable lesson
in the spiritual lesions spiritual lesions
of race conflict during a critical period
of American history.” By the 1940s, it was clear
that the spiritual lesions left on the world by the First
World War had not healed. Du Bois’ own wounds
had not healed either. In a 1941 letter regarding his
alma mater, Fisk University, possibly taking a position
of support for American entry into World War
II, Du Bois wrote, “I have lived through one period
of deliberate and prolonged propaganda for war and partially
succumbed to it” until I really believed that the First World
War was a war to end war and that the interests of
colored people in particular were bound up in the
defeat of Germany. “I have lived to know
better,” and my opposition to war under any
circumstances has been immeasurably increased. But even up to the
final years of his life, Du Bois still sought to
understand why he had supported the war in the first place. “I felt for a moment
as the war progressed that I could be
without reservation a patriotic American,” Du
Bois wrote in an autobiography posthumously published in 1968. “I am not sure that I
was right but certainly my intentions were. I did not believe in
war, but I thought that in a fight with
America against militarism and for democracy we would be
fighting for the emancipation of the Negro race. With the Armistice
came disillusion.” That disillusion
stayed with Du Bois until his death on August
23, 1963 in Accra, Ghana. The war consumed Du Bois. It confounded him. He cannot make sense of it as
both a personal and historical moment. He was unable to muster
the intellectual fortitude and, dare I say, the moral
strength necessary to complete his book. His failure embodied
the tragedy of the war he struggled to write about. In this sense, The Black
Man and the Wounded World was Du Bois himself. But we are also left
with the question of why does this story matter. The easy answer is,
well, it’s Du Bois. Anything about Du
Bois matters, right? But I believe the story
goes beyond Du Bois and reveals to us the
impact of World War I on African-Americans,
how it exposed the core tensions of
African-American identity, and how it shaped the
history of racial struggle in the 20th century. For Du Bois, the history of
World War I was not simply an intellectual challenge– it was a profoundly personal,
moral, and ethical challenge as well. It still is. Du Bois understood that
the history of the war was deeply bound with
the political status of black people, the
future of democracy, and the condition of the
world that we live in. It still is. So as we ask ourselves
100 years later what was the significance of
the war, what did it all mean, why is it
worth remembering, Du Bois in the black
experience reminds us that these questions
are not just academic. They are critical in
2017 to confronting our current sick democracy,
and necessary to trying to heal our still-wounded world. I cannot say for certain, but I
think Du Bois would have agreed with me. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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