Dec/Jan 2010

Back in Black

The case for Du Bois after the century of the color line

Peniel E. Joseph


African Americans, during slavery and after, have been among the most passionate and steadfast proponents of American democracy. Frederick Douglass, a former slave-turned-abolitionist and internationally recognized orator, was one of the nineteenth century's most renowned self-made men; he was also among the age's most effective advocates for holding the nation accountable to the promise of its democratic rhetoric, for all its citizens.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the preeminent black scholar of the twentieth century, followed the trail blazed by Douglass, predicting that the "color-line" would frame the politics, aspirations, and quarrels of his century. The modern civil rights movement's heroic period—between the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown desegregation decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—bore out Du Bois's forecast as it sought to combat the pervasive harm of Jim Crow and thereby extend the battle to transform American democracy. Since then, however, the record of progress on race has been mixed at best. By the 1970s, incipient culture wars over affirmative action, busing, and multiculturalism displaced more straightforward disputes over school desegregation, fair housing, and Jim Crow in public accommodations. Barack Obama's historic election as America's forty-fourth president, universally praised as a breakthrough moment in race relations, has actually set the nation on a far more modest course, with most advocates of racial equality merely looking to resume the linear narrative of progress interrupted during the past three decades of reaction.

This, then, seems a fitting moment to reappraise the unfulfilled struggle to re-define the character of our democracy in more equitable racial terms that Du Bois launched with the publication of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Two new works, one a book of provocative essays and the other an exploration of black political thought, attempt to fashion an intellectual way forward for black politics by excavating and reexamining Du Bois's legacy. Darker than Blue, a collection of three insightful, if uneven, essays by the scholar and cultural critic Paul Gilroy, wrestles mightily with the task of critically reevaluating what he calls the "moral economies" of "black Atlantic culture." Gilroy's essays—which began life as a 2006 W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture at Harvard University—situate black existence as part of a cosmopolitan and global society, the result of coerced and willful migrations from Africa. Gilroy adopts a wide-ranging—indeed at times freewheeling—topical compass for his ruminations on the post—Du Bois world, combining direct questions of race with considered discussions of political economy and popular culture. But an awkward writing style can obscure rather than illuminate Gilroy's argument. "After the occupation of Iraq, the oil-seeking, neo-imperial dynamic was delivered back home, transmitted deep into the tissue of the everyday," he writes in one all-too-typical aside.

His first essay argues that America's car culture has offered historically marginalized black consumers a dubious marker of achievement, which substitutes a status symbol for meaningful citizenship. He contends further that the automobile's impact on black political thought and activism needs to be studied more systematically—an oversight that he maintains has impoverished contemporary analysis of African-American politics and culture. While there is indeed a paucity of such car-centric scholarship, allied work on the Great Migration of southern black populations north and west has pointed up the critical role of mobility in shaping postwar social life and cultural politics in the African-American community.

Gilroy's second essay seeks to broaden the scope of traditional thinking about the modern history of human rights. He argues that our chronicles of rights struggles should acknowledge "the history of conquest and expansion" as their starting point and include "the debates over how colonies and slave plantations were to be administered." He notes that this outlook would highlight the work of such figures as Douglass, Frantz Fanon, and David Walker in the saga of human rights activism in the modern world. This is an important point, since black struggles are often excluded from the standard account of the human rights movement— even as black scholars, and scholars of other oppressed groups, have stressed the distinctive contribution of the black activist tradition to the broader history of human rights campaigns.

Gilroy's last and most potent essay includes a cogent riff on Du Bois's central notion of double consciousness: the idea that black Americans possessed a dual vision of American democracy that allowed them to see the world's brutality and hopefulness at once. Du Bois's words proved crucial, Gilroy writes, to the way in which African Americans helped to alter "the world's moral architecture." Gilroy trenchantly lays out the universalist promise of the double-consciousness critique at the same time as he bemoans the failures of the latter-day African-American community to follow through on the more hopeful tenor of Du Bois's insights, offering precious little resistance, in Gilroy's view, to American culture's drift into the crasser reaches of consumer capitalism. For Gilroy, reclaiming Du Bois for today's black activists and intellectuals requires that they update the notion of double consciousness for a more contingent, multicultural age. The challenge ahead for black activists, Gilroy writes, is to "rehabilitate the idea of multiple identities" and simultaneously to assert their own selfhood—a political statement that retains "a capacity to shock" in a white-dominated social order.

Meanwhile, political philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams's In the Shadow of Du Bois offers a more sustained and in-depth engagement with the legacy of Du Bois's thought, especially as it pertains to questions of black political activism and leadership. Like Gilroy, Gooding-Williams uses The Souls of Black Folk as his point of departure. More than its contributions to the struggle against Jim Crow, Gooding-Williams argues, Souls represents "Du Bois's outstanding contribution to modern political philosophy." Indeed, he places Du Bois as a generative figure in American political thought alongside the early modern and Enlightenment stable of social-contract theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Gooding-Williams simultaneously depicts Du Bois as a leading figure of "Afro-modern" thought, which harks back to the late eighteenth century and seminal figures such as Douglass and Martin Delaney.

Through a close and at times provocative reading of Souls, Gooding-Williams highlights Du Bois's concept of black politics as propelled by a group leadership seeking to achieve a kind of "self-realization" in line with the African-American community's core social and political values, as well as its spiritual strivings. Du Bois also pungently criticized the behavior of impoverished African Americans as a burden to more enlightened racial leadership, thus advancing a line of internal critique that has emerged in such diverse latter-day settings as sociologist William Julius Wilson's work on the underclass and Bill Cosby's pointed criticisms of the black poor.

Du Bois clearly heeded his own model of black political leadership, devoting the balance of his long life to a campaign to end segregation in American society through civil rights advocacy, critical scholarship such as his groundbreaking study of post-Civil War Reconstruction, and, perhaps most crucially, his editorship of the NAACP's Crisis magazine. Equally important, however, was Du Bois's work as a public intellectual, which offered a powerful conceptual framework that elucidated the political outlook of black Americans and the ideology of white supremacy alike. In Gooding-Williams's reading, Du Bois used the foundational notion of double consciousness to highlight the plight of blacks forced to measure their intellectual and material worth against the gaze of a hostile white world. The concept freed up black thinkers and activists, Gooding-Williams observes, to harness their own extraordinary powers of political vision to what had been a central obstacle to progress—the ceaseless burden of being marked as racial outliers. Throughout In the Shadow of Du Bois, Gooding-Williams asks, "[How,] given the increasing differentiation of African American experience . . . is a black politics that effectively fights racism and white supremacy possible?" The answer, at least provisionally, lies in a critical "revaluation of Du Bois's concepts of black politics, black identity, and white supremacy itself."

Darker than Blue and In the Shadow of Du Bois both raise profound questions about race, democracy, and citizenship in the age of Obama. Gilroy's suggestive takes on political economy, popular culture, and black political thought are at times too scattered to answer the questions his book raises. But that may be demanding too much; after all, Gilroy's engagement with Du Bois is also intended as a provocation—or as an elegy for a style of radical anticolonial racial politics that has been utterly and irrevocably transformed through civil rights victories, as well as via the extended processes of white domination and black assimilation. Gooding-Williams's more systematic and cohesive book, meanwhile, offers a forward-looking, if ambivalent, reckoning with the Du Bois tradition. The title itself carries a double meaning, clearly meant to evoke the enormous legacy of Du Bois's thought and the tight grip it exerts on black politics and intellectuals.

Viewed from another vantage, both books are eloquent testimonies to the endurance of Du Bois's legacy. Gilroy and Gooding-Williams, in laying claim to Du Bois as a foundational intellectual and activist for modern America, point up the multiple ways that contemporary black politics benefits from the depth and breadth of African and African-American history—even as the legatees of Du Bois continue to strain under that history's limitations.

Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University and the author of the forthcoming Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (Basic Civitas, 2010).

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March 25, 2013
5:34 am

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