The Pacifist and the Battlefield

Chad Williams on W. E. B Du Bois’s reckoning with World War I and Black liberation

W. E. B. Du Bois, second from left, with Black officers in Le Mans, France, 1919 (<em>The Crisis,</em> June 1919)
W. E. B. Du Bois, second from left, with Black officers in Le Mans, France, 1919 (The Crisis, June 1919)

W. E. B. Du Bois is best known for his seminal collection of essays on the African-American experience, The Souls of Black Folk, and his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, which reframed the story of freed slaves in the Civil War and the brief window of political promise that followed. Du Bois is less remembered for his support for America’s entry into the First World War, an endorsement that surprised many of his Black and radical allies. Moreover, he pushed for African Americans to join the ranks, in the hopes of accelerating the fight for freedom at home. He would soon regret his decision, and he spent the next two decades of his life grappling with the complex legacy of the war, and African Americans’ experience of it. As the historian Chad Williams puts it, this manuscript—called The Black Man and the Wounded World—was “Du Bois’s most significant work to never reach the public,” and the struggle to write it would irrevocably shape his politics. Williams, a professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University, joins the podcast to talk about his new book, The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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