DuBois at 90, or the Simplicity of Age

by zunguzungu

In the opening paragraphs of W.E.B. Dubois’ last autobiography, written in “the Last Decade of its First Century,” DuBois tells an ostensibly simple story. For almost a decade, he says, “I had been refused a passport by my government,” which used the bureaucratically opaque excuse that “it was not considered to be ‘to the best interests of the United States’ that I go abroad.” The US’s interests and his have diverged, it seems, and as a result he has been deprived of that most basic of civic identities, the right to be interpellated as American while abroad. Since the government had suspected-correctly!-that he would criticize the United States for its “attitude toward American Negroes” if released, he had become-as he dramatically analogizes-a convict. An unrepentant old committer of dissent, he is an almost certain recidivist, and his hope of parole, it would seem, is dim.

But through an unexpected twist of fate, he tells us, he managed to acquire a passport and depart his country, “like a released prisoner.” The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not yet given the State department the right to do what they had done, so before the President was engineer a bill to zip up the loophole, DuBois jumps ship and is gone, travelling to Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Like a criminal accidently paroled, he savors every drop of what he no doubt expects will be his last trip abroad. And then, he says, simply, “I came home.”

Dubois in Moscow

Dubois in Moscow

Readers accustomed to the younger DuBois will, I suspect, tend to find DuBois at 90 to be a disappointingly limp writer. There is little of the polished brilliance of Souls’ prose and absolutely none of the baroque extravagence of Darkwater, written around his 30th and 50th years, respectively. By Dusk of Dawn, in his 70th year, his writing has slowed down considerably, and by the time he got around to writing his final autobiography of the four, so much of the sturm and drang of that young student in Berlin has faded as to leave him almost unrecognizable. Instead, he writes in a flat and declarative tone, the voice, perhaps, of a writer unconvinced that anyone is listening, or that it will matter if they are. Some of this, too, is probably the result of a certain hardening in DuBois’ perspective, the kind of elderly disinclination to question one’s own beliefs that makes it hard to talk to one’s granparents about the crazy stuff they believe. When he talks politics and economics-for him, there is almost no distinction-the poetic ambiguity of his earlier works has become a resignedly manichaean third-world boosterism. Evil Capitalist Imperialists confront the Virtuous Opressed Masses and the painstaking sociology of his (relative) youth has become a tendency towards almost comically broad strokes and overgeneralization, a great deal of which is just painfully wrong. Did you know that WWII was really a war between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world? I didn’t. As he surveys the Potemkin villages erected for his benefit, he finds confirmation for a belief in Communism that is difficult to take seriously, difficult to square with everything we now know about what went on behind the iron curtain.

This DuBois is something of an embarrassment, and the overwhelming majority of his readers focus on Souls to the exclusion of virtually everything else. But it’s also too easy to dismiss this Stalinist apologist for non-Western despotism as simply an angry old man, though he certainly was that. He was, after all, an angry old man for the majority of his incredibly long career, something that’s easy to overlook if you lose sight of just how preposterously long he lived (especially remarkable given that his parents died in their fifties) and how much he had to be angry about. There’s something stunning about a man who was born during Reconstruction and whose death was announced during King’s March on Washington, someone whose life spanned the incredible chasm between Andrew and Lyndon Johnson. So when he mentions, offhandedly, that Poland and Czechoslovakia are visibly better off in 1959 than they were when he saw them in 1950 and also, by the way, in 1893, the mind boggles a little bit. DuBois wrote four autobiographies, but that was because he had at least four lifetimes worth of living to write about, and as he notes, with a certain gentle humor, he had more or less considered his life to be complete two autobiographies and forty years ago. In the meantime, he had simply, inexplicably, failed to die.

So I’d like to take this autobiography seriously, and neither dismiss out of hand his enthusiasm for communist authoritarianism nor subordinate the book in favor of the more flashy (and a certain sense, less impassioned) works of his youth. This is exactly the rhetorical tactic he takes, in fact, opening the book not with his early years but with what he has seen on his recent trip abroad, and the convictions it has strengthened. “I believe in communism,” he says, and it is in hopes of making you understand the significance of this belief-of making you respect it-that he wants to tell you who he is. He knows you will resist. But he gambles that if he can connect the man to the belief, you will find it hard to dismiss either: respect the man, he hopes, and you will respect the belief. It’s a powerful rhetorial tactic, and I’m almost halfway convinced by it, halfway convinced not to call it by the pejorative “rhetoric” and simply accept his credentials. What, after all, do I know about Soviet modernization that hasn’t been filtered through half a century of cold war propoganda? DuBois is certainly ideological, but then, who isn’t? And he, at least, saw it with his own eyes.

In any case, in returning to the text, I find that the dull flatness of those first few paragraphs might be more artful that I originally thought, more like a medium whose transparency is precisely the point. The drama of DuBois’ life, of a man released from prison that is also his home, perhaps, speaks more powerfully about what he once called “the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century” than all the verbal fireworks he employed in Souls or Darkwater ever could. The Kafkaesque logic of being denied a passport by your own government, of being given an identity by very act of being denied an identity, what could speak more eloquently than that? And perhaps, in doing this, it does the work of autobiography more effectively than any of his previous essays in the genre had ever managed, for by rendering the verbal medium so very transparent, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the man from the message. What could be more apparently artless than the sentence “I came home”? And yet, underneath that simplicity, what could be more impossibly tangled?