“That Kwame Anthony Appiah should turn his attention to W. E. B. Du Bois seems foreordained: the voyages of these two thinkers meet midstream, the one departing from Ghana and the other ending there. Beyond that neat symmetry, there is an uncanny feeling of major minds in mutually enriching conversation, as the intersection of Du Bois’s visionary passion with Appiah’s pragmatic intelligence yields page after page of insight. Lines of Descent is an experience of pure intellectual elevation.” (Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise and Listen to This).
W. E. B. Du Bois never felt so at home as when he was a student at the University of Berlin. But Du Bois was also American to his core, scarred but not crippled by the racial humiliations of his homeland. In Lines of Descent, Kwame Anthony Appiah traces the twin lineages of Du Bois’ American experience and German apprenticeship, showing how they shaped the great African-American scholar’s ideas of race and social identity.
At Harvard, Du Bois studied with such luminaries as William James and George Santayana, scholars whose contributions were largely intellectual. But arriving in Berlin in 1892, Du Bois came under the tutelage of academics who were also public men. The economist Adolf Wagner had been an advisor to Otto von Bismarck. Heinrich von Treitschke, the historian, served in the Reichstag, and the economist Gustav von Schmoller was a member of the Prussian state council. These scholars united the rigorous study of history with political activism and represented a model of real-world engagement that would strongly influence Du Bois in the years to come.
With its romantic notions of human brotherhood and self-realization, German culture held a potent allure for Du Bois. Germany, he said, was the first place white people had treated him as an equal. But the prevalence of anti-Semitism allowed Du Bois no illusions that the Kaiserreich was free of racism. His challenge, says Appiah, was to take the best of German intellectual life without its parochialism–to steal the fire without getting burned.
“In Lines of Descent, Appiah has penned one of the most exquisite accounts of W. E. B. Du Bois’s intellectual heritage. The most towering figure of modern black thought and protest literature is recast here as ‘a cosmopolitan through and through,’ drawing deeply from the wells of learning in the early twentieth century German academy. This is not just another book about the genius of Du Bois, his wide learning or global predilections. Lines of Descent reveals that some of America’s most enduring notions of race and racial identity—from the ‘problem of the color line’ to ‘two warring ideals in one dark body’—are based on Du Bois’s earliest synthesis of European romantic notions of race, culture, and nation. Appiah reminds us that over the course of his long life, Du Bois strove to reconcile blackness as one among many, a thread in a tapestry of global humanity.”—Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America