On April 4, 2023, Williams officially published his new book, “The Wounded World: W.E.B. Dubois and the First World War.” In an interview with The Hoot, Williams discussed the key points of his book and the process of undertaking this written project.
Chad Williams (HIST and AAAS) is an Associate Professor of History and African and African American Studies and the departmental chair of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University. Williams received his B.A. in History and African American Studies from the University of California Los Angeles and his M.A. and Ph.D in History from Princeton University. Williams began his teaching career at Hamilton College and then began teaching at Brandeis in 2012. Williams’ research predominantly focuses on African American and U.S. History, as well as the history of Black Americans in World War I.
The Hoot: Your book, “The Wounded World: W.E.B Dubois and the First World War” was released just a few weeks ago. Can you tell me a little bit about the book and your process of writing it?
Williams: The beginnings of this book began in graduate school when I was working on my dissertation on African American soldiers in World War I. I had just started doing research at [University of Massachusetts] Amherst where W.E.B Dubois’ papers are located. I had seen a reference to Dubois’ World War I materials and I did not know what it was, but it sounded interesting and I thought I would check it out. So, I went to the library and I asked the librarian if I could see these papers and the librarian came back with six microfilm reels. I was stunned as I started going through the microfilm to see that it was an unfinished and ultimately unpublished book by Dubois on the Black experience in World War I. The manuscript was over 800 pages long—a proposed 21 chapters. In addition to the manuscript, all of Dubois’ research materials in correspondence were in this collection, and no other historian had ever written about it. It was truly an amazing discovery and I was really obsessed with trying to tell the story of this massive project that would have been one of Dubois’ most significant works in history [and] ultimately why he never finished it. It said a lot about Dubois’ life, his work, the significance of World War I within his life and work and what World War I says about the broader struggles of democracy and freedom for Black people in the 20th century.
The Hoot: How was this researching and writing process different from the previous books you have written?
Williams: So my first book came out of my doctoral dissertation which was a broad history of the experiences of Black soldiers and veterans during and after World War I. This was in many ways a harder book to write than that because I was writing about Dubois, who is a very complicated figure. But, I was also writing about Dubois writing about a book, so in some ways this is not a traditional story. At the end of the day, it is also a story about failure—what it means to believe in your country, to hope your country will live up to your ideals but ultimately realizing that it does not. So logistically in terms of the research, but also conceptually, it was a very challenging book to write. Also thinking about making it accessible to a larger reading audience, it was something that I had to be very conscious of doing as well.
The Hoot: In your book, do you mostly focus on Dubois’ struggle of not finishing his book, or do you try to retell his unpublished work?
Williams: My book is a pretty sweeping story of Dubois wrestling with the history, legacy, and challenges related to World War I. Dubois originally supported the war in 1918—he encouraged African Americans to [form] close ranks and forget their special grievances, support their country, put their country first and their rights second. That was a very controversial decision at the time and that is a decision that he ultimately came to regret—he wrestled with the weight of that decision for, really, most of his life. So in my book I really talk about Dubois’ struggle to make sense of the war and his own complicated place in it, and ultimately the failure of what Dubois’ inability to finish the book says about the larger failure of World War I—how the war was such a big and disillusioning subject for Dubois that he was unable to finish it.
The Hoot: What do you think Dubois’ book would have done for the Black community at that time, but also today?
Williams: That is something I always think about. I think if he had finished his book it would have been the definitive history of the Black experience in World War I. I think it really would have shaped our historical understandings of the significance of World War I for African Americans, but also for peoples of African descent throughout the African diaspora more broadly. It would have demonstrated how seriously Dubois took World War I as a historical moment, as a political moment, and his close and personal connection to it as well. I think his book would have really demonstrated to scholars during his time and today just how deeply World War I impacted him on a personal and intellectual level. So it would have stood as one the most significant works of history standing alongside his classic book, “Black Reconstruction,” which was published in 1935.
The Hoot: Would you say Dubois is portrayed correctly in other popular publications about him?
Williams: I think Dubois is such a big figure; there is so much of his life and work that we can talk about, and scholars have done that and explored all aspects of his life. However, I do think I am the first to really take his connections to World War I seriously. There have been some brilliant studies and biographies on Dubois, but I think my book is a pretty unique contribution.
The Hoot: As an author, how do you go about telling a story about a person you have never interacted with?
Williams: Fortunately there has been a lot written about Dubois, and he also wrote a lot. He was the author of 22 single-authored books, he wrote hundreds of articles and editorials and overall he was incredibly prolific. So ultimately, I have Dubois’ own words to work with. I have his correspondence over the years so I was able to recreate, as best I could, Dubois’ story, his journey throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and even into the ’40s of him trying to write his book and all the complications that came with it. Dubois is one of the most significant Black intellectuals in American history, if not the most important Black intellectual in American history, and he has a very revered status. One goal of mine in writing this book was trying to present him in a different light—an aspect of his life that we do not know too much about related to World War I. But, I also wanted to humanize him. I wanted to present to readers the Dubois that certainly was brilliant but also flawed in a lot of ways. Someone who wrestled with the tensions of hope and disillusionment, and who wanted to be an American but was ultimately unable to fully reconcile what he described as the double consciousness of being Black and being American at the same time.
The Hoot: What would you say Dubois’ story and work means to you as a person and educator?
Williams: Dubois is arguably the greatest Black scholar and activist in American history. He is a revered figure in African American Studies because of his intellectual contributions but also his political commitments as well. In many ways Dubois serves as the model for many of us in Black studies, so the process of writing this book was thrilling in many ways because of the opportunity to engage with Dubois. But it was also very challenging because he is such a monumental and towering figure. Ultimately, my book is a demonstration of Dubois’ tremendous intellect but also his commitments to grappling with: what does it mean to live in a wounded world? What does it mean to live in a world that is scarred by war, racism, white supremacy and by the failures of democracy? Those were challenges that we are still living with today, so Dubois is very timeless in that regard.
The Hoot: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Williams: I think doing the research was really enjoyable, as it was just one surprising discovery after another. This began when I first encountered Dubois’ materials as a graduate student. I found different letters that he was writing, different stories of Black veterans who were giving him their materials and hopes and aspirations that they had throughout the war, all of Dubois’ writings throughout the inner war period and even afterwards where he is demonstrating these connections to World War I. Overall, the research was very exciting and enjoyable, but also the process of writing it as well. As I said, I wanted to make it accessible to a larger reading audience, so being able to think about what that would look like and the storytelling aspects of the book, and ultimately making sure that my writing did justice to the drama of the story as well.
The Hoot: Is there anything else about your book or research that you would like to share?
Williams: I will say that I really began working on this book when I came to Brandeis. Although I had started a lot of the research prior, the support of Brandeis has been really instrumental in allowing me to finish this book. Brilliant students who assisted me with research, the Mandel Center for Humanities in providing support, and the Dean’s Office. This book is certainly a product of a lot of the support and encouragement from the Brandeis community which I am definitely grateful for.
The general public can find or purchase a copy of Chad Williams’ book, “The Wounded World: W.E.B. Dubois and the First World War” on Amazon and at bookstores around the greater Boston area.