“Chad Williams managed to write a thoroughly gripping story of failure. In light of an American Century defined by war, the durability of racism, and the elusive quest for democracy, Williams’s account of W. E. B. Du Bois’s inability to complete his major treatise on Black participation in the First World War is a window onto how the tragedies of industrial scale killing, colonialism, and the color line changed the world and a man. The unfinished manuscript haunted its author as much as its subject matter haunted the world. Du Bois’s romance with martial symbols and his unquenchable ambition clashed with his antiwar sensibilities and the racial terror he witnessed in the military abroad and in the streets at home—leaving America’s greatest intellectual in a state we’ve never seen: deeply wounded and vulnerable. A genuine masterpiece.” —Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
When W. E. B. Du Bois, believing in the possibility of full citizenship and democratic change, encouraged African Americans to “close ranks” and support the Allied cause in World War I, he made a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Seeking both intellectual clarity and personal atonement, for more than two decades Du Bois attempted to write the definitive history of Black participation in World War I. His book, however, remained unfinished. In The Wounded World, Chad Williams offers the dramatic account of Du Bois’s failed efforts to complete what would have been one of his most significant works. The surprising story of this unpublished book offers new insight into Du Bois’s struggles to reckon with both the history and the troubling memory of the war, along with the broader meanings of race and democracy for Black people in the twentieth century.
Drawing on a broad range of sources, most notably Du Bois’s unpublished manuscript and research materials, Williams tells a sweeping story of hope, betrayal, disillusionment, and transformation, setting into motion a fresh understanding of the life and mind of arguably the most significant scholar-activist in African American history. In uncovering what happened to Du Bois’s largely forgotten book, Williams offers a captivating reminder of the importance of World War I, why it mattered to Du Bois, and why it continues to matter today.
Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University. He earned a BA in History and African American Studies from UCLA, and both his MA and Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. He is author of the award-winning book Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (2010, University of North Carolina Press) and The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War (2023, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Minkah Makalani is the Director of the Center for Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. He works in Black political thought, intellectual history, and the Black radical tradition in the Caribbean and U.S. He is the author of, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC Press, 2011) and co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013).