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Review of Kwame Anthony Appiah's "Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity"

Lines of Descent:  W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

Harvard University Press, 2014.


            Consider how much is involved in placing William Edward Burghardt Du Bois into historical context.  When he was born (in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) in 1868, Radical Reconstruction was still in progress, and Ulysses Grant was not yet president.  When, after graduating from Fisk and then Harvard, he received a fellowship from the Slater Fund in 1892 to do graduate work at the University of Berlin, Booker T. Washington, soon to become his great antagonist, had not yet articulated the “Atlanta Compromise,” nor had the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” to be constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson.  When he helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910, he had already lived longer than would Martin Luther King, Jr.  Indeed, his life was considerably more than twice as long as King’s.  And unlike many who become more conservative as they age, Du Bois became more and more radical, finally joining the Communist party, abandoning America, and living his last years in the newly independent nation of Ghana.  His last written work was an encouraging telegram to the organizers of the March on Washington.  He died the night before it took place in August of 1963.

            Readers already familiar with Du Bois’ life, perhaps through David Levering Lewis’ magnificent two-volume biography (1993, 2000), already know that much will be left out of any summary of his long, long career as scholar (particularly as sociologist and historian), journalist (particularly as editor of the NAACP’s “The Crisis”), and activist.  So perhaps it is not so surprising that, even after all that has a been said already, there is still more to say.  Certainly Kwame Anthony Appiah, acclaimed author of The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism, former Harvard and Princeton, and currently a professor of philosophy at NYU, proves that this is so.  

            Appiah’s brief , eloquent book argues that Du Bois’ two years at the University of Berlin were seminal for him.  Du Bois had come of age when German unification, much anticipated, was finally taking place, and he had even delivered a class oration on Bismarck, praising him for making “a nation out of a mass of bickering peoples.”  He told the Slater Fund that he intended to “study scientifically the Negro question past and present, with a view to its best solution.”  The German university turned out to be a fruitful place to begin what turned out to be a lifelong quest.  Readers unfamiliar with late-19th century German scholarship need not despair; Appiah has a gift for explication and a light rhetorical touch, as he spins out the ideas of Heinrich von Treitschke, Gustav von Schmoller, and others.

            In Germany, Du Bois said, “I first met white folk who treated me as a human being….I met men and women as I had never met them before.  Slowly they became, not white folks but folks….I became more human; learned the place in life of ‘Wine, Women, and Song’; I ceased to hate or suspect people simply because they belonged to one race or color.”  Says Appiah, “The sense of personal liberation he felt cannot be overestimated.”  German influence extended even to his wardrobe: dandified, mustachioed and goateed, Du Bois took to wearing gloves and silk ties and carrying a walking stick.  At the same time, he noted Germans’ anti-Polish sentiment and anti-Semitism.  “There was plenty of race prejudice about,” Appiah observes, “but, for a change, it wasn’t personally directed at him.” 

            Du Bois synthesized decades of German ideas.  From the 18th-century, he “absorbed [Johann Gottfried] Herder’s romantic conception of individuality [and] the Herderian picture of the spiritual life of nations.”  Appiah notes the parallel between Du Bois’ famous declaration of double-consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk (“One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings…”) and Goethe’s Faust:  “Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast, And one desires to break off from the other.”)  Appiah notes this in the chapter called, pointedly, “Culture and Cosmopolitanism,” where he quotes another famous line from the same book: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.  Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.  So wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

            Dwelling above the veil was not easy.  Even in Germany, Appiah notes, “we shouldn’t imagine that cosmopolitanism was simply parading happily along Unter den Linden on a prancing charger. It faced serious and sophisticated challenges, not least from the new ideologies of nationalism.”  Appiah outlines how Du Bois and others dealt with those challenges, but what interests him most is Du Bois’ effort (in Du Bois’ own words) “to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”  Appiah sees Du Bois working toward a definition of “identity” that is compatible with his own, where it is possible to have both a Negro soul and an American soul: “In fact, any group might have a soul, if a soul is just defined as a common principle that binds the group together, the thing whose sharing makes them one.  We could, in theory, speak of the disparate souls that women or Baptists or lesbians or philologists share.”  Du Bois, says Appiah confidently, even triumphantly, “was a cosmopolitan through and through.”

            So in Appiah’s view, he and Du Bois—seeking to understand and explain identity in a world where race matters (along with class and gender and so much else besides)—are engaged in a common project.  Neither is comfortable with a purely “oppositional” identity, defined only by resisting oppression, or with groups that define membership dogmatically.  Identity requires roots, and roots require history.  Perhaps Du Bois’ most powerful works, including Souls of Black Folk (1903), alternating, as Appiah points out, the lyrical and the empirical, and the pioneering Black Reconstruction (1935), which showed freed African Americans took real agency in building new lives in freedom, were fundamentally historical.  Then Du Bois opened what Appiah calls “his second front in his struggle to define the Negro,” moving beyond his German mentors and undertaking study of African history.

            Filtered through Appiah’s sensibility and his close reading of Du Bois, one wants to believe that Appiah is right—that Du Bois’ legacy will ultimately be “moral universalism with special devotion to a group.”  But Du Bois could also be hard-edged, contentious, and doctrinaire.  Ninety-plus years of confronting racism can do that to a man.  We can only hope that in coming years the optimistic, inclusive, and flexible Du Bois that Appiah captures in this beautifully written, carefully argued book will be the one whose influence endures.