We do not often think of the great men and women of history as complex and complicated emotional beings who harbored feelings and dispositions comparable to ours. We certainly do not legislate William Edward Burghardt DuBois’s emotional state.
The pace-setting W.E.B. DuBois remains an icon of Black intellectual accomplishment who transcended continental lines. A sociologist, historian and essayist, DuBois was the 20th century’s most famous American-born Pan-Africanist whose tireless efforts to conceptualize Black humanity has become the foundation of many other arguments.
But DuBois also divided opinions even among Black people. He was the chief advocate of The Talented Tenth – an idea conceived by white liberals in the late 19th century. The idea was that the few Black men who were educated (the so-called one-tenth) should use their social and economic capital to help Black people everywhere.
This view of how to develop Black America was in direct opposition to Booker T. Washington’s view that technical and vocational education would help Black individuals pick themselves from the ground. Simply put, while Washington favored individualist ambition through technical training, DuBois endorsed using a refined Black class to lead the masses.
If he divided opinions then, DuBois certainly divides them now too. It appears the scholar was a petty man who once threatened to cut off the famed Black performer Florence Mills from the circle of his friends if she did not send him a photo of hers. This occurrence was first publicized in 2009 through David Levering Lewis’ biography on DuBois but it still remains fairly unknown.
Mills was a dancer who put on shows in the United States and in Europe. She was also not shy to talk about politics, once telling a newspaper in London: “I want to help the colored people. I realize in my line of work I do much to help them. The stage is the quickest way to get to the people. My own success makes people think better of other colored people”.
Even if she held a view on civil rights that would be highly problematic today, Mills’ heart was in the right place. She was identified with the Harlem Renaissance cultural influencers who were committed to defending Black humanity at the onset of the 20th century.
This same 20th century posed the famous color-line problem, according to DuBois. He championed the setting up of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and even founded the literary mouthpiece of the group. The magazine was called The Crisis, perhaps to emphasize the urgency with which Black humanity needed to be defended.
So it just happened that on May 10, 1926, DuBois wrote a letter to Mills asking her photo for an issue of The Crisis. We know from the letter that it was not the first time DuBois had asked for the photo. The letter, in part, read:
If you go to Europe without sending me the photo I have been asking for, I shall cut you off from the list of my friends. I want badly the photo with the white wig. Please be sure to see that I get it right off.
These days when the story is told, it does sound like DuBois was badgering. If he had to ask multiple times, even for the noble cause of the NAACP, he would be harassing. Perhaps, that is what Mills felt because she did not send him the photo of herself in the white wig. That issue of The Crisis had to do with a cartoon drawing for the featured image.
We do not know if the two people remained friends after DuBois had made his threat. There is certainly no known record of DuBois ever contacting Mills again for that photo or on another issue.