January 5, 2021
W. E. B. Du Bois’s Autobiography is laced through with bitterness, understated and dignified but nonetheless palpable, at the thousand professional slights he endured. Of his tenuous, short-lived stint at the University of Pennsylvania, under the auspices of which he wrote The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois, for example, recalled:
In this appointment there was one fly which I have never mentioned; it would have been a fine thing if after this difficult, successful piece of work, the University of Pennsylvania had at least offered me a temporary instructorship…. Harvard had never dreamed of such a thing; a half century later one of Harvard’s professors said of a gifted Negro student: “We’d give him a position if he were not a Negro!” White classmates of lower academic rank than I, became full professors at Pennsylvania and Chicago. Here in my case an academic accolade from a great American university would have given impetus to my life work which I was already determined to make in a Negro institution in the South. The thing that galled was that such an idea never occurred to this institution whose head was a high official of the Sugar Trust. But I did not mention this rebuff. I did not let myself think of it. But then, as now, I know an insult when I see it.
His biographer notes that it was only at the very end of Du Bois’s long life (he lived to 95) that he discovered by chance, and it apparently touched him, that one of his books was assigned to a class at Berkeley. Du Bois was an embodiment of Thomas Edison’s ethic that “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He was clearly born with a lot of smarts, but he also kept to a rigorous work routine. He put in a solid 9.5 hours of mental labor each day and, come what may, tucked himself in bed at 10:00 pm sharp. He took his professional calling, both as a thinker and teacher, with utmost gravity. He was inspirational in the classroom (so his students attested) and his scholarly output was prodigious. It’s probably the case, then, that even if he had landed a position at a prestigious school that befitted his attainments, he wouldn’t have been corrupted by it and his talents wouldn’t have been squandered, as is often the case. A few decades ago Harvard assembled what was called a “Dream Team” of mostly young Afro-American scholars. A couple of them could be said to have possessed genuine talent. (Certainly not Henry “Skip” Gates, who’s just a race entrepreneur and obsequious flunkey of white people.) But little came of the Dream Team. Sometimes it’s better not to be discovered. In any event, whereas Du Bois lives and will forever live, his Lilliputian detractors are all forgotten. Who remembers Booker T. Washington (except as an object of contempt) or Walter White or Roy Wilkins? Du Bois acknowledged that he could be “bumptious,” that he was not a “back slapper,” that he had a sharp tongue and could be undiplomatic. But if by the end of his life, he had provoked into existence a veritable army of enemies, it wasn’t primarily due to a character defect, except if defect it be to speak (as he understood it) the truth and brook no compromise with it.
Am I consumed by bitterness? My natural gifts are most meager next to those of Du Bois. I work hard, but I don’t have his mental stamina, although, oddly enough, the older I get, the more hours I am able to put into study. So I don’t feel as if I can lay title to be indignant, in the style and spirit of Du Bois, at my professional travails. Even in ideal professional circumstances, my contribution would have been modest at best. What does rankle is this: First, I was deprived of the right to teach. Even DePaul University, when it denied me tenure, was forced to concede that I was an “outstanding teacher.” I can say without fear of contradiction that my teaching inspired students to think and to love the pursuit of knowledge. I can’t help but calculate that, if I taught 60 students per academic year, during the past 15 years that I’ve been unemployed, I could have touched, for the better, the lives of perhaps 1,000 young people. Second, with Du Bois I can say that “classmates of lower academic rank than I” landed tenure-track jobs, while I was a lowly adjunct nearly the whole of my professional life before I was finally expelled altogether from academia. Third, whereas I never harbored illusions that a door would be opened to me by the professional establishment, it was quite sobering to experience how many doors were slammed shut to me by my purported “comrades.” I toyed all day with the idea of ticking off name by name all the leftwing academics and media outlets that “cancelled” me the past three decades. I decided against it; it felt petty and tawdry, and would go on forever. When the great historian E. H. Carr passed, a nasty obituary was written up by an envious second-rater. Another great historian, E. J. Hobsbawm sent a letter to the publication in which he said, “E. H. Carr will survive his obituarists.” I’ve lived long enough to survive, my reputation intact, several of my prominent nemeses who have either vanished from the academic scene (Joan Peters, Daniel Goldhagen), or are now mocked by it (Dershowitz). I, too, have provoked a veritable army of enemies, but I’ve not been defeated. I continue to labor away, even as I have no office, no income, no networks, no contacts, no speaking invitations, no media presence. In an irony that I truly savor, this past year I was named the fifth most influential political scientist in the world for the years 2000 – 2020. So, as I said, sometimes it’s better not to be discovered.