Picks and Pans Review: W.e.b. Du Bois Biography of a Race (1868-1919)

updated 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

by David Levering Lewis

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois knew the pain of being black in America at the turn of the century. As a sociologist in the 1890s, he studied African-American life and saw firsthand the results of the Jim Crow laws that followed the Civil War. Yet as Rutgers University historian David Levering Lewis shows in his fine portrait of Du Bois's first 50 years, he never lost faith in democracy.

Recounting Du Bois's years teaching at Atlanta University, Lewis follows his shift from academia—he was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard—to activism. A radical in his time, Du Bois derided the notion of gradual integration and demanded total equality now. He also argued, forcefully, that it was the responsibility of successful blacks, the "talented tenth" he called them, to help those less fortunate. Du Bois eventually cofounded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Lewis's scholarly biography—the first of two volumes and a candidate for the 1993 National Book Award—shows how moral and creative energies can spring from alienation and repression. It was a lesson that Du Bois taught throughout his life, a lesson that makes his story heroic and compelling. (Holt, $35)

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