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Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity (The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures)
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Harvard University Press, 2014
240 pp., $18.95
A Romantic Racial Identity
Booker T. Washington received a congratulatory telegram from W. E. B. Du Bois shortly after he delivered his speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition. The young sociologist who had considered joining the Tuskegee faculty praised the college president's words as "fitly spoken" and "the basis of a real settlement between whites and blacks in the South." Yet in the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois dubbed the famous oration the "Atlanta Compromise" and upbraided Washington for both his politics and his commitment to industrial education. In critiquing Washington's program for the South, Du Bois lamented, "It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force."
Narrow Du Bois was not. His life spanned almost a century, from 1868 until 1963, and his longevity gave him ample opportunity to change his views on race politics. The mathematician and sociologist Kelly Miller marveled at Du Bois's philosophical shifts, which allowed him to change his opinion of Washington so dramatically: "It is almost impossible to conceive how the author of The Philadelphia Negro could have penned the second Niagara Movement Manifesto, without mental and moral metamorphosis." The transformation that Miller observed reflects Du Bois's untiring reassessment of black American existence. Kwame Appiah's Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity examines Du Bois's evolving thought and probes the contradictions at the heart of his conception of black identity. Seeking "to capture the ferment of the mind" that gave rise to Du Bois's ideas, which remain pivotal to current discussions of race and culture, Appiah casts his subject as both scientist and romantic, a man whose education pushed him beyond answers bound by logic alone.
Du Bois's 1958 return to Berlin to receive an honorary Doctor of Economics degree sets the stage for Appiah's approach ...