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  • The Figure of W. E. B. Du Bois as a Problem for Thought
  • Nahum D. Chandler (bio)

The nineteenth century was the first century of human sympathy—the age when half-wonderingly we began to descry in others that transfigured spark of divinity which we call Myself; when clodhoppers and peasants, and tramps and thieves and millionaires and—sometimes—Negroes, became throbbing souls whose warm pulsing life touched us so nearly that we half gasped with surprise, crying, "Thou too! Hast Thou seen Sorrow and the dull waters of Hopelessness? Hast Thou known Life?" And then all helplessly we peered into those Other-worlds, and wailed, "O World of Worlds, how shall man make you one?"1


In a ceremony at Clark Atlanta University, on January 31, 1992, just in time for the advent of Black History month for that year, the United States Postal Service unveiled a mellow golden orange toned stamp, with black, blue, green, and brown accents, commemorating the life and work of W. E. B. Du [End Page 29] Bois. The stamp issue was part of a "Black Heritage" series that had been inaugurated in 1978.

The face of the stamp was dominated by a bustlike portrait of Du Bois in suit and bow tie, typical of his usual dapper and inimitable fashion. This portrait was probably drawn from photographs of the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Du Bois entered his sixties. The handsomeness of Du Bois's high, full, and rounded forehead, matched by a distinguished grey moustache and goatee, was elegantly captured in this portrait by the artist Thomas Blackshear. Even the famous sternness or moral rectitude of the Good Doctor (as he is still widely known, especially among African Americans) is revealed in the sense of repose that seems to mark Du Bois's expression. Yet, his face remains, for the most part, inscrutable. Perhaps one can imagine a hint of a sense of loss or regret, or even a slight longing or desire registered in the shaded lines that mark his countenance. However, the most sustained sense of Du Bois's expression here is a subtle, almost passive, thoughtfulness. This is a memorial representation of Du Bois the political figure, advance architect of the American Civil Rights Movement, founder of the global Pan-African Movement, champion of new global humanity, here as paternal figure, appearing perhaps even as a monumental one, or as an icon, a figure who has now been affirmed as one of the titans of the social, political, and intellectual life of the twentieth century, not only in the Americas and the Caribbean, but also in Europe, Asia, and Africa and throughout the world.

Inset within this relatively large portrait, however, to its left and toward the bottom of the stamp face, is a second much smaller one. It is so small in fact that its detail might be hard to fully detect at first glance. In contrast to the magisterial repose of the larger portrait, which tends to deflect close comprehension, this smaller portrait, once one's attention is drawn to it, seems to invite further attention, giving rise to an almost visceral sense of the warmth, clutter, and clatter of daily life. In this second portrait, Du Bois is shown from the waist-up, in vest, straight tie, and shirtsleeves, without suit-coat. He is seated. His hands are at a typewriter, his face matter-of-fact in its composure, but with his eyes directed to a sheet of paper in the machine, as if in concentration, perhaps intensely so. Another sheet of paper lies beside the machine. Du Bois is writing. [End Page 30]

The hierarchy of this double portrait is representative of the understanding of Du Bois that remains dominant in our time. This is a perspective in which Du Bois is a memorialized political figure that is larger than life—whether as an aloof genius (or as its opposite, a kind of political villain), as a paternal figure (or as its opposite, a militant outcast and exile)—is privileged in our recollections of him over and above Du Bois as a committed intellectual, laboring at his task and practicing...


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