W.E.B. Du Bois in Global Contexts, an interview with Gerald Horne

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Editor's note: Gerald Horne is a preeminent American historian. He is the author of many books, the latest of which is W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (Greenwood Press).

PA:  Why, after the monumental, definitive, Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Du Bois by David Levering Lewis did you undertake this project?

GERALD HORNE:  For a number of reasons: One is that I wanted a briefer synthesis, because all readers are not going to plough through 1000 pages on Du Bois. Secondly, I wanted to present a particular point of view with regard to Du Bois, in a particular style. That is to say, I wanted to be more forthright about some of his political ties and more forthright about his evolution than perhaps previous writers have been, and I wanted to write it, hopefully, in a style that was more acceptable to the lay reader, the non-professorial, non-history-graduate-student reader. So those were the main reasons I tackled this topic after the other biographies that have come forward. Then, as well, I thought I had a particular way of looking at Du Bois in light of the fact that this was my fourth book on a Du Bois. I wrote a biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois, co-edited an encyclopedia of Du Bois, and a book on Du Bois’ last years, and so I thought I had something to contribute, given that past work.

PA:  Some of the things you address in the book that are maybe not so familiar to some of our readers, are his academic contributions, among them his historical and sociological work. How do you assess him as an academic?

GERALD HORNE:  There is no question that Du Bois, even if he had not founded the NAACP, even if he had not been considered to be the father of Pan-Africanism, would be remembered by posterity for his academic and intellectual achievements, and not only the sociological studies. Du Bois is oftentimes referred to as the “father of urban sociology.” I’m thinking particularly of his book, The Philadelphia Negro, which still repays attention as a study of how to conduct social science research. I also think of Black Reconstruction, which probably should be considered his leading academic and intellectual achievement, and presented what was then a novel and revisionist approach to studying the post-Civil War era, putting in the forefront the attempt by the newly-freed Africans to build democracy and establish public schools in the post-1865 South. Not to mention the point he makes about the Civil War preceding Reconstruction, underscoring the pivotal role of Africans in terms of defeating the Confederacy, not only by taking up arms, but by conducting what he considered to be a general strike on the plantations of the South. His novels, I think, are an illustrious achievement as well. Dark Princess, in particular, highlights the role of India in a prescient manner, especially in light of Mr. Obama’s recent trip to India. I think you are going to see India emerging in the 21st century as perhaps the leading nation on the planet, and Du Bois in a sense anticipated that almost 100 years ago.

So much can be said about Du Bois as a writer, about Du Bois as an intellectual, and Du Bois as a creative artist. I just wish I had more space to say more about that in this book.

PA:  I want to ask about the role of hi monumental Black Reconstruction as an historiographical work in the academy. There is a tendency to view social history, the history of life from the ground up, as something that was invented in the 1960s by left-leaning social historians who tended to think about history from the bottom up. Didn't Du Bois lay the groundwork for that academic movement in this book?

GERALD HORNE:  Absolutely, and I think today it is generally received wisdom in the academy that Black Reconstruction was a landmark work. There is an entire conference on the work Black Reconstruction taking place at Duke University from November 10-12. Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction, understandably pays fealty to Du Bois’s work, because what Du Bois outlined in that book some 70-odd years ago is basically the predominant wisdom of today. Foner recalls that in the 1930s, and prior to that, before Black Reconstruction was published, the dominant line with regard to Reconstruction is that which you see in the Hollywood film Birth of a Nation, where you have corrupt and venal Black legislators who are plundering and pillaging in the South, and it requires the Ku Klux Klan to restore law and order. Believe it or not, that was the dominant line before Black Reconstruction, and it was the dominant line for some time after Black Reconstruction. It is only with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement that you begin to see different examinations of not only Reconstruction but slavery itself, and there is a lesson to be drawn here about how the times influence the writing of history, something that we should never forget.

With regard to his novel Dark Princess, I think the female characters in Dark Princess are path-breaking and trailblazing in terms of their assertiveness, in terms of their potent role, in terms of the unfolding of the plot, and in terms of their ability to be self-determined. It is quite interesting how he weaves the relationship between an Indian woman and a black American, which is something, in fact, I go on at length about in my book, The End of Empires, African Americans and India.  Because in some ways it presents a template for what I talk about in that book, which is the joint struggle, shoulder-to-shoulder of South Asians and Black Americans in the period before Indian independence in August, 1947, and how we aided each other, how the South Asians fought against Jim Crow and how Black Americans fought against British colonialism, and that all comes together in the book Dark Princes in a way that remains illuminating and novel.

PA:  In that vein too, his novel Quest of the Silver Fleece, which was path-breaking in that he tells the story from a working-class and feminist point of view. What in his experiences do you attribute that way of seeing the world to?

GERALD HORNE:  I think it is fair to say that Du Bois was advanced in many respects. As early as the 1890s – and keep in mind that he passed away in 1963 at the age of 95 – he had been exposed to one of the more advanced socialist movements. I’m speaking of that of Germany. He traveled in Eastern Europe during that time and was able to witness some of the more retrograde conditions then existing in Europe, particularly in the area east of Germany in what is now Poland. Du Bois also was able to travel to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and came back more fervent in his pro-Sovietism than when he departed. He was impressed by the grand experiment that was taking place there. I think that the entire movement towards Pan-Africanism, which I think still merits more intensive study, was in many ways a product of Du Bois, and also represented an advanced temperament and an advanced ideology. Given this background, it should not come as any surprise that a person who is pro-socialist and pro-Pan-Africanist, is also pro-feminist. It seems actually to fit together neatly.

PA:  Well, in his personal life women played a major role as you and others document, and one of those women was Shirley Graham Du Bois. This is something you talk a lot about in Race Women. What impact did she have on the later years of his career?

GERALD HORNE:  I think that Shirley Graham Du Bois helped to extend Du Bois’s lifespan. Recall that they married in the early 1950s, and at the time they married he was almost 30 years older than she was.  By that time he was in his early 80s. To be sure, they had known each other before they got married, but certainly this marriage obviously took their relationship to another level. In some ways their marriage was rather conventional and traditional insofar as he was rather elderly and she was much younger, and to some extent she was his caretaker, helping to extend his lifespan. And as so often happens when you have a man of some renown who passes away, she did quite a bit to establish his legacy, by pulling his papers together, for example, and collaborating with Herbert Aptheker in that regard. That is one of the reasons why we know so much about Du Bois. This is not uncommon. You see Amy Jacques Garvey, who does that for Marcus Garvey.  You see Coretta Scott King, who does that for Martin Luther King. This is a phenomenon that a number of feminist historians have pointed to. So in some ways there was a paradox, in the sense that Du Bois was rather advanced in terms of feminist ideology, but at the same time this marriage with Shirley Graham Du Bois in some respects had the trappings of a rather conventional relationship.

PA:  Could you talk about one of his essays that really stands out for me, in that it really ties global issues to the immediate struggles of people here – “The African Roots of War.” What is the significance of that particular essay?

GERALD HORNE:  I think that essay, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1915 around the time World War I was erupting, in many ways prefigures Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” In some ways it also reflects Lenin’s classic text, Imperialism, in terms of trying to understand the turbulence that was gripping the planet approximately 95 years ago. Du Bois pointed to what Lenin might have referred to as the re-division of colonial plunder by the leading North Atlantic powers, particularly the European powers, and how this lust for territory and booty helped to generate conflict. Germany had come late to feast at the table of colonialism and did not feel that the division of colonial spoils at that particular moment in time reflected its true strength and its true weight in the imperialist world.

Africa, being the major target of colonial plunder, therefore becomes a major source of conflict. That is to say, as long as colonialism was allowed to reign and fester in Africa, it was going to be a source of tension, if not war, as was evidenced by World War I itself, which, among other things, featured Germany on one side of the barricades and Britain, which had come earlier to the table of colonial plunder, on the other. I think that particular essay reflects Du Bois’s easy familiarity with Marxism, it reflects his Pan-Africanism, and it reflects his anti-imperialism, and I think those are the reasons the essay still resonates approximately 95 years after it was published.

PA:  Aside from his scholarship and his creative, imaginative literature, the major accomplishment, I think, of his life was the NAACP, helping to found the NAACP and then his subsequent editorship of its magazine. Could you talk about that, I don’t want to say troubled, relationship a bit?

GERALD HORNE:   Du Bois was present at the creation of the NAACP in 1909, and he edited its main journal, The Crisis, which was quite a phenomenon.  It is difficult to say today, in 2010, that there is any journal of opinion - Political Affairs set aside, of course - that had as much impact and as wide a circulation as The Crisis.  It was quite remarkable, the reach of that little magazine, which not only had thousands of subscribers in the United States but also had many subscribers outside of the United States.

Du Bois had certain conflicts and problems with some of his comrades in the NAACP. Some of it may have had something to do with his personality, which was described as “prickly,” although Herbert Aptheker, who knew him well, says that that was much more a product of shyness and much more a product of an understandably negative reaction to Jim Crow and white supremacy, which complicated some of his relationships with Euro-Americans in particular, who were in the highest councils of the NAACP. 

In any case, he also has conflicts with Walter White, who was a dominant leader of the NAACP for decades, and that conflict, in part over questions of the autonomy of the organ, The Crisis, led to his departing the NAACP in 1934 and going to teach at Atlanta University. Then he came back to the NAACP in 1944 during World War II as a sort of minister of foreign affairs of the organization. This was in the midst of an astonishing, even to this day, membership spurt where the organization basically grew ten-fold, from 40,000 in 1940 to 400,000 members in 1944.

Quite frankly, it is hard to say if the NAACP membership in 2010 exceeds that. So he comes back in 1944, but the conflict with Walter White does not cease and takes on an increasingly sharp tone, particularly over the nascent Cold War that was emerging with the conclusion of World War II in 1945. There was also a conflict over the third party, the Progressive Party, the party of former US Vice President, Henry Wallace, which was the party of the Left. Du Bois was present at the creation of the Progressive Party and that third party challenge in 1948, but Walter White and a good deal of the NAACP leadership were pro-Harry Truman, who was something of the godfather of the Cold War, and this leads to Du Bois being sacked by the NAACP in September, 1948.

That was basically the end of his formal relationship with the organization he had helped to found in 1909, although it is also not unfair to suggest that this was a turning point, an ideological turning point, not only in terms of Black America but in terms of the Left as a whole – when you had this rupture between the Left as represented by Du Bois and the Progressive Party, on the one hand, and the major Black people’s organization, the NAACP, on the other. That was a fateful turn. It was a fateful rupture, and if one were to suggest that we have yet to recover from that rupture, it would be difficult to argue with that proposition.

PA:  That may have reflected his earlier views when he suggested African Americans break with the Republicans and go with the Socialists or the Democrats. But the later period in his life is something that most people outside the readership of this magazine have little connection to, because of the political turn that you describe him as taking. What was behind that?

GERALD HORNE:  This brings us back to your first question. I think that it’s difficult to quarrel with any of the previous biographies generally speaking, but I think the value of my biography, and a good deal of my work on Du Bois in general, has been the stressing of his later years as a key to graphing the true greatness of Du Bois, insofar as his voice was critical. It is very interesting what happens during that particular moment.

Here you have the US ruling elite under tremendous global pressure because of Jim Crow and white supremacy in its most egregious form, not least because of the pressure put on the United States by Moscow and the socialist camp and the international working class movement. And in order to better charge Moscow with human rights violations, the United States had to bend with regard to the more excessive aspects of Jim Crow. It had to yield to the insistent cries on the ground here in this country. What is new, of course, is not the insistent cries on the ground against Jim Crow – that had been in existence ever since Jim Crow first stalked the land. What was new was the new international situation, and in some ways, our leadership was not up to the task – I’m speaking of the leadership of the NAACP – because much of our leadership basically accepted the concessions that were given as a result of mass pressure, particularly mass global pressure. But, in return, they chose to turn their backs on those whom they had been working hand-in-glove with. I’m speaking of people on the Left like Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Ben Davis, and William Patterson, whose biography I am currently writing. 

The marginalizing of these figures on the Left did not leave Black Americans in good shape to confront the challenges that inevitably came with the forced retreat of Jim Crow, and I dare say that we are still suffering to a degree from those fateful decisions. I once wrote that Black Americans are involved in an intriguing experiment to see if an oppressed minority can continue to march forward if there is not a strong and vibrant left-wing and radical movement. That’s not an experiment I would recommend, although the story is still unfolding and we will see how it unfolds, but they are not the sort of conditions in which an oppressed minority should have to struggle.

PA:  What else can we expect from the Horne scholarship machine?

GERALD HORNE:  Well, there’s pre-1959 Hawaii. Basically the Communist Party and the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) were the major forces in bringing democracy to Hawaii. Before the organizing success of these two organizations, Hawaii in the 1930s was the quintessential apartheid archipelago. It was through the organizing of the Communist Party and the ILWU that that changed, and this left the US ruling elite with a difficult choice in terms of this prime colony. Statehood in 1959 came about in no small part because it was felt this was the best way to blunt the force of the Communist Party and the ILWU in Hawaii. That book will be out next year from the University of Hawaii Press.

Then I have written a revisionist antebellum history which should be out next year too, which looks at the fact that African Americans weren’t committed to the idea of an independent Republic. The Africans were oftentimes allied with the antagonist of the Republic. Now, you may want to step back and ask yourself why that might be. It may lead you to a reconsideration of the origins of the nation now known as the United States of America. As opposed to seeing it in the same vein as the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, you might see it in the same vein as the revolt against British rule in Rhodesia in 1965, and, if so, that might help to shed light on why conservatism is so deeply entrenched in this republic. That will be out next year too. It’s really a new take on slave resistance, a slave rebellion which brings into play the rear bases in Canada, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica (Jamaica may have been the nation most hostile to the United States in the antebellum period).

I am also working on the William Patterson biography, although I haven’t finished researching it yet, and when you called I was in the midst of my work on Black Americans in Cuba before the Revolution, which, I have to say, is an endlessly fascinating subject. Cuba was in some ways a de facto state of the United States before 1959, given its proximity and given its neocolonial status. In the era of slavery, you could be a so-called Afro-Cuban one day and a so-called Black American the next day, or vice versa.  I mean there was all this back and forth, and there was a lot of opposition in Black America to slavery in Cuba in particular, because slavery in Cuba lasted until the 1880s. That’s another book I’m working on, the relationship between Black Americans and Cuba before 1959. Then there’s another colonial study, looking at the reaction in the thirteen colonies to Somersett’s Case, which seems to prefigure abolitionism within the Empire, and how that might have been a trigger for a revolt against British rule in North America [in 1772 the English high court ruled in Somersett’s Case that slavery was unlawful in England, although not elsewhere in the British Empire-Ed.]

PA:  It occurs to me that a great deal of your scholarly work is centered on African Americans in an international context. Why does that interest you so much?

GERALD HORNE:  There are many reasons. One is trying to break free from the manacles of so-called “American exceptionalism,” which tends to see the United States as an island unto itself and totally unique and doesn’t take into account the global currents that have shaped this nation inevitably and inexorably. As well, I think – particularly in terms of the destiny of Africans in North America – our destiny has also been shaped indelibly by global alliances. One of the reasons I am here to speak on the kind of work I am doing today has quite a bit to do with the existence of the socialist camp and the pressure it placed on the United States, which helped the country to see the error of its ways and retreat from the more egregious aspects of white supremacy. I think this is even more the case today in 2010, with the great leap forward in the scientific and technological revolution, with the Internet, with the supersonic transportation that whips you virtually anyplace in the world in 15 hours or less, and all the instant communication and globalization of trade and commerce. I think this sort of international perspective is an antidote to imperialism and an antidote to war. I think in some ways it reflects Robeson’s idea of singing in many languages in order to show the underlying unity of humanity. And I shudder to think where we people of African descent would be without our allies in the international community. It’s been our everything, quite frankly.

I think we need to de-center the idea of US sovereignty. With all of its accomplishments, one weakness that I see in the anti-corporate, anti-globalization movement that exploded in Seattle in 1999 was the idea that they were against the WTO (World Trade Organization) because the WTO infringed on US sovereignty. I think that was one of the reasons you didn’t see too many people of color out there, because our progress has come when US sovereignty has been circumscribed, and I think that even though we should always welcome allies within the four corners of the United States, we shouldn’t limit our allies to the four corners of the United States.  I think that would be a grave mistake.

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  • Global Contexts is certainly one of the places to focus the African American struggle against white bigotry and felonious crimes committed by police and judicial officers.
    Gerald Horne is right -we must struggle in every in arena open to us!!

    Posted by Sekou Bey, 09/01/2015 9:48pm (4 years ago)

  • good as an educational

    Posted by , 12/13/2010 12:13am (9 years ago)

  • As in any list,deserving souls will be omitted but with regret I omitted Emile Durkheim(here again its almost impossible to mention him without Auguste Compte and Herbert Spencer)-and there is a point.
    Durkheim and Du Bois developed very similar social crime theories.
    I write of Du Bois's Talented Tenth theory-which is contrary to popular belief,a crime theory. This needs to be written about and clarified by communists,especially.
    For now,let us say that Du Bois,working indefatigably with the hardy African element,did much to protect and save humanity. More from this author on this,later and salutations to brother Horne and PA,for their work and interview on Du Bois,again.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/08/2010 10:05am (9 years ago)

  • Horne and Du Bois are real treasures for the working-class!

    Posted by Fred P., 12/07/2010 10:35pm (9 years ago)

  • Thank God for this PA interview and the new,continuing rebirth of the work of our W.E.B. Du Bois through the scholarship of Gerald Horne.
    Sorely needed,especially in the current period is a such a synthesis to one whose scholarship can be mentioned and ranked with others like Karl Marx,Albert Einstein,Max Weber,William James,,Sigmund Freud,Charles Darwin,Rosa Luxemborg and Frederick Engels(not to mention Hunton,Royce,Ruiz de Santayana,Robeson,Lloyd L.Brown,Booker T. Washington,and these not only in the world of the academy,but many,personal friends) in the spheres of social and physical science. So important is the mention of Shirley Graham Du Bois's relationship with Herbert Aptheker,but Fay Aptheker's relationship to Herbert is also as completer,as Shirley Graham's is to W.E.B.'s.
    As theologian,posited and written in the cover page of Du Bois's Prayers for Dark People,(see the very interesting introduction by Herbert Aptheker there)Du Bois ranks with Harriet Tubman,Alexander Crummell,Richard Allen,Daniel Payne and Frederick Douglass,perhaps a more controversial area,but one from which the great Du Bois never shrunk nor shirked.
    Many,many thanks to PA and to brother Gerald Horne for this podcast and work.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/07/2010 11:41am (9 years ago)

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