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Guest Lecture series: PATTEN LECTURE. . .

“The Contested National Narrative: W.E.B. DuBois and Others”

Presented by David Levering Lewis
Julius Silver University Professor and Professor of History, New York University
Nov. 15, 2005

The Patton Lecture, Indiana University's most prestigious lecture series, was presented this year by historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis. In introducing Lewis, AAADS Professor Matthew Guterl, a former student of the speaker, noted that Lewis is engaged in an "iconoclastic reorienting" of the interpretations of texts and histories and lives. Indeed, Lewis has done that with his biographies of Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois, and, saying that he was on a "quest for histories," he did so again in the course of his lecture on "The Contested National Narrative: W.E.B. DuBois and Others."

When W.E.B. DuBois said that the problem of the 20th century would be "the color line," he was talking about a U.S. population that was startlingly black and white. Lewis said that the problem of the 21st century was still the color line, but noted that we are now a "polychrome" nation. But that does not mean that race no longer matters. Nationally, the rise in the black school dropout rate correlates with the rising incarceration rate: one in three African Americans are or have been in jail. Race remains the "elephant in the condominium," ignored while looming large in our midst.

In the first half of the 20th century, the nation marginalized African Americans almost to the point of invisibility. As the nation adopted the South's "one drop" measure of race, African Americans became blacker and immigrants became whiter. Few avenues for control of their lives, history, or destiny were open to blacks, other than the arts and letters, hence the Harlem Renaissance. Even military service was not allowed to most blacks and was segregated. DuBois found that intolerable and proclaimed that "citizenship is not negotiable." He also recognized that arts and letters were mostly fictional and whites owned the realm of knowledge.

The separate and unequal status of knowledge by whites and blacks drove DuBois to abandon fiction for erudition, and, by the 1930s, he was determined to investigate U.S. racism.. During this period when most white men believed the best way to deal with race was to say as little as possible, he sought funding from white philanthropists to begin work on his Encyclopedia of the Negro. The social sciences and history of the time declared that objectivity was the goal, yet rationalized about race and class, allowing their narratives to uphold the reigning ideology. Eventually, the philanthropists withdrew their funding of DuBois' project, declaring that it was not worth continuing. Later, they decided to revive the project, but with G√ľnter Myrdol, a Scandinavian sociologist, rather than with DuBois. DuBois was disappointed, but made sure that Myrdol understood that the Negro was an integral part of America, not just a race problem.

Myrdol's book became the primary source of information on the American Negro, eventually informing the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education and being pressed into service during the Cold War to stir anti-communist passions. DuBois protested the "oxymoron of all deliberate speed" as less than true equality and said that American blacks were trading civil rights in the U.S. for global slavery. For DuBois, race was the moral dilemma of America.

Lewis noted that today many look back 50 years to Brown v. Board and believe, just as DuBois did, that it was detrimental. So, said Lewis, the problem has come full circle. He concluded with his own observation that the United States is headed toward a major moment of crisis in American history, a moment rooted in "the problem of the color line."