92nd Infantry Division, WWI
92nd Infantry Division, WWI | Public Domain | Wikipedia

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Unfinished WWI History Speaks Volumes About America

W. E. B. Du Bois hoped that WWI would help Black Americans make gains at home after serving their country abroad. His work for racial progress, like America itself, remains unfinished.

The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War
Chad L. Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 2023

“Who will write the history of this segregated Division?” Captain Matthew Virgil Boutté wrote in his diary as he lay in a military hospital in Toul, France, in 1917. His unit, the all-Black 92nd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, served valiantly in the closing days of World War I, despite all the impediments placed in its way by a segregated army and white officers who replicated Jim Crow America in Europe. The official version of events was already being written, and it portrayed the division in a very unfavorable light. Boutté awaited the arrival of W. E. B. Du Bois, traveling to France to research a planned book on the 92nd. He hoped Du Bois would provide an alternate, accurate account.

The challenges facing Black US soldiers who served in France began before they left home. The establishment of seven training camps separated geographically in the US to allay white fears of an armed rebellion of Black men gathered in one place affected morale and prevented unit cohesion. Black officers directly commanded Black soldiers, but leadership of the 92nd was all white.

Once in France, Black officers and soldiers alike received the same treatment Black civilian men faced in the US: an assumption of incompetence and frequent allegations of rape or sexual aggression. In spite of these impediments, the men fought hard and gained the trust and gratitude of the French people.

Du Bois navigated a crowded field of would-be authors of the real story of Black soldiers in the Great War. In his comprehensive work, The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War, award-winning historian Chad L. Williams follows the course of the project as Du Bois returns again and again to an increasingly complex story only to stop work to attend to other projects, ultimately leaving a manuscript of almost 1,000 pages unfinished at the time of his death 40 years later.

As Williams charts the evolution of The Black Man and the Wounded World, the title Du Bois eventually settled on, he deftly weaves in the story of Du Bois the activist, historian, and social scientist as he engaged in the challenges facing Blacks at home and around the world in the four decades following the end of WWI. Initially hopeful that the war would be an opportunity for Black Americans to make gains at home after serving their country abroad, Du Bois eventually determined that the war not only did nothing to change the lot of the world’s Black population, but also made American white supremacism a globally accepted world view.

As a scholar and journalist, Du Bois produced a prodigious body of work, including dozens of books and book chapters, essays and editorials for a number of periodicals in the Black and mainstream press, as well as editorials and other contributions to the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis, which he edited for 24 years. His published work, regular lecture appearances, participation in the Niagara movement calling for equal rights for Blacks (founded in 1905), and role in the establishment of the NAACP in 1910, made Du Bois a leading spokesperson for Black America, and its chief representative after the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915.

Du Bois’ decision to throw his support behind the war and encourage Black Americans to enlist drew harsh criticism from the Black press; he spent the rest of his life justifying and atoning for that stance. The Black Man and the Wounded World was to have set the record straight once and for all, and, as Du Bois expanded his coverage to include Blacks serving for Great Britain and France, provide the definitive account of the conflict from the perspective of Blacks from around the world who participated in and were affected by the conflict.

Books about a noted author’s unfinished work are often tinged with sadness about what might have been. When Williams reviews the parts of the book that Du Bois completed and published, or made the subject of lectures, he offers tantalizing glimpses of what would have been a ground-breaking study. In the closing pages of his book, Williams pictures Du Bois’ unfinished work “still tucked away in his voluminous files, its pages becoming more faded and brittle by the day.” He thinks of the contributors who, just after the war, enthusiastically answered Du Bois’ call to share accounts, documents, and photographs from the war. They eventually gave up trying to gain their return, grew impatient, and demanded their materials back and, in many cases, predeceased the long-lived Du Bois.

As Williams provides periodic outlines and summaries to illustrate how The Black Man evolved, however, it becomes clear that the project, as Du Bois expanded its scope, was unachievable. In addition to struggling with composition, Du Bois spent much time in a fruitless search for funding from foundations that inevitably found that his subject lacked appeal for a “broad” (that is, “white”) audience.

Time spent on the project was not work done in vain, however. Williams calls the failure to complete the project “generative”. Du Bois often made real progress when he turned his attention to The Black Man. His breakthroughs were reflected in work that did go out into the world.

Pressing matters regularly turned Du Bois’ attention away from The Black Man. He addressed every major crisis of moment to Blacks on the national or international stage. From the lynchings, pogroms, and other racial violence in America that followed the end of both WWI and WWII, the flood of racist histories of Reconstruction that demanded a revisionist response, the 1928 US presidential election, and the start of the Cold War, Du Bois spoke, wrote, and lobbied.

The Wounded World appears at the kind of crisis point that would have rallied Du Bois, with gains for equal rights in jeopardy and democracy itself imperiled. In an epilogue Williams lists current equivalents to “struggles Du Bois confronted”, among them “white supremacist violence” and “modern forms of voter suppression” that continue to plague the US.

In light of current attempts to erase the experience of Black Americans from US classrooms and history books, called “critical race theory” in current parlance, we must heed Du Bois’ thorough, measured, and unflinching assessment of our way of life, captured in a Crisis editorial from 1928: “Here where we have essayed the greatest experiment in democracy, we have perhaps the greatest failure.”

RATING 8 / 10