Stanley Brodwin (essay date March 1972)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5779
SOURCE: "The Veil Transcended: Form and Meaning in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk," in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, March, 1972, pp. 303-21.
[In the essay below, Brodwin examines theme and structure in The Souls of Black Folk and remarks on Du Bois's presentation of black consciousness.]
No student of black culture in American can escape the melancholy conclusion that, amid the wide range of human tragedy slavery and racism have inflicted on an entire race, black men of talent and genius have had to suffer in more complex ways than their less-gifted brothers. Apart from the general agony he shared with his brethren, the black artist or intellectual has always been forced to channel his natural abilities and personal aims into political and social arenas where they could best be used to achieve civil rights and human dignity. Black intellectuals had to accept the sacrifice of personal ambition, recognizing that there were issues and causes that transcended individual goals. The spiritual compensations for such sacrifice could be great, as DuBois himself pointed out: "And to themselves in these days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black." But the price still had to be paid in order to soar above the smoke. The price was particularly heavy in literature, for no black writer could escape the racial imperative thrust on his work or person. Even the colonial poetess, Phillis Wheatley, whom Richard Wright described as being "at one" with her American culture and who carefully kept militant racial themes out of her work, was made the subject of racial controversy. Important nineteenth-century black writers such as William Wells Brown, James Madison Bell, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, Frances E. W. Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt all had to turn their literary efforts into attacks against slavery, disenfranchisement, or cultural stereotyping, using a variety of strategies in their works to do so.
Novelists like Sutton Griggs (and Chesnutt) finally turned away from fiction as a weapon with which to break down racial injustices. In the twentieth century, the writers of the "Harlem Renaissance" struggled to reconcile the claims of art and propaganda, a problem debated by such contemporary figures as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka), and Eldridge Cleaver. But in the whole spectrum of black writing from the colonial period until today, W. E. B. DuBois stands out as the one acknowledged genius who poured his energies into almost every literary form available to him. Indeed, he lived his thesis that the Negro is "primarily an artist." Today, however, despite his image as a propagandist, his academic reputation rests rightly on his great sociological and historical works, beginning with The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1683–1870 (1896). Yet he wrote a small body of effective poetry, five novels, an autobiography, and several volumes of what can only be called poetic essays which mix autobiographical and sociological matter. Out of all this work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) alone has reached a wide audience, in more than twenty editions. In the burgeoning Black Studies programs throughout the country, it is required reading, and is now—belatedly—included in American history and literature courses in some universities. James Weldon Johnson, who himself was a fine writer and scholar, wrote that The Souls of Black Folk has had "a greater effect upon and within the black race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin." In short, the work has become an established part of American literary culture and history. However, apart from an occasional appreciative glance at the literary aspects of this unified collection of essays, the book has received no extended criticism.
When it is examined, it is nearly always in terms of DuBois' radical break with Booker T. Washington's accommodationism and its evocation of a new spiritually militant mood from the black intelligentsia. The book's most famous line, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line" is invoked as DuBois' central insight, though DuBois later revised this idea in terms of a more general Marxist orientation. And there is no doubt that the book was in the vanguard of a social revolution that was soon to create, under DuBois' aegis, first the Niagara Movement and then the NAACP. It is only when The Souls of Black Folk is studied as a literary phenomenon, however, that its true meaning emerges. For beyond the clear sociological analysis of the black man's plight during the nineteenth century, DuBois presents an intensely personal vision of how one man confronted and transcended the complex tragic life generated in living behind the veil of the color line. To this end, DuBois employed a variety of literary techniques handled with skill: rhetorical tropes, allegory, symbolic patterns, personal confession, biography, and musical motifs from the sorrow songs or spirituals. Using all these elements to create his organic vision, DuBois structured fourteen essays in the form of a neo-Hegelian dialectic whose stage of synthesis carried him—and by extension, all those who would follow—into a spiritual realm of historical and racial understanding that does not merely rend, but transcends the veil of color. This literary strategy is at once relevant to both black and white man, giving the work its universal dimension.
DuBois recognized the fact that the black community could not, with its weak power base, achieve a social revolution completely on its own. He was able to see the symbiotic relationship between white and black in America, and he strove to enlighten his white audience as to the specific psychological and economic tensions and bonds that affected both races. Therefore The Souls of Black Folk had to be not only a force in awakening black pride, but also a spiritual guidebook for whites, most of whom had little awareness of the genuine strivings and psychic realities in black folk. Like many black writers, DuBois had to speak to audiences of two different mental and cultural dispositions, and bridge the gap between them. He had to integrate the "protest" or propaganda aspects of the work with the purely descriptive and personal. And beyond both of these tasks—intrinsic to the very nature of black writing in America—DuBois had to reconcile the "twoness" within himself, if only to give personal validity to his larger social and spiritual aims.
All this DuBois sketches in for the reader in "The Forethought." He will talk about the spiritual strivings of blacks and the effect of emancipation upon them; he will talk of "the two worlds within and without the Veil," and the "central problem of training men for life." Finally, he will speak of the "deeper recesses" of black souls. What this structure actually does is to delineate three major phases of black history and strivings. The first phase is that of revolt and freedom—the whole Civil War complex—the second phase is that of moral, intellectual, and economic adjustment, attendant with all the temptations of the white man's values for blacks, passivity in the face of white power, and the effect of personal tragedy on DuBois' own striving; the third phase deals with the necessity to affirm life in the face of tragedy as seen through Alexander Crummell, "John Jones," and the sorrow songs themselves.
Throughout this pattern runs the thread of DuBois' spiritual autobiography. In the first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," DuBois tells us how, as a young man growing up in New England, he discovered the Veil between himself and his fellow white students, and how he "held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows." Here we have a passive transcendence which will gradually develop over the years into a dynamic and intellectual action. But this passive transcendence enabled DuBois to reflect upon his own inner life and that of his race. Reflection yielded two spiritual poles around which the whole work revolves: self-consciousness and culture. Indeed, it would not be an oversimplification to say that these two concepts embodied the values implicit in DuBois' whole life. For he saw that the Negro—"born with a Veil"—lived in a world which "yielded him no true self-consciousness, but only lets [sic] him see himself through the revelation of the other world." A black man "ever feels this twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two unreconciled strivings." Therefore, the "history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." This "truer self" admits of no subordination of one side to another. Although DuBois did push his American identity aside in order to affirm his being a Negro when he came to Fisk University, at this point he wishes only to make it possible "to be both a Negro and an American." The result of this synthesis is to allow the Negro to be a "co-worker in the Kingdom of culture." DuBois knows, too, what the pitfalls will be before one can reach such a synthesis. For in his attempt to be a coworker, the Negro may actually find himself slipping backward instead of going forward. Indeed, as DuBois asserts: "real progress may be negative and actual advance be relative retrogression." To dramatize the Negro's problem in this respect, DuBois employs the Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes:
Perhaps Atlanta was not christened for the winged maiden of dull Boeotia;… swarthy Atalanta, tall and wild, would marry only him who outraced her; and how the wily Hippomenes laid three apples of gold in the way. She fled like a shadow, paused, startled over the first apple, but even as he stretched his hand, fled again; hovered over the second, then, slipping from his hot grasp; flew over river, vale and hill; but as she lingered over the third, his arms fell around her, and looking on each other, the blazing passion of their love profaned the sanctuary of Love, and they were cursed. If Atlanta be not named for Atalanta, she ought to have been.
DuBois was troubled that the growth of industrialism in the South would gradually brutalize the last vestiges of a Southern humanistic tradition though feudal myths might still linger in them. The goal of wealth was replacing the Platonic ideals of "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness" and posing a genuine spiritual threat to the "Black World beyond the Veil." In a vivid image, DuBois sees "this young black Atalanta" infected with "mammonism," degenerating into an economic miscegenation with the South: "lawless lust with Hippomenes."
It is this condition—or temptation—that makes the Negro peer into himself "darkly as through a veil." Here the allusion to St. Paul's message to the Corinthians carries the double suggestiveness as to what black salvation is in the dark veil-mirror of existence, and as to what might be the depth of black guilt if the race cannot penetrate to spiritual values instead of material ones. For the black man may see himself, as all others, darkly, affirmatively, and save himself for himself. "So," DuBois writes "dawned the time of Strum und Drang" within the black soul. The storm and stress is, of course, also within the whole structure of black adjustment to emancipation and the economic stresses that soon followed. These problems are studied carefully in the essay on Booker T. Washington, whose compromising speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, according to DuBois, set back the black struggle for manhood and civil rights. And in the essays "Of the Wings of Atalanta" and "Of the Training of Black Men," DuBois formulated his doctrine of the "Gospel of Sacrifice," insisting that young, dynamic blacks "learn of a future fuller than the past, and hear the voice of Time: 'Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.'" Like Goethe's Wilhelm Meister [the protagonist of the play of the same name from which the preceding German quote was taken], they must learn to renounce, and renounce they must. DuBois is grateful to the Freedmen's Bureau for what it was able to accomplish for Negro education during Reconstruction, though it failed to fulfill its purposes entirely; he is grateful for the New England "schoolmarms" who came down South to teach blacks; but the Negro intellectual elite, the Talented Tenth, was not being reached. Under the control of Southern white money, Negro schools were kept basically industrial and second-rate, blunting the drive toward a genuine higher education blacks so desperately needed, but which seemed to threaten white supremacy. The question of higher education was DuBois' idée fixe, and he strove to be a living example of black intellectual accomplishment. DuBois wrote of the universities that they must be the "Wings of Atalanta" which will bear the Negro past the "temptation of the golden fruit." The university was central for the movement that would lead blacks into a meaningful synthesis between self-consciousness and culture:
The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of a popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. Above our modern socialism and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centers of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-government; that will love and labor in its own way untrammeled alike by old and new.
This is a statement that derives from DuBois' immersion in New England intellectual life as well as his own firsthand knowledge of black needs; it is a statement that consciously evokes the values and rhetorical language of Emerson and William James. For we must not forget that DuBois studied with James at Harvard and held him in supreme regard.
At the end of this chapter, DuBois brings his personal dialectic to its climax. His blackness (thesis) and his Americanness (antithesis) have been bridged by learning, teaching, and confronting the duality within himself; then, bearing himself past the temptation of the golden apples which threatened to destroy any spiritual reconciliation, DuBois is at last able to penetrate to his own self-consciousness and culture (synthesis):
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.
Here DuBois has replaced the lure of the golden apples with the lure of the knowledge that transcends color; in so doing, he has made himself the incarnation of the ideal which perceptive white, as well as black, men cherished. A meeting ground is established for both races, but it is a ground which implicitly flatters and inspires each at the same time.
While a dialectic progression to a high synthesis was perhaps DuBois' most important strategy of form, he did not ignore other techniques. One of the most important of these is thematic imagery. As a man "who probably felt much more poetry than he wrote," DuBois was well aware of the powerful impact vivid imagery makes in any kind of literature. At least two of his poems, "The Song of the Smoke" (1899) and "A Litany at Atlanta" (1906) are notable for their remarkable images and have become indispensable to any study of black poetry in America. The Souls of Black Folk contains a wide range of imagery which derive from four main sources: war, the Bible, Greek mythology, and nature, DuBois speaks of the "advance guard" of young black students climbing toward their "Canaan"; of the need to use the ballot as a "weapon" against gradual disenfranchisement and economic rape; of the need for the white man to know that if "your heart sickens in the blood and dust of battle," for a young black boy "the dust is thicker and the battle fiercer." There is the necessary warning that the black will grasp at a "gospel of revolt" if his conditions are not ameliorated. DuBois said clearly that "the doctrines of passive submission embodied in the newly learned Christianity" and wielded by that all-important life-phenomenon for the black—his church—were creating "a note of revenge" in the souls of his people genuinely seeking freedom.
Biblical imagery and allusions appear constantly in The Souls of Black Folk, and I have already alluded to a few of them. DuBois accepted—as a basic metaphor, if nothing else—the traditional black identification with the Children of Israel and the search for their Promised Land. DuBois' language often takes on biblical rhythm and syntax as when he cries "Why did God make me an outcast in mine own house?" After speaking of his being "wed with Truth," DuBois asks America: "Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?" Then there is the religious "awakening," when "the pent-up vigor of ten million souls shall sweep irresistibly toward the Goal, out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where all that makes life worth living—Liberty, Justice, and Right—is marked 'For White People Only.'" The universal biblical image of death is repeated, most poignantly, in the chapter on the death of his son, "Of the Passing of the First-Born." The "Shadow of Death" covers his child, who was born within the Veil. DuBois had struggled to transcendence through sacrifice and knowledge, but his child achieved it through death:
Are there so many workers in the vineyard that the fair promise of this little body could lightly be tossed away? The wretched of my race that line the valleys of the nation sit fatherless and unmothered; but Love sat beside his cradle, and in his ear Wisdom waited to speak. Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep, then, child—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet—above the Veil.
Yet, in the following chapter, "Of Alexander Crummell," he uses the same imagery with a note of affirmation. For Alexander Crummell, a remarkable black clergyman who spent many years in Africa as well as America fighting for black dignity and culture, triumphed over the "temptation[s] of Hate … Despair … and Doubt, that ever steals along with twilight. Above all, you must hear of the vales he crossed,—the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death." We immediately think of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, as DuBois wishes us to do, and to see in Crummell a black Christian who will one day sit with a King: "a dark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the early damned, saying, as he laid those heart-wrung talents down, 'Well done!' while round about the morning stars sat singing."
Along with biblical patterns and images, DuBois exploited the Greek tradition in Western culture. The myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes was used to penetrate the dilemma young black intellectuals found confronting them. In the chapter "Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece," DuBois uses another myth to illuminate the plight of the black worker and sharecropper. The essay is a brilliant analysis of the economic conditions in the ante- and postbellum South and the role cotton played in shaping them. Land values, rent, crops, and the economic heritage of slavery are all discussed, and it is made clear how the black man was forced into unending debt and peonage. The golden fleece of cotton now covers a "Black and human sea" in America, far from its mythical home in Asia Minor, the Aegean and Black Sea lanes where … "one might frame a pretty and not far-fetched analogy of witchery and dragon's teeth, and blood and armed men, between the ancient and the modern quest of the Golden Fleece in the Black Sea." The wry pun on the Black Sea gives the passage a glint of bitter humor, but the conception as a whole makes startlingly vivid the transformation of the past's noble and imaginative mythology into the dehumanizing Southern myth of King Cotton and the pseudo-aristocratic plantations built on serf-black labor. Indeed, the city of Atlanta, Queen of The Cotton Kingdom, had already been dubbed by DuBois as the "new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world." DuBois well knew he was struggling against a system which seemed to most blacks fate itself.
Finally, one passage may be used to illustrate DuBois' frequent use of nature imagery in vivifying his narrative. He is imagining Crummell's confrontation with Bishop Onderdonk, a corpulent white clergyman who has rejected the idea of Negro representation in his Church convention:
I seem to see the wide eyes of the Negro wander past the Bishop's broadcloth to where the swinging glass doors of the cabinet glow in the sunlight. A little blue fly is trying to cross the yawning keyhole. He marches briskly up to it, peers into the chasm in a surprised sort of a way, and rubs his feelers reflectively; then he essays its depths, and, finding it bottomless, draws back again. The dark-faced priest finds himself wondering if the fly too has faced its Valley of Humiliation, and if he will plunge into it—when lo! it spreads its tiny wings and buzzes merrily across, leaving the watcher wingless and alone.
The imagery that DuBois employed in The Souls of Black Folk was the kind familiar to most intelligent readers at that time. DuBois used such imagery not only because he was imbued with traditional nineteenth-century notions of literary culture, but because the imagery created an esthetic commonality between himself and his white reader. At the same time, his display of well-earned erudition and easy familiarity with the cultural signs of the white world helped to elevate the image of the black mind in many reader's eyes.
It is the chapter "Of the Coming of John," however, that best reveals the peak of DuBois' art in The Souls of Black Folk. Here is a section that can easily stand as a self-contained short story and which contains all the lineaments of that genre. Description of locale, characterization, plot, and imagery all combine to make it a paradigm of DuBois' tragic vision which remained darkly at the back of his thrust be transcendence. The bare outline of the story suggests a racial tragedy more reminiscent of Richard Wright's early tales in Uncle Tom's Children than what we would expect from DuBois' profound sociological genius. Young "John Jones" is a "long, straggling fellow" forever late for his classes at a preparatory school in Georgia, but a constant source of high merriment to this schoolmates. A good-natured but lazy student, he gets suspended, only to work his way back to school and college. Now filled with the seriousness of life, John returns to his hometown, Altamaha by the sea, in Southeastern Georgia. His family and the black community await his coming in joy and trepidation. At the same time, the son of the town's white judge arrives from Princeton. The two boys had met at a performance of Lohengrin, and the black John had to give up his seat to the white John, who could not acknowledge the black youth he had known as a playmate. The black John, now a chastened young man of profound depths, returns home to teach according to the Judge's rule of preventing "fool ideas of rising and equality" coming into his people's minds. But John begins to teach "dangerous" notions—in particular, the ideas of the French Revolution. His school is, of course, closed. After the judge's decision, the white John, himself now aimless, drifts off into the woods where he meets and attempts to seduce a Negro kitchen maid. The black John, having decided to leave Altamaha and to follow the "North Star," also wanders into these same woods, brooding on his defeat. Seeing "his dark sister struggling in the arms of a tall and fair-haired man," he silently picks up a fallen limb and kills him. Then, as in a daze, he remembers his early prankish school days and the discovery of his identity while the melodies of Lohengrin pass through his mind. He sits and waits for the lynch mob to get him, but can only feel pity for the "haggard white-haired man" with the rope. His eyes closed, John turns toward the sea, "and the world whistled in his ears."
The character and destiny of John Jones are clearly a merging of two symbolic types; he is in the first instance the embodiment of the tragic fate implicit in the black man's striving to get beyond the debased heritage of slavery. When John comes to talk at his Church, he reflects only on "what part the Negroes of this land would take in the striving of the new century." His sister can only ask him, "does it make every one—unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?" His answer can only be that it does. As a sign of her own awakening depth and response to John, she too now wishes to be unhappy. The irony is that racism will not even allow the Negro the luxury of his unhappiness, an unhappiness born out of his newfound but stifled awareness of identity and world culture. Such frustration, DuBois makes clear, can and does create an inner resentment and despair so deep that violence becomes the last meaningful action. In the end, John—and the Negro—nevertheless achieve a moral dimension denied to the white and a pure, though isolated, relation to "The great brown sea" of nature. Second, John is a black John the Baptist preparing a way in the wilderness for salvation through knowledge. At the Church, John can only scold the bickering Baptists and Methodists:
"Today," he said, with a smile, "the world little cares whether a man be a Baptist or Methodist … so long as he is good and true. What difference does it make whether a man be baptized in river or washbowl, or not at all? Let's leave all that littleness, and look higher." Then thinking of nothing else, he slowly sat down. A painful hush seized that crowded mass. Little had they understood of what he said, for he spoke an unknown tongue, save the last word about baptism; that they knew, and they sat very still while the clock ticked.
He is another voice crying in the wilderness. But this black John, emancipated from the fundamentalist traditions of his fathers, has no Savior to turn to, unless it is the freedom of the mind itself. And though he kills in the end, that inner freedom is not lost, though it is rendered impotent to change the world. John is lynched—America's version of crucifixion—but there seems little hope that its meaning will be recognized. There is only vengeance and countervengeance. Throughout the story there runs the poetic motif of the sea which gives a rich and universal quality to its mood. John Jones "came to us from Altamaha … where the sea croons to the sands and the sands listen till they sink half drowned beneath the waters, rising only here and there in long, low islands." And when he goes to New York after his graduation, the hurried masses remind him "of the sea … so changelessly changing, so bright and dark, so grave and gay." Most significantly, John drifts into a vision of his home, his mother, and his sister as he listens to the music of Lohengrin: "And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that last ethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky." This is the sea toward which he turns his closed eyes at the end of the story, the sea whose movement from ebb to flow symbolically drowns and then regenerates his heart's needs. For John belongs to Altamaha and its rice fields, the natural beauty of the earth he is heir to, the tragedy of the black man in the midst of it all; yet he is also heir to that mystic world of the knights of the Holy Grail whose quest in his own way he emulates. Indeed, DuBois may well have meant to suggest symbolic parallels between John and Lohengrin. Both characters are charged with mystically conceived missions; Lohengrin must keep his identity a secret in order to do good; John must find his identity; both meet treachery. But Lohengrin can return to the Knights of the Holy Grail having freed Gottfried from being a swan; John frees a sister and faces a lynch mob with only a dream of the sea beyond in his mind. The reality of the black man in the American South and the high mystic romanticism of Wagner symbolize two contradictory states of being, but for DuBois the contradiction can be resolved by the capacity of the mind to synthesize and transcend experience. John begins as stereotype and ends as a doomed but self-conscious and cultured hero. He is at once an individual and "collective" hero. In him reside the souls of black folk. Sociology and poetry are harmoniously merged.
DuBois chose to end The Souls of Black Folk with an impassioned analysis and appreciation of Negro spirituals, or "sorrow songs." Beginning with "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See," in the first essay, he prefaces a bar of music from various spirituals to each succeeding essay, thereby giving the reader a chance, musically, to feel the particular pathos so fundamentally part of the black's "soul beauty." Many of the great spirituals are represented: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Roll, Jordan, Roll," "My Way's Cloudy," "Steal Away to Jesus," and others. Each spiritual, as DuBois carefully points out was chosen to make a musical comment on the chapter it prefaced. But what DuBois centers on, despite his clear pride and exultation in the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their contribution to American music, is the way the sorrow songs reflect a primal and vital African past. He sees clear differences among the songs, differences which again demonstrate cultural variety and growth: "The first is African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land. The result is … distinctively Negro … but the elements are both Negro and Caucasian." DuBois feels that the sorrow songs in themselves are cultural proof as to how deep the black man's spirit has penetrated white America's. This is yet another synthesis that, if rightly appreciated, describes the "soul" of black folk. Here is yet another key to transcendence:
Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung. If somewhere in this whirl and chaos of things there dwells Eternal Good, pitiful yet masterful, then anon in His good time America shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free.
In terms of DuBois' overall strategy in The Souls of Black Folk, the sorrow songs fulfill a vital stylistic function. Their profound and direct emotionalism conveyed through the images of a folk spirit, help to balance and soften DuBois' own literarily sophisticated stance. Images like "There's a little wheel a-turnin' in a-my heart," and "I know moonrise, I know star-rise / I walk in the moonlight, I walk in the starlight / I'll die in the grave and stretch out my arms," stand in striking contrast to DuBois' own intense rhetoric often saturated with alliteration: "Even so is the hope that sang in the songs of my fathers well sung." DuBois frequently uses inversions and lapses, occasionally, into language like "Lo," "anon," and "hark!" He employs archaic biblical forms such as "Hast thou." His prose is often "purple" and even quaint: "I have seen a land right merry with the sun, where children sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest." But the final poetic effect with which DuBois wishes to leave us is captured in the concluding spiritual, "Let us cheer the weary traveller / Along the heavenly way."
With all of DuBois' mighty efforts to affirm life and transcend the Veil, critics were still struck by a "note of pessimism" running throughout The Souls of Black Folk. And necessarily so. For DuBois saw the spiritual havoc the Veil played upon his race. The "double life … must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism." In 1903, DuBois saw "two groups of Negroes, the one in the North, the other in the South, represent these divergent ethical tendencies, the first tending toward radicalism, the other toward hypocritical compromise." DuBois' hope then was that the "deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart" would save blacks from such choices. And while radicalism and compromise have taken on new connotations in the contemporary scene, the rise of Martin Luther King and other black religious leaders perhaps gives credence to DuBois' view—despite the assassinations—and the still turbulent racial strife in America. Yet The Souls of Black Folk must be studied and read not only as political prophecy but as spiritual scripture. As Alvin F. Poussaint points out, "the whole concept of … black consciousness found its beginnings in the mind of DuBois." The real task of DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk was to render that consciousness palpable, as it were, and to invoke it so powerfully that it would have inspirational effect on black and white alike. His strategy was to translate social and historical "facts" into the perceptual framework of an ideal. Specific analyses or predictions might come in time to be revised, or even rejected, but the ideal—the "good, the beautiful, and the true"—had to be established in the hearts and minds of his readers. This DuBois achieved through an art form and style which made it possible to glimpse his own soul constantly striving to transcend the Veil.
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W. E. B. Du Bois 1868–1963
(Full name William Edward Burghardt Du Bois) American essayist, journalist, historian, novelist, biographer, poet, playwright, nonfiction writer, speech writer, critic, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Du Bois's career. See also W. E. B. Du Bois Criticism (Volume 2).
Du Bois was a major force in twentieth-century society who helped define African-American social and political causes in the United States. Alternately considered a leader and an outcast, Du Bois espoused controversial opinions about race and politics and was regarded by many as a prophet. He is widely remembered for his conflict with Booker T. Washington over the role of blacks in American society—an issue that he treated at length in the essays collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). A writer of important works in many genres, Du Bois is particularly known for his pioneering role in the study of black history. According to Herbert Aptheker, however, Du Bois was above all a "history maker," and his works and ideas continue to attract attention and generate controversy.
Du Bois had an almost idyllic childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Class and race distinctions were negligible in the small town of 5,000, where Du Bois's family was part of a community of fifty blacks. When his mother died soon after his high school graduation, some residents of the town gave Du Bois a scholarship on condition that he attend Fisk University, a southern school founded for the children of emancipated slaves. Du Bois accepted the scholarship and in 1885 traveled to Fisk in Nashville, Tennessee—his first journey to the southern United States. "No one but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism," Du Bois wrote in The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1968). Yet he was "deliriously happy" at Fisk, where he met students of his own race, excelled at his studies, and during summers taught young blacks who lived in destitute rural areas of Tennessee. After graduating with honors from Fisk, Du Bois entered Harvard in 1888. There he met several professors who would provide lifelong inspiration, particularly William James, who became a mentor and friend. After receiving a bachelor's degree, Du Bois studied for two years at the University of Berlin. In 1896 he received his doctorate from Harvard—the first black American to do so—and published his dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. Du Bois's efforts at finding a teaching position, however, proved frustrating. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, commissioned Du Bois to do a sociological study of the city's black population but did not offer him a faculty position. Du Bois eventually found a position at Atlanta University, where he taught from 1897 to 1910 and 1934 to 1944. In 1905 Du Bois formed the Niagara Movement, the first black protest movement of the twentieth century. Du Bois helped institute a more lasting movement in 1909 when he became the only black founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From 1910 to 1934 Du Bois served as the organization's director of publicity and research, and as editor of Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, which became one of the most prominent journals directed at a black audience. Du Bois contributed editorials condemning lynching and disenfranchisement, and his discussion of arts and letters in Crisis has been credited as a catalyst for the Harlem Renaissance literary movement. Du Bois's popularity as a leader of black America began to decline in 1918 with the publication of the editorial "Close Ranks," which urged support for American involvement in World War I, and his conflict with Marcus Garvey, the popular Jamaican leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and "back-to-Africa" movement. Du Bois's position in the NAACP also became tenuous and strained. He was removed from the organization twice for ideological differences, once after opposing the NAACP's idea of integration, and later for supporting Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for president in 1948 while the NAACP's executive secretary unofficially campaigned for Harry Truman. In 1951 Du Bois was indicted as an unregistered "agent of a foreign principal" because of his involvement in the "subversive" Peace Information Center, an organization that sought to inform Americans about international events and to abolish the atomic bomb. Although Du Bois was acquitted, his passport remained in the custody of the United States government. Awarded the Intermational Lenin Prize in 1958, Du Bois became a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961, shortly before renouncing his American citizenship. He died at the age of ninety-five in Accra, Ghana.
Du Bois's works spread across a wide range of genres and subjects including history, sociology, fiction, biography, and autobiography. His most celebrated work, The Souls of Black Folk, is a collection of fourteen essays that comment on the state of blacks in America. According to Arnold Rampersad, The Souls of Black Folk became "perhaps the most influential work on blacks in America since Uncle Tom's Cabin." In the essay "On Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," Du Bois praised Washington for preaching "Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training," but condemned his apologies to those in power, maintaining that Washington "does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions and opposes the higher training of our brighter minds." Other essays were largely autobiographical and discussed the "twoness" of being both American and black—"two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is a systematic, sociological study of Philadelphia's black population. Commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, the study includes data gathered from approximately 5,000 interviews and pioneered the scholarly study of black Americans. Du Bois's historical works include The Gift of Black Folk (1924), which examines the contributions blacks have made to civilization; Black Reconstruction (1935), a revisionist interpretation that employs a Marxist perspective and focuses on the role blacks played in Reconstruction; and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939), in which Du Bois outlined the history of blacks in Africa and America. In addition to his nonfiction, Du Bois also published five novels during his career. The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) centers on a young black man who, after gaining some education, travels North, where he becomes involved in politics and then returns to the South to further the struggle of blacks for education and a better life. Dark Princess, published in 1928, concerns a young black man who, embittered by racism, leaves America for Europe, where he becomes involved in politics and a plot against colonialism. The Black Flame (1976) trilogy includes The Ordeal of Mansart (1957), Mansart Builds a School (1959), and Worlds of Color (1961). The trilogy centers on the life of a black man who strives to serve his race as a teacher. Though not gifted intellectually, the protagonist is honorable and through his story, Du Bois dramatizes the major events of black history in America and the culture of the American South. Capitalism is depicted in a negative fashion in the novels whereas socialism is portrayed in a positive light.
Much of the commentary on Du Bois has centered on his controversial political views, particularly his turn toward Communism and support for Stalinism. His fiction, for example, has been largely ignored. Nevertheless, many of Du Bois's works are considered ground-breaking. The Philadelphia Negro, for example, was the first systematic study of an urban black population, while The Souls of Black Folk, scholars contend, remains one of the most profound and succinct delineations of the dilemma of black Americans. "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," declared Du Bois to the Pan-African Congress in 1900, and his famous statement, which became the introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, has been hailed as prophetic. Despite the controversy that surrounded his ideas and actions throughout his lifetime, Du Bois continued to fight for equality between races. Arnold Rampersad wrote: "Far more powerfully than any other American intellectual, [Du Bois] explicated the mysteries of race in a nation which, proud of its racial pluralism, has just begun to show remorse for crimes inspired by racism."
Arlene A. Elder (essay date December 1973)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4493
SOURCE: "Swamp Versus Plantation: Symbolic Structure in W. E. B. Du Bois' The Quest of the Silver Fleece," in Phylon, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 358-67.
[In the following essay, Elder discusses the themes of class, race, and morality in Du Bois's novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece.]
Although in the past commentators on the writing of W. E. B. DuBois have concentrated upon his historical and sociological works, some recent critics are intrigued by his fictional presentation of the black adventure in America. Most of this new critical interest centers upon his trilogy, The Black Flame (1957–1961), a historically based saga of the Mansart family. DuBois' first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is, nonetheless, equally interesting in its artistic presentation of the economic, political, and social forces shaping black life. It is a crowded and complex work, shifting its action from the rural South to Washington, D.C. and back again, and achieves its unity of plot and statement through a carefully constructed framework of contrasting symbols. The Quest of the Silver Fleece is structured upon the clash of two opposing world views, that of the Swamp and that of the Plantation. The Swamp represents all that is free, wild, joyful, and loving, the Plantation, all that is self-serving and exploitative.
DuBois successfully avoids the obvious trap of simplistically equating the Swamp with black life and the Plantation with white. While his main concern in the book is to demonstrate the physical and mental serfdom which trapped blacks even after Emancipation and to suggest effective courses of action to overcome this kind of slavery, he recognizes that some whites, too, were oppressed by economic and political conditions and that some blacks knowingly profited from the subservience of their people. Therefore, he presents self-sacrificial whites, like Miss Smith, the Northern schoolteacher who devotes her life to educating Southern blacks, and Afro-Americans like Caroline Wynn, who have capitulated to the world's injustice and wish only to manipulate it to their own advantage. Plantation and Swamp morality, then, have more to do with the tone of the soul than with the color of the skin.
Nor does DuBois paint the Swamp mentality as all good and the Plantation view as all evil. Primitivism, which is the weaker side of Swamp life, he shows as insufficient to advance a people in an industrial economy. Primitivism consists of limiting qualities, historically generated in blacks, such as the subservience, ignorance, and acceptance of degradation found in the swamp witch, Elspeth, which must be eliminated before blacks can compete with whites. Moreover, for all its inhumane aspects, the Plantation viewpoint does encourage ambition and a thirst for knowledge, which DuBois considers essential for any group's success. Racial, class, and even human advancement, then, rest for DuBois in the development of the best qualities of both philosophies.
The actual swamp in the book is an area a short distance from the white-dominated town and farms. It is both ugly and beautiful, a source of nightmares as well as dreams, of despair as well as hope, a spot where black exploitation has traditionally festered as well as the place where black self-determination could ultimately flourish.
Its first description suggests the danger, despair, and loss of vision which it represents: "Night fell. The red waters of the swamp grew sinister and sullen. The tall pines lost their slimness and stood in wide blurred blotches all across the way, and a great shadowy bird arose, wheeled and melted, murmuring, into the black-green sky." Deep in the darkness of the swamp is the hut of Elspeth, "an old woman—short, broad, black and wrinkled, with fangs and pendulous lips and red, wicked eyes." It is in this hut that local white men gather at night to drink and carry on the ante-bellum tradition of sexually exploiting black women.
Zora, the wild, ignorant "elf-girl," was born in the swamp and knows it intimately. Hating Elspeth, her mother, and the sordid life at the hut, she lives in a private world of fantasy, conjuring up creatures symbolic of both the beauty and ugliness she sees around her. "And over yonder behind the swamps," she imagines, "is great fields full of dreams." Zora's dreams, spawned by the contrasts she observes, hang "like big flowers, dripping dew and sugar and blood." The inhabitants of her dream-land reflect both the hope and despair of her life:
"And there's little fairies there that hop about and sing, and devils—great ugly devils that grabs at you and roasts and eats you if they gits you!… Some devils is big and white, like ha'nts; some is long and shiny, like creepy, slippery snakes; and some is little and broad and black…."
Many of the blacks of the region bedevil themselves and participate in the creation of their own hell by rejecting the education Miss Smith offers and forgetting any dreams they once had of escaping the oppressive conditions of tenant farming. Because they cannot read the contracts they are required to sign, they ignorantly bind themselves for life to the wealthy white Cresswells. At first, they even reject the chance for self-determination which Zora offers them with her plan for a black-run farming commune. They cling, instead, to the old gospel of happiness-in-the-hereafter fed to them by the self-serving Preacher Jones. Ignorance, fear, jealousy of each other, despair, and hopeless acquiescence in their own debasement are the self-defeating qualities which the hag, Elspeth, and the terrible "gray and death-like wilderness" of the swamp represent.
There is, however, a beautiful, joyous, vibrant aspect to the swamp which is reflected in the souls of some of the black and white characters. Zora, "black, and lith, and tall, and willowy," with her music, her poetry, and her dreams is DuBois' most striking representative of good Swamp qualities. Despite the area's general gloom, at times the "golden sun" pours "floods of glory through the slim black trees," and "the mystic sombre pools [catch] … and [toss] … back the glow in darker duller crimson." The intensity of this description is reflected in Zora, her "heavy hair" bursting from its fastenings and lying "in stiffened, straggling masses, bending reluctantly to the breeze, like curled smoke." She recognizes in herself the pent-up aspirations of her people and dreams eventually not of her childhood devils and dripping blood but of the escape from Elspeth which Miss Smith and the world beyond the swamp offer to her.
Her plans for escape are dependent upon the Silver Fleece, the special crop of cotton which she and Bles grow on her island deep in the swamp. From its sale, she intends to finance her education. DuBois extends the symbol of the Fleece to include all the cotton grown in the South and uses it to reveal the close relationship Southern blacks feel with the soil and the difference between this kinship and the Plantation mentality's emphasis upon property and profits.
"I don't like to work," Zora once confided to Bles. "You see, mammy's pappy was a king's son, and kings don't work. I don't work; mostly I dreams. But I can work, and I will—for the wonder things—and for you." As a matter of fact, she works until her hands are raw and bleeding, clearing the island to plant the magic cotton seeds. She even comes close to losing her life in a flood, building dikes to protect her young crop. The tender, young cotton sprouts become her new "dream-children, and she tended them jealously; they were her Hope, and she worshiped them."
It is thematic that it is Elspeth who provides the seed, "wonder seed sowed with the three spells of Obi in the old land ten thousand moons ago," and sows it herself in a ritual during the dark of the moon. Its product is magnificent, but neither its inherent value nor Elspeth's magic is sufficient to guarantee Zora's success in an exploitative society.
Although Zora's relationship to the Silver Fleece is intensely personal, her love of the land and complete involvement in the creative process of growth is representative of the attitude of her people. Bles rapturously describes the sprouting cotton to Mary Taylor, his Northern-born teacher: "… we chop out the weak stalks, and the strong ones grow tall and dark, till I think it must be like the ocean—all green and billowy; then come little flecks there and there and the sea is all filled with flowers—flowers like little bells, blue and purple and white." Other blacks, "huge bronze earth-spirits," who harvest the crops do so joyously, although they know that most of the profits from their labor will fatten the pockets of the Cresswells: "The cry of the Naked was sweeping the world, and yonder in the night black men were answering the call. They knew not what or why they answered, but obeyed the irresistible call with hearts light and song upon their lips—the Song of Service."
DuBois recognizes worldwide economic forces at work in the production and sale of Southern crops. The blacks, most directly responsible for the cotton, however, know next to nothing about supply and demand or fair profits and wages. This ignorance, the author suggests, is one of the major reasons for black entrapment. Even when coupled with childlike joy in the harvest and pride in the land, black ignorance can only result in black powerlessness. Nevertheless, DuBois appreciates the richness of the workers' natural, creative relationship with the land and describes it lyrically: "All the dark earth heaved in mighty travail with the bursting bolls of the cotton while black attendant earth spirits swarmed above, sweating and crooning to its birth pains."
The Plantation viewpoint is most clearly distinguished from that of the Swamp by its purely economic attitude toward the cotton crop: "… the poetry of Toil was in the souls of the laborers…. Yet ever and always [sic] there were tense silent white-faced men moving in that swarm who felt no poetry and heard no song…." To the white Southern landowners and their counterparts, the Northern speculators, the cotton sings only of profits. Plantation mentality, North or South, is paternalistic, exploitative, self-deceptive, and, ultimately, cruel.
Recognizing Zora's crop as the most valuable ever produced on their land, Harry Cresswell, nevertheless, denigrates it as "extra cotton," worthy only to be turned into lint, and through dishonest financial manipulation manages to cheat her of the entire crop and even to place her twenty-five dollars in his debt. Zora's loss is common. The blacks all find themselves deeper in debt after each year's toil. They are kept at their labor by false promises of freedom, cheated by contracts "binding the tenant hand and foot to the landlord," and threatened with being sold out and put in the chain-gang if they resist.
Nor is this exploitation aimed solely at blacks. Southern poor whites, employees in the mills which Northern capitalization brought with it, are as over-worked, cheated, and trapped as the black tenant farmers. In the third part of the novel, when it appears that the oppressed of both races might combine and, through their superior numbers, overwhelm the wealthy landlords, John Taylor, the Northern speculator, remarks, "even if they do ally themselves, our way is easy: separate the leaders, the talented, the pushers of both races from their masses, and through them rule the rest by money." Although the blacks, because of racial bigotry and their historical position as serfs in the South, are the primary victims of men of Plantation mentality, any member of a powerless minority is in danger.
Furthermore, the Plantation morality is no respecter of social rank. Not only poor whites, but Southern "aristocrats," as well, are in danger of becoming victims if they are ignorant of the economic complexities affecting them. The prospect of a poor cotton crop and the persuasive arguments of John Taylor convince Colonel Cresswell to forget his "southern honor" and to entangle his fellow cotton planters in a business deal from which he stands to make two million dollars in five years. When Taylor announces his plan to form an "All-Cotton combine" and corner the year's market, the Colonel asks, "And the other planters?":
"They come in for high-priced cotton until we get our grip."
"They keep their mouths shut or we squeeze 'em and buy the land. We propose to own the cotton belt of the South."
At this revelation, Colonel Cresswell automatically starts from his seat and indignantly sputters something about betraying "southern gentlemen" to Northern interests. But the chance for tremendous profits quickly outweighs the sense of honor by which he likes to believe he lives, and he agrees to the scheme.
Taylor, as well as the Cresswells, is obviously a Plantation type. The only difference that DuBois recognizes between Northern and Southern manifestations of the attitude is the degree of self-deception Southerners have traditionally allowed themselves. In most matters involving other whites, Colonel Cresswell is much more honest than John Taylor. "But there was one part of the world which his code of honor did not cover," and this was the part inhabited by blacks. Despite the fact that he, himself, has a mulatto granddaughter, he still looks upon blacks as inherited property. As long as they remain "faithful niggers" like Johnson and Preacher Jones, the Colonel ignores them, cheating them periodically in the comfortable, time-honored way, content to be oblivious to their existence. When blacks try to break out of the rigid class-race structure of Plantation economics, however, as Zora does with her Silver Fleece, or when she attempts to buy the swamp for her farm commune, he is willing to perjure himself and others to maintain the status quo. "The uninitiated," DuBois explains,
… cannot easily picture himself the mental attitude of a former slave-holder toward property in the hands of a Negro. Such property belonged of right to the master, if the master needed it; and since ridiculous laws safeguarded the property, it was perfectly permissible to circumvent such laws. No Negro starved on the Cresswell place, neither did any accumulate property. Colonel Cresswell saw to both matters.
It is this fractured concept of honor which John Taylor most dislikes about his Southern father-in-law and business partner, and it his refusal to cooperate in cheating Zora of the swamp which leads to the destruction of their relationship. No less self-serving than Cresswell, Taylor, nevertheless, is a genuine admirer of talent and ambition, whether they belong to a white or a black. "The weak and the ignorant of all races he despised and had no patience with them." The able, he respects. And it is only the able, DuBois insists, who can hope to undermine Southern paternalism and overcome Northern indifference.
Throughout the first part of the novel, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece appears as a mythic referent for DuBois' Plantation-Swamp dichotomy. The story is first alluded to by Mary Taylor, who, responding to Bles's lyrical description of the growth of the cotton, murmurs, "The Golden Fleece—it's the Silver Fleece!" Pleased by the opportunity to "uplift" one of her charges, she tells the boy of Jason and the Argonauts and is startled and puzzled by his response:
"All you is Jason's." He pointed with one sweep of his long arm to the quivering mass of green-gold foliage that swept from swamp to horizon. "All you golden fleece is Jason's now," he repeated.
"I thought it was—Cresswell's," she said.
"That's what I mean."…
"I am glad to hear you say that," she said methodically, "for Jason was a brave adventurer—"
"I thought he was a thief."
"Oh, well—those were other times."
"The Cresswells are thieves now."
To Mary Taylor, the Jason myth embodies the values of ambition, daring, and heroism; to Bles, the "stealing" of the Fleece represents an immorality basic to an outlook which values property and power over people. The cotton means only gold to those Northerners and Southerners who maintain and enforce the Plantation system, rather than the bounty and beauty of the earth, as it does to Bles and his people.
The Jason story is also employed, however, to reveal the short-comings of Swamp mentality. When Bles tells Zora of Jason and Medea, she asks,
"Do you s'pose mammy's the witch?"
"No; she wouldn't give her own flesh and blood to help the thieving Jason."
She looked at him searchingly.
"Yes, she would, too."
By maintaining her cabin for the pleasures of the local whites, Elspeth has sold Zora and others into a moral slavery. Her nonresistance increases her own helplessness and is reflective of the general condition of her people.
Weakness and ignorance, the dark sides of Swamp life, are qualities which both Zora and Bles realize that they and their race must outgrow. Both travel North in the second part of the novel in quest of personal development. What they find there is a political version of the Plantation morality which they hoped to leave behind in the South.
In his picture of Northern blacks, DuBois suggests that the victims of exploitation frequently adopt the very techniques which were used against them. The members of Washington's black middle class seem to Bles "at times like black white people—strangers in way and thought." Caroline Wynn, a confidante of white politicians and an influential force in black social circles, is cynical about the promises of the democratic system and is willing to compromise with the whites in power to mislead the black electorate if it means her own security and advancement.
"I use the world," she explains; "I did not make it; I did not choose it." Sophisticated in the intricacies of political manipulation, she undertakes to mold Bles into a charismatic, but controllable, racial leader. Her goal is not the elimination of the injustices of a racist society, but a secure foothold for herself within that society. She schemes to have Bles appointed Register of the Treasury and envisions herself, not as Mrs. Bles Alwyn, but as the wife of the new Register of the Treasury.
Bles's refusal to defend the Republican Party, after it has capitulated to Southern pressure and abandoned a racially important education bill, seals his political and personal fate. The enraged Republicans drop him as quickly as they dropped the piece of legislation and fill the position of Register with Samuel Stillings, a "shrewd" black man who has jealously plotted against Bles all along. Just as rapidly, Caroline Wynn agrees to become Mrs. Stillings.
While DuBois clearly rejects the opportunism which determines Carrie Wynn's choices, he understands her, just as he understands Colonel Cresswell. Her youthful ambition to be recognized as an artist was quickly thwarted by the racial realities of Washington, D.C.: "she found nearly all careers closed to her." Even her job as a teacher is precariously dependent upon political circumstances. Her early disappointment, moreover, is daily reinforced by the insults of the jim crow city in which she must live. Her decision that idealism and honesty are commodities too dear and self-deceptive for Afro-Americans, DuBois realizes, stems from years of social and economic injustice.
Within the tensions of Caroline's and Bles's relationship, then, DuBois subtly reinforces the structural symbolism of the earlier part of the book. As a spokesman for the simple, hopeful members of his race, Bles insists upon absolute honesty in his dealings with both races in Washington. As a spokesman for those blacks who, because of disillusionment and a desire for wealth and power, have accepted the tactics of the Plantation, Carrie Wynn considers deception the only useful tool for the Afro-American. "Honesty," she tells Bles, is "a luxury few of us Negroes can afford." Limited by her desire for social acceptance and material advancement, she rejects Bles as an anomaly: "that good Miss Smith has gone and grafted a New England conscience on a tropical heart, and—dear me!—but it's a gorgeous misfit." This suggestion, that in order to succeed, blacks must continue the tradition of deception foisted upon them in slavery days, is every bit as destructive of racial progress as the particular kind of debasement practiced in Elspeth's cabin. Caroline Wynn wishes Bles to deceive other blacks about the intentions of the Republicans, thereby personally securing the Party's patronage. Elspeth receives free rent from the Cresswells for her services.
The third segment of the novel returns DuBois' protagonists to the South. Like Bles, Zora has encountered the power politics of Northern life and, through her betrayal by Mrs. Vanderpoole, has learned that self-reliance is the only solution for her people. Moreover, she has spent her time in the North well, educating herself through literature and observation to the complexities of the world at large. She returns to the swamp not as the defeated "elf child" who left it, but as a woman, worldly-wise, and dedicated to leading her people out of their morass of powerlessness.
What Zora learned in the North was the necessity of maintaining in her people the best values of the Swamp—their honesty, joy, and reverence of the land—while infusing them with cleverness and ambition, the best aspects of the Plantation. As she demonstrates in her handling of Colonel Cresswell when he attempts to cheat her out of the land she has purchased from him, she has become cognizant of the political changes which accompanied the industrialization of the South and understands the regional psychology well enough to predict local reactions to her efforts. She informs Bles that she intends to take Cresswell to court and believes that she stands a good chance of winning because the men in power in the town are no longer the landowners, but the rising lower class of whites who share, to some degree, her class concerns. Moreover, after studying the laws governing her land purchase, she intends to conduct the case against the Colonel herself: "as a black woman fighting a hopeless battle with landlords, I'll gain the one thing lacking … the sympathy of the court and the bystanders." When Bles replies incredulously, "Pshaw! From these Southerners?" she explains:
"Yes, from them. They are very human, these men, especially the laborers. Their prejudices are cruel enough, but there are joints in their armor. They are used to seeing us either scared or blindly angry, and they understand how to handle us then, but at other times it is hard for them to do anything but meet us in a human way."
Like Caroline Wynn, Zora realizes the necessity of knowing the people with whom she must deal, recognizing their weaknesses and strengths, and turning them to her own use. Unlike her Northern counterpart, however, Zora intends to deceive no one, and her only selfishness is her ambition for her people. Furthermore, by the close of the book, she has moved beyond strictly racial concerns and sees her struggle as one in behalf of the oppressed class of both races.
It is fitting, in terms of DuBois' dichotomies, that Zora, not Bles, develops into the far-seeing political leader. Bles's defeat in Washington is predictable and demonstrates the powerlessness of ignorant idealism in the face of entrenched corruption. His defeat is an honorable one, of course, but does nothing toward advancing social justice. Zora's success, on the other hand, depends largely upon her perception of political realities. She is not tricked by traitorous blacks or manipulative whites because she sees her situation clearly and does not rely on either of these groups for help. The worst quality of the Swamp is the powerlessness and ignorance which fester in it; Bles, despite his training at Miss Smith's, demonstrates these traits in Washington. Zora moves from her sure knowledge of white values and laws and with the strength of black farmers committed to working with and for each other.
Even the love story between the two main characters can be understood in terms of DuBois's symbols. Bles's attitude toward Zora "had always been one of guidance, guardianship, and instruction. He had been judging her and weighing her from on high, looking down upon her with thoughts of uplift and development." This is, obviously, the same attitude as that of the most benevolent Southern whites towards blacks, one of superiority and paternalism. Bles rejects Zora because he discovers that life in Elspeth's cabin has left her "impure." He is concerned only with not appearing a fool in others' eyes and reveals himself finally insensitive to the realities of the master-slave relationship. Unlike Zora, he has been affected by the conventional standards of Mary Taylor; significantly, it is she who tells him of Zora's past. It is only when he suffers, himself, and realizes the insufficiency of his past training and returns to the swamp that he is enlightened enough to appreciate Zora's true worth.
Zora, even after she becomes a student in Miss Smith's school, resists Mary Taylor's instruction. Mary Taylor forfeits any claim she might have to moral superiority over her ignorant charges by despising the black students and eagerly becoming Mrs. Harry Cresswell in order to escape from her dark-skinned pupils to "the lighter touches of life … new books and periodicals and talk of great philanthropies and reforms." Echoing the sentiments of Booker T. Washington, DuBois's antagonist, and of most of the whites in the novel, she "believed it wrong to encourage the ambitions of these children to any great extent; she believed they should be servants and farmers, content to work under present conditions until those conditions could be changed; and she believed that the local white aristocracy, helped by Northern philanthropy, should take charge of such gradual changes." Zora becomes and remains a protegé of Miss Smith, who is frequently exasperated and outraged by her young, white colleague.
In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the work for which he is most widely known, DuBois comments on the valuable contribution which the culture of Afro-Americans could make to American society: "all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness." "Smartness," nevertheless, is a quality he deems essential for his people and, despite his reservations about the effectiveness of the Freedman's Bureau, credits it with "best of all … inaugurat[ing] the crusade of the New England schoolma'am." Because of the nation's unwillingness to commit itself morally and financially to the development of the newly freed blacks, the Bureau eventually failed, and in 1903, DuBois could look around him and see that "in well-nigh the whole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the penitentiary."
The Quest of the Silver Fleece is the fictional working out of this problem in American racial history. Its understandings are long-held concerns of DuBois; its symbolic structure is his attempt at an artistically effective framework for presenting his convictions about social, political, and economic tensions, North and South, black and white.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329
The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (dissertation) 1896
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (essay) 1899
The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (essays) 1903
The Negro in the South, His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development; Being the William Levi Bull Lectures for the Year 1907 [with Booker T. Washington] (lectures) 1907
John Brown (biography) 1909
The Quest of the Silver Fleece (novel) 1911
The Star of Ethopia (drama) 1913
The Negro (history) 1915
Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (poems, essays, and sketches) 1920
The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (history) 1924
Dark Princess: A Romance (novel) 1928
Africa: Its Geography, People and Products (history) 1930
Africa: Its Place in Modern History (history) 1930
Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (history) 1935
Black Folk, Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race (history) 1939
Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (autobiography) 1940
Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (essay) 1945
The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (criticism) 1947
In Battle for Peace: The Story of My 83rd Birthday (memoirs) 1952
∗The Ordeal of Mansart (novel) 1957
∗Mansart Builds a School (novel) 1959
∗Worlds of Color (novel) 1961
†Selected Poems (poetry) 1964
The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life From the Last Decade of Its First Century [edited by Herbert Aptheker] (autobiography) 1968
W. E. B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses [edited by Philip S. Foner] (speeches) 1970
The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from "The Crisis" [edited by Henry Lee Moon] (essays) 1972
W. E. B. Du Bois: The Crisis Writing [edited by Daniel Walden] (essays) 1972
The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960 [edited by Herbert Aptheker] (essays) 1973
∗These works were published as The Black Flame in 1976.
†The publication date of this work is uncertain.
Irving Howe (essay date 1979)
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SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois: Glory and Shame," in Celebrations and Attacks: Thirty Years of Literary and Cultural Commentary, pp. 170-79. New York: Horizon Press, 1979.
[In the essay below, Howe contends that Du Bois's commitment to Communism and Stalinism at the end of his life "was soiled both morally and intellectually."]
If the name "Du Bois" means anything at all to most Americans, it is probably linked in their minds with those campus sects—the Du Bois clubs—that speak for Moscow-style Communism. Richard Nixon, with his special gift for parodying native follies, once suggested that the campus Communists were trying to capitalize on the phenotic kinship between the Du Bois clubs (dew boys) and the Boys Clubs (da boys). Actually, the Communists were quite within their rights, for in the last decade of his remarkable life—he died in 1963 at the age of ninety-five—William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had become a loyal and, it must be added, a courageous spokesman for Stalinism.
Most of his life Du Bois was something decidedly better. He was the first American Negro in the twentieth century to gain national recognition as intellectual, tribune, and agitator. Prickly, gifted, endlessly articulate, Du Bois was both sufficiently self-aware to see how his unavoidable embattlement had forced him, as he said, into a "twisted life" and sufficiently principled to keep right on battling. He taught, he exhorted, he prodded and shamed American Negroes into their climb from passivity to militancy. He was a scholar of some importance, both as sociologist of urban Negro life and historian of Black Reconstruction. He kept hammering away at the thick hide of American conscience, and by his example made ridiculous the racist nonsense in which Americans indulged themselves. Above all else, he was a formidable antagonist, tough in polemic, fierce with a phrase, impatient toward fools.
Hardly a tendency in Negro politics today, but it owes something to Du Bois. In the course of his long life he tasted the repeated defeats of the American Negroes and, with the energy of despair, kept changing his views, sometimes to place his stress on absolute integration and sometimes to fall back on a kind of segregated nationalism. His experience sums up almost every impulse and opinion among American Negroes. Yet this remarkable man is barely known today—we Americans are not very strong when it comes to historical memory.
Du Bois wrote two incomplete autobiographies, Darkwater at fifty and Dusk of Dawn when past seventy. The first shows Du Bois at the point in his career, surely the most interesting, when he had fought a hard battle against Booker T. Washington's creed of accommodation; the second shows Du Bois at a point when he had in effect turned his back on American society and accepted a quasi-nationalist view of the Negro struggle, which in some respects was similar to that of Washington himself. The book now issued as his Autobiography was completed in 1960, when Du Bois was past ninety, and together with an account of his life in the Negro movement, every page of which is valuable, it includes sections on his travels in Russia and China and his harassment as a political suspect during the McCarthy years, every page of which is predictable.
International Publishers, the Communist house that has issued this book, fails to make clear that the Autobiography is by no means an entirely new piece of work; when it comes to commercial caginess, it has little to learn from bourgeois publishers. Nevertheless, the Autobiography is a work of considerable importance. Parts of it, dealing with Du Bois's youth and early years, form a classic of American narrative: composed in a lovely if old-fashioned formal prose, rich in portraiture of late nineteenth-century New England, and packed with information and opinion about the early years of Negro protest. Other parts read as if they came from a mimeograph machine.
The classical outcry of Negro autobiography in America is probably Richard Wright's Black Boy, a record of suffering so extreme and anger so harsh as to be almost beyond bearing and sometimes beyond belief. Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land follows roughly in the same tradition. By way of contrast and correction, Ralph Ellison's scattered memoirs stress the inner strength and occasional joy of American Negro life; Ellison rejects the notion that all has been deprivation and insists upon the capacity of a people to create its own values and improvise its own pleasures. Nothing written by these or other gifted American Negroes prepares one, however, for the opening autobiographical pages of Du Bois, an account of his youth that seems quintessentially American in its pastoral serenity:
I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which began the freeing of American Negro slaves. The valley was wreathed in grass and trees and crowned to the eastward by the huge bulk of East Mountain, with crag and cave and dark forests…. The town of Great Barrington, which lay between these mountains in Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts, had a broad Main Street, lined with maples and elms, with white picket fences before the homes. The climate was to our thought quite perfect.
The black Burghardts had been living in this area since the late eighteenth century, part of a tiny enclave that hardly knew segregation or hostility. When the elder Du Bois, a man of mixed blood, came to Great Barrington, he joined a clan of Negroes who lived by farming, minor crafts, and service jobs: a world relatively comfortable and enjoying the stiff democracy of the New England town. All the traits we associate with New England—the Puritan stress upon work, the inbred life of the family, the personal styles of reticence and rectitude—seem to have been absorbed by these Negroes obscurely nestling in Western Massachusetts. And when Du Bois writes about his boyhood, he presents himself not so much as a Negro but as an American of an older and more virtuous age:
The schools of Great Barrington were simple but good, well-taught; and truant laws were enforced. I started on one school ground, and continued there until I was graduated from high school. I was seldom absent or tardy…. We learned the alphabet; we were drilled vigorously on the multiplication tables and we drew accurate maps. We could spell correctly and read with understanding.
This was not, nor could it be, an untarnished idyll. Negroes, even when living in comfort, had an awareness of limited opportunities. Still,
The colored folk were not set aside in the sense that the Irish were, but were a part of the community of long-standing; and in my case as a child, I felt no sense of difference or separation from the main mass of townspeople.
Bright in school, the boy found encouragement among the townspeople; once he bought Macaulay's History of England in five volumes, in 25-cent weekly installments; and when the time came for him to go to college, the local whites raised a purse, a sort of community scholarship.
What grips one in reading these pages is the story of a life that on almost every outward level follows the pattern of American industry and ambition yet must carry within itself the certainty of frustration, the doom of rage which American brutality toward the Negro still evokes. Young Du Bois seems to have sensed all this himself: he was class orator when he was graduated from school in 1884, but the address he gave was a celebration of Wendell Phillips, the Abolitionist leader. It is as if that "twisted life" about which decades later he would speak so bitterly had enforced itself upon his consciousness from the very start.
Yet the boy had never moved beyond the protected circle of Negro life in Western Massachusetts. He knew little or nothing, at first hand, about the life of American Negroes in the terrible years when the white South had reestablished itself through terror and the white North had sunk back into indifference. When the idea came up that he should go to Fisk University, a Negro school in Nashville, Du Bois's family objected strongly, for they must certainly have understood what their darling would encounter on a journey south. But their darling went, and it changed his life forever.
"Henceforward I was a Negro."
Some of the finest pages in the Autobiography describe Du Bois's work as a summer teacher in Eastern Tennessee, where he was greeted by the Negro farmers with a touching and absolute faith:
I travelled not only in space but in time. I touched the very shadow of slavery. I lived and taught school in log cabins built before the Civil War. My first school was the second held in the district since Emancipation….
Despite his difficulties in opening himself to other people—perhaps because of them—Du Bois proved to be a good teacher:
I loved my school, and the fine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacher was truly marvelous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, picked flowers, sang, and listened to stories of the world beyond the hill.
Exposure to the post-Reconstruction South brought crucial lessons: "No one but a Negro going into the South without previous experience of color caste can have any conception of its barbarism." After Fisk, Du Bois was lucky enough to get into Harvard for graduate work, and as one of the very few Negroes then to be admitted there, he slipped still more deeply into the schizoid way of life from which, it now seems clear, he really had no escape: half pampered prodigy, half despised nigger. He studied with William James (who was genuinely kind) and Santayana; the years in the South had prepared him psychologically for the mixture of icy correctness and subtle segregation he would find in Cambridge; and he turned, by way of defense, into "a self-centered 'grind' with a chip on my shoulder." But meanwhile he was learning how to shape his life: he was learning to live inwardly, tensely, at a high emotional price but also from the incomparable resources of his pride. "I had my 'island within' and it was a fair country."
Picture him now at twenty-six: a young scholar who had done graduate work at Harvard and spent time in further study abroad; a bit of a dandy flashing a Van Dyke beard, elegant gloves, and a cane; yet stonebroke and glad to take a teaching job at Wilberforce University, a Negro denominational school, for $800 a year. In these years he commanded "a terrible bluntness of speech that was continually getting me into difficulty." Between his grating iconoclasm and the fundamentalist pieties of the Negro college at the turn of the century, there could be no lasting truce.
As Du Bois struggled through academic life—with a happy thirteen-year stay at Atlanta University, one of the few Negro schools that deserved to be taken seriously—he slowly carved out his special role. He would be both scholar and tribune, both a dispassionate student of the socioeconomic situation of Philadelphia Negroes and the leading spirit among those Negro intellectuals who set themselves the goal of the outer liberation and inner regeneration of their people. This was then, as now, an overwhelming task, for it required Du Bois to confront both white domination and black demoralization.
Atlanta was poor but hospitable. It gave Du Bois freedom to begin serious sociological studies of Negro life, to build a lively community of Negro scholars and intellectuals, and to hold his annual Conferences where the programmatic bases would be worked out for the Negro movements of tomorrow. The one thing modern history seems to bear out is that every movement for liberation requires first of all a totally committed intelligentsia, a vanguard of visionaries—and this Du Bois helped create. Living now in the Deep South, however, he could not work in isolation or without disturbance. Very soon he had to confront—which meant, unavoidably, to clash with—Booker T. Washington, then the dominant figure in American Negro life and one of the canniest politicians ever to operate in this country. Nothing in Du Bois's life, nothing in the history of twentieth-century American Negroes, is more important than this clash.
The standard "enlightened" view of Washington runs something like this:
When Booker T. Washington made his famous 1895 Address at the Atlanta Exposition, he offered the white South a detente which in effect meant a surrender. According to Washington, the Negroes would cede their claims to equal citizenship and would repress their struggle for political power, civil rights, and higher education. In return for this recognition of the supremacy it had just wrested through terror, the South would call a halt to lynching and wanton brutality, and would help the Negroes gain vocational training, so that they could find employment in crafts and new light industries.
White and Negro labor (I continue to summarize Washington's scheme) would be taken out of competition, by strict segregation in work and by granting the whites a near-monopoly of skilled employment. Negroes would be left with farm and unskilled labor. As a sweetener for this arrangement, Northern white philanthropy would enter the picture by providing financial help, so that the Southern Negroes could establish their craft and industrial training schools. Disfranchised and resigned to second-class status, the Southern Negroes would at least find a peace of sorts and be able to achieve some economic improvements.
For the militant Negro intellectuals led by Du Bois, this strategy seemed little short of a sellout. Du Bois opened the attack:
The black men have a duty to perform … a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him…. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds … we must unceasingly and firmly oppose him.
Years later an authoritative Negro historian, J. Saunders Redding, would continue in the vein of Du Bois:
Having raised [Washington] to power, it was in white America's interest to keep him there. All race matters could be referred to him, and all decisions affecting the race would seem to come from him. In this there was much pretense and, plainly, not a little cynicism. There was pretense, first, that Washington was leader by sanction of the Negro people; and there was the pretense, second, that speaking in the name of his people, he spoke for them.
But what if, like it or not, Washington did speak for them? And still more painful, what if Washington's strategy was the only workable one for Southern Negroes at the turn of the century? These were questions that radicals, liberals, and militant Negroes never thought to ask—and for perfectly understandable reasons. During recent decades it has been necessary above all to break from the psychology of acquiescence which Washington had encouraged. But now that time has passed and some historical perspective is possible, we can see that the Du Bois-Washington battle was far more complex than we had supposed.
Booker T. Washington was in effect the leader of a conquered people, and a conquered people is never quite free to choose its own leaders. He was, if you like, the Pétain of the American Negroes, but far shrewder and far more devoted to his people than Pétain to the French. The evidence also suggests that Washington was sometimes a surreptitious de Gaulle, deeply involved in a quasi-underground resistance.
Professor August Meier, a historian whose sympathies are wholly with the civil-rights militants, has printed in the Journal of Southern History, May 1957, a fascinating account of the Washington-Du Bois struggle in which he presents a large amount of evidence to show that the issues between the two men cannot be reduced to acquiescence vs. militancy. Du Bois was an intellectual whose obligation it was to think in terms of long-range ends; Washington was a leader who had to cope with immediate problems. The white South had just achieved a counterrevolution in which Negroes had been reduced to near-slavery; in fact, as Washington made clear in his still-impressive autobiography Up from Slavery, the Negroes were in many respects worse off than before the Civil War. They were frightened, demoralized, and economically helpless. Simply to come to them and cry out for militant struggle in behalf of political enfranchisement or full integration, would have elicited no response from them, would have been of little help to them, and would have provoked ghastly retaliation from the white South.
Washington had therefore to maneuver from day to day, making the best he could out of an all but total defeat. He spoke deprecatingly of political rights in order to assuage the whites whose money and toleration he needed; but in practice, as Professor Meier shows, he covertly tried to preserve the Negro franchise and kept supplying funds for test cases in the courts.
Washington was an extremely skillful leader. He built up a network of semi-visible agents throughout the country, whom he kept under strict control by means of subsidies and shrewd tactical advice. He maintained close connections with the Republican party and especially Theodore Roosevelt, serving as its central agency for dispensing patronage (such as it was) to Negroes. He was friendly with some of the richest and most reactionary white industrialists. Professor Meier concludes: "Washington was surreptitiously engaged in undermining the American race system…. The picture that emerges from Washington's correspondence is distinctly at variance with the ingratiating mask he presented to the world."
Yet when Du Bois launched his fierce assaults upon Washington, he was clearly speaking to the point. For it was true that in large measure Washington had pledged the Negroes to the humiliations of Jim Crow. It was true that officially he had made peace with the reigning powers. It was true that he felt strong hostility toward the handful of Negro intellectuals who distrusted his political machine, his dictatorial methods, and his wily rhetoric.
Washington was not an attractive figure; he was a remarkable leader who helped sustain the morale of a broken people. And to the extent that he succeeded, he prepared the way for his own removal. Du Bois was a brilliant intellectual who insisted that only a program of unconditional equality could be acceptable to enlightened Negroes and who proposed as a major immediate task the training of a Negro elite, "the Talented Tenth," which might lead the black masses into struggle. In a recent biography of Du Bois, Mr. Francis Broderick provides a vivid sketch of their differences in personality and style:
Washington, thick-set and slow-moving, had the assurance of a self-trained man. A shrewd, calculating judge of people, he had the soft speech and accommodating manners that made him equally at home among sharecroppers and at the President's table. A master of equivocation, he made platitudes pass as earthly wisdom…. Du Bois, slight, nervous in his movements, never forgot for a moment his educational background. Proud and outspoken, he held aloof from the Negro masses, but felt at home with a small company of his peers…. Washington had the appearance of a sturdy farmer in his Sunday best; Du Bois, with his well-trimmed goatee, looked like a Spanish aristocrat….
In the short run, there can be no doubt that Washington offered the Southern Negroes more than Du Bois possibly could, if only because Washington had an economic program which might slowly yield visible benefits. But Du Bois, in part because he lacked Washington's deep roots in Southern life and in part because he worked from a truly national perspective, opened the way for the decades of struggle that were inevitable. He might not be able to compete with Washington at the moment—what could he offer an industrious Negro hoping to learn carpentry?—but he was right in saying that even if Washington's entire program were realized it would not begin to solve the problems of the American Negroes. For as the historian Vann Woodward has remarked, "Washington's individualistic doctrine never took into account the realities of mass production, industrial integration, financial combination, and monopoly…. His training school … taught crafts and attitudes more congenial to the pre-machine age than to the twentieth century…."
We see here one of those utterly tragic situations in which two enormously talented men are pitted against each other in ferocious struggle, each clinging to a portion of the truth, each perceiving a fraction of necessity, but neither able to surmount those objective barriers which the triumphant whites place before all Negroes, acquiescent or rebellious. The more men like Du Bois and Washington were penned in as Negroes, the more they were driven as Negro leaders to fight with one another. Yet from that war, at unmeasured cost, there emerged the Negro movement as we have come to know it. In 1905 Du Bois and a handful of intellectuals started the Niagara Movement, which put forward, with stirring bluntness, a program for unconditional equality. From the Niagara Movement there soon emerged the NAACP, in which Du Bois would spend a large portion of his life, as editor of its journal Crisis, as its main spokesman to the world at large, and as a hard battler within its ranks for whatever his ideas happened at a given moment to be.
The final years were somewhat less than glorious. Du Bois, whose whole life had been devoted to a restless experiment in unorthodoxy and rebellion, ended his life by lapsing into Stalinism, that dismal orthodoxy of the once rebellious. His pages about the Soviet Union show not the slightest trace of discomfort, even though they were written after the Khrushchev revelations. On the Hungarian revolution: "I was glad when the Soviet Union intervened and thus served notice on all reactionaries …" etc., etc. On China: "envy and class hate are disappearing." On Russia: "the overwhelming power of the working class … is always decisive."
What troubles one is not merely that such remarks are inane, but that Du Bois surrendered all those critical attitudes he had spent a lifetime sharpening. And this cannot be explained by senility; he kept his powers to a remarkable extent. I see, then, two ways of grappling with the problem, either of which could form a conclusion:
W. E. B. Du Bois suffered every defeat and humiliation of his people, and he kept changing his views because none seemed able to gain for American Negroes what should simply have been their birthright. Is it not entirely understandable that in his ultimate despair he should have turned to the ideology of Stalinism? That he should have ignored its repressions and murders, so long as it seemed to champion the rights of black men? What is surprising is not that Du Bois turned toward a totalitarian outlook but that so few Negroes joined him. To judge the octogenarian Du Bois is to display a failure in sympathy concerning the emotions of the oppressed.
To understand is one thing, to justify another. The explanation just offered for Du Bois's acquiescence in totalitarian politics may be quite correct, yet that does not remove the fact that he, so long a victim of injustice at home, became an apologist for injustice abroad. After all, there were other Negro leaders, equally militant, who found it possible to fight against Jim Crow in America without becoming apologists for dictatorship in Europe and Asia.
Which of these conclusions shall we accept? For me, at least, there can be no doubt. To refrain from saying that Du Bois's final commitment was soiled both morally and intellectually is to indulge in precisely the sort of condescension he had always scorned. Better to fight it out than "make allowances" because his skin was black. And besides, he wasn't the kind of man who needed allowances—not from anyone.
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Broderick, Francis L. W. E. B. Du Bois: Negro Leader in a Time of Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959, 259 p.
First book-length biography of Du Bois. Broderick made use of Du Bois's private papers at the University of Massachusetts until Du Bois closed them to the public after his 1951 indictment as an unregistered agent of a foreign power.
Du Bois, Shirley Graham. His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W. E. B. Du Bois. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1971, 384 p.
Biography and personal memoir by Du Bois's second wife.
Moore, Jack B. W. E. B. Du Bois. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 185 p.
Biography concentrating on Du Bois's life and works.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. "The Black Man of Culture: W. E. B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk." In Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture, pp. 96-108. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1972.
Discusses Du Bois's definition of "the black man of culture and his role in modern society."
Byerman, Keith. "Race and Romance: The Quest of the Silver Fleece as Utopian Narrative." American Literary Realism 21, No. 3 (Spring 1992): 58-71.
Argues that the allegorical elements in Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece, as well as the necessities of narrative, undercut the novel's ideological message.
――――――――. "The Children Ceased to Hear My Name: Recovering the Self in The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois." In Multicultural Autobiography: American Lives, edited by James Robert Payne, pp. 64-93. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Argues that a deep sense of anxiety pervades Du Bois's autobiography and concludes that Du Bois sought to create a "permanent portrait of himself as the ultimate American."
Downs, Robert B. "Black Protestant: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk." In Books That Changed the South, pp. 197-207. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
Examines the essays contained in The Souls of Black Folk and concludes that the book is "an impassioned black nationalist document, consciously directed toward the Negro people, and identifying with Africa, blackness, and the rural Negro."
Duberman, Martin. "The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois." In The Uncompleted Past, pp. 195-202. New York: Random House, 1969.
Reviews Du Bois's Autobiography and comments on his beliefs about racism in the United States.
Johnson, Dennis Loy. "In the Hush of Great Barrington: One Writer's Search for W. E. B. Du Bois." The Georgia Review XLIX, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 581-606.
Provides a summary of Du Bois's life and discusses the controversy surrounding a memorial to him in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Review XXXV, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 166-332.
Special issue devoted to Du Bois and his works.
McCarthy, Mary. "The Federal Theatre." In Sights and Spectacles, 1937–1956, pp. 30-38. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956.
Briefly reviews Du Bois's play Haiti along with several other plays.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976, 325 p.
Evaluation of Du Bois's intellectual influences and changing thought.
Rudwick, Elliotte. "W. E. B. Du Bois: In the Role of Crisis Editor." The Journal of Negro History XLIII, No. 3 (July 1958): 214-40.
Analyzes Du Bois's stewardship of the NAACP's magazine Crisis from 1910 to 1934 and his relationship with the organization's board of directors.
Stepto, Robert B. "The Quest of the Weary Traveler: W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk." In From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, pp. 52-91. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Examines the narrative structure and technique of The Souls of Black Folk.
Taylor, Councill. "Clues for the Future: Black Urban Anthropology Reconsidered." In Race, Change, and Urban Society, edited by Peter Orleans and William Russell Ellis, Jr., pp. 603-618. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1971.
Analyzes various black urban anthropological studies, using Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro as a model for comparison.
Walter C. Daniel (essay date June 1990)
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SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois' First Efforts as a Playwright," in CLA Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4, June, 1990, pp. 415-27.
[In the essay below, Daniel remarks on Du Bois's first drama, The Star of Ethiopia.]
By the time he arrived in New York City in 1910 to assume duties as director of research and publicity for the newly established NAACP, W. E. B. Du Bois was well on his way to becoming America's most prominent black scholar. Fifteen years earlier he had earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Harvard University and had studied in Germany with some of Europe's pioneer sociologists and distinguished German philosophers. He had conducted a study, The Philadelphia Negro, for the University of Pennsylvania, where he held a one-year appointment as a researcher, and had taught briefly at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where the black classics scholar William Sanders Scarborough was president. Leaving Wilberforce was a fortuitous move for both Du Bois and Scarborough, for the two of them could hardly find their own space in so small and so poor an institution. With all his promise as a dominating force in American academia, rigid racial segregation simply did not permit Du Bois the freedom which his superior abilities merited. Moving to Atlanta University in 1897 at the invitation of the president of that American Missionary institution that had become the capstone of black higher education in the deep South already for a quarter of a century, Du Bois came to full flower. He took charge of the sociological studies which the president had already initiated and which became the famous Atlanta University Publications. In the meantime he pursued another interest of his. Since his high school days in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and his undergraduate years at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Du Bois had written news stories and features for periodicals. In the days before formal degrees in journalism, one expected university graduates to write for publication. Du Bois went further than writing. He published a "precious" magazine which he called The Illustrated Moon in Memphis from December 1905 until July 1906; and Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line in Washington, D. C., from January 1907 to July 1910. Although he had no part in the financial or editorial duties of the Voice of the Negro that was issued from Atlanta, Georgia, from January 1904 to October 1907, he became a regular contributor to it and inveigled its editor, Jesse Max Barber, to ally the magazine with the Niagara Movement.
When he came to his new position in the NAACP, Du Bois knew he would establish a magazine. In doing so, he would find a way to continue his interest in writing and editing. His Souls of Black Folk (1903) had already created uncommon attention in the nation. Its series of essays had become an "autobiography of the race" and had challenged Booker T. Washington's role as the premiere spokesman and power broker for black Americans. The Crisis, the NAACP's journal, became a critical element in Du Bois' rise to prominence. Members of the fast-growing NAACP received the magazine with their enrollment in the organization. At long last, the editor found a financial base far more secure than the precarious ones available to him in his other magazine ventures. Moreover, his new position placed him at the center of the American financial and publishing worlds. Wealthy white liberal philanthropists, joined with black intellectuals, made the support base for the NAACP. Within a few years after its first issue appeared, The Crisis became the best known and longest living black magazine in America. Du Bois edited it for 24 years.
Details of his long and distinguished career are fairly common knowledge. Less familiar is Du Bois' attempts to establish himself as an American playwright. When he was in graduate school at Harvard, he interacted with the black community in Boston. At one time, he directed a performance of Aristophanes' The Birds at the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church. In later years he must have known about Henry Hugh Proctor's pageant Up from Freedom that was presented in August 1912 at the Atlanta Auditorium under the auspices of Proctor's Congregational Church. Both Proctor and Du Bois had been favorably impressed with the rise of the pageant at theatres in Europe. Formerly a member of the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers during his undergraduate student years at that institution, and the writer of a thesis on the theology of the songs of the American slaves for his graduate degree at Yale Divinity School, Proctor was a significant figure in the cultural and political life of Atlanta during the time that Du Bois worked at Atlanta University. Because Negroes were not permitted to attend the concerts that brought prominent metropolitan stars and other performers to the city, Proctor's church organized the Atlanta Colored Music Festival that presented its own festivals at the city auditorium. Proctor had also been one of the leading personalities in seeking to bring about racial harmony in the city following the devastating race riots in 1906. He was a close friend to Booker T. Washington. In fact, he had been Washington's official escort at the time the Tuskegeean delivered his historic "Atlanta Exposition Address" there. But Proctor was hardly a "Bookerite." He was not a complete devotee to either Du Bois or Washington during the years of their often-publicized controversy. He believed both in self-improvement and in good race relations. Unfortunately, little is known about any significant relationship between Du Bois and Proctor, perhaps because there was little. One can hardly help concluding, though, that the two men were aware of each other's thoughts about the pageant as a vehicle for educating Negroes about themselves and for addressing the ubiquitous Negro problem to the nation in a new key.
In a memorandum which he prepared for the NAACP Board of Directors in 1915, Du Bois wrote: "Four years ago, at a time of financial distress on the part of the Association, I wrote a pageant and presented it to the officers as a means of raising funds. After some consideration the officers decided that the plan was not feasible." His interest did not end with the Board's decision, however, for his active interest in writing for the stage continued for the next thirty years and yielded some 25 or 30 scripts and sketches that make up some of the most interesting parts of his Papers. Beginning in 1913 and ending in 1923, he produced his historical pageants—the first in New York in 1913; the second in Washington in 1915; the third in Philadelphia; and the last one in Los Angeles in 1923. They were related to historical commemorations among black Americans in each of those cities; and they were a means of amplifying Negro achievements from ancient Africa to the contemporary milieu. They were also attempts to establish a black national theatre that was written by blacks about blacks and acted by blacks. His efforts antidated the Broadway successes written on Negro subject matter by Ridgeley Torrence, Eugene O'Neill, Paul Green, and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. With NAACP chapters, The Crisis, and the theatrical stage, Du Bois anticipated a concerted national movement that would accomplish goals which the Niagara Movement had failed to bring to fruition. Simultaneously, he would replace Booker T. Washington as the major force in black America. Scientific study of sociology no longer interested him as it had in his work at Atlanta University. Through press and stage he would accomplish his personal, political, and artistic aspirations. How he would actually come to enter his not-very-successful career as the impresario of his own historical pageants has not been dealt with previously by scholars. Yet, his "Ethiopianism" plays are important documents of Afro-American cultural history.
Although many persons had spoken informally about the necessity for a national celebration for the fiftieth anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, first formal efforts came through a letter to Booker T. Washington from a Professor E. L. Blackshear of Prairie View State College in Texas. Blackshear's letter was written to the Star of Zion newspaper of the A.M.E. Zion Church and reprinted in the New York Age. Richard R. Wright, Sr., president of black Georgia State Industrial College; Dr. J. W. E. Bowen, a member of the faculty of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta and a former associate editor of the Voice of the Negro; and Robert R. Moton, then an official at Hampton Institute in Virginia who would succeed Washington as head of Tuskegee Institute, had presented the idea to the Executive Committee of the National Negro League, a vital organization established by Washington that was operating with chapters in some thirty states. That committee considered the matter and released its suggestions to the black press. The committee felt that because Congress had failed to appropriate funds for a national exhibition for this purpose, as had been called for by President Taft in his message to Congress in 1912, and inasmuch as 1913 was rapidly approaching, making it infeasible for an appropriate national exhibition to be planned and executed, the following action should be taken: (1) the third week in October 1913 should be set aside for the celebration and should be known as Fiftieth Anniversary Week; (2) instead of a central exhibition, schools and churches and all other societies and organizations in each community should unite and cooperate for the purpose of holding local celebrations that would exhibit the progress in commercial, professional, moral, intellectual, and religious directions that the race had made in these communities; (3) where it was convenient to do so, these commemorations should be held in conjunction with regular dates for holding county and state fairs; (4) special effort should be made to secure, in addition to the physical exposition, a program or appropriate speeches and other literary features; and (5) should the Congress make the appropriation that was being requested, it should be apportioned among the states to be expended under the control of the governor or some other state authority, in proportion to the number of Negroes residing in the different commonwealths.
This plan anticipated raising the county and state fairs into a semicentennial celebration. Negroes living in most Southern states were accustomed to holding these annual exhibitions that demonstrated farm products, particularly, that had been grown by black privately owned farms in the areas. President R. R. Wright of the Georgia State College for Negroes had been the executive officer for the state fair for Negroes in Georgia. It had been for several years a notably successful venture. In all cases, the exhibitions accentuated the products of industrial education as espoused by Washington and Wright. The plan outlined here would have been executed, no doubt, if Congress had actually funded the money. The debate over the enabling legislation in the United States Senate is particularly interesting and revealing of the terror of the times and some of the seldom-understood tensions between the followers of Washington's industrial education disciplines and Du Bois' advocates for higher education.
Senate Bill 180, passed by the 62nd Congress, 2nd session, April 2, 1912, literally launched W. E. B. Du Bois' limited career as a playwright. For introducing that legislation, titled "Anniversary Celebration of the Semicentennial Anniversary of the Act of Emancipation and for other Purposes," enabled Du Bois to produce his pageant, The People of Peoples and Their Gifts to Men. It was performed October 22-31, 1913, at the 12th Regiment Armory in New York City. During the previous year, 1911, a group of Negroes led by President Wright petitioned Congress to make an appropriation to support the project. Senate Bill 180 underwent several revisions during deliberation over its provisions in the Senate. It had been referred to the Committee on Industrial Expositions [on] February 2, 1912. When the measure reached the floor for final debate, its language read as follows:
That whenever the President of the United States shall be satisfied that the Semicentennial American Emancipation Exposition Co., a corporation organized under the laws of the State of Georgia, has made provision for an exposition to be held during the year 1913, to illustrate the history, progress, and present condition of the Negro race, and to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of emancipation by President Lincoln, on the 1st day of January, 1863, and that said corporation has raised and secured money or property to the amount of not less than $50,000 for the purposes of such exposition, the President is authorized and respectfully requested to make proclamation of the time and place and purpose of such exposition and celebration, of such other information in relations thereto as he may deem expedient.
Du Bois appeared before the subcommittee in order to explain the bill and to answer any questions the senators might want to raise. Most of them—even those who were favorable to the request—spoke of the opportunities that industrial education offered to the Negro. Some praised the race's progress. But few saw any virtue in an appropriation of a quarter of a million dollars for the celebration. National publications wrote glowingly of the accomplishments Negroes had made in the fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the rather wide support which the measure gained in the public press, Congress never appropriated the money for the national exhibition. State Representative John J. Fitzgerald from Brooklyn presented a bill to fund the Negro Exhibition in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in the New York State legislature. It provided $25,000 for that purpose. Governor William Sulzer appointed a local commission—all Negroes—to plan and carry out the celebration. The nine members were James D. Carr, an assistant corporation counsel in New York City; Robert N. Wood, a printer and member of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political organization in New York City; John R. Hillary, a chiropodist in Harlem; William A. Byrd, a Presbyterian minister; James H. Anderson, editor of the Amsterdam News; George H. Sims, a Baptist minister; J. B. Clayton, owner and operator of an employment agency in Harlem; J. H. Taylor, an A.M.E. Church pastor; and Du Bois. Conflict arose immediately over the format for the celebration and the names of persons who would be honored in the exhibits. Clearly, the Washington Du Bois controversy was present in the commission's deliberations.
By late September of 1913 plans for the exhibition had been announced. It was referred to as a "Negro congress." The state appropriation of $25,000 had been augmented by private gifts. Du Bois had won over the Washington forces. The exhibition was not to be one more of the county fair models. These affairs had highlighted industrial education. This one would consist of a series of floats, each depicting a scene typical of a phase of development of the race. The first would illustrate Negroes living in the Valley of the Nile and their contact with the Egyptians, and the last would be an allegorical tableaux suggesting "Hope and Encouragement for the Future." Between the two would come floats showing the intermediary stages of Negro development. This was the essence of the press releases Du Bois sent to the New York Times. Du Bois used The Crisis to explain his aspirations for the exhibition and to publicize it. He wrote in his "Along the Color Line" monthly column that the affair should be distinctly and impressively educational. It would stress religious, economic, and cultural advances and concerns. Actually, Du Bois had planned a series of pageants for the exhibition. Each would represent a special feature of the commemoration. He wanted the event to cover ten days, including special emphases on Governor's Day, Douglass Day, and Lincoln Day. The exhibits would comprise thirteen separate divisions. They would follow roughly the subjects of the Atlanta University Publications. They would be housed in a small central temple designed by a black architect that would contain sculpture and a library of black newspapers and books. It would replicate the Paris Exposition of 1900. The Afro-American collection there had pleased Du Bois.
Du Bois titled his pageant The People of Peoples and Their Gifts to Men. He considered the New York Exhibition the national event he had envisioned once he saw a way to become personally involved in this celebration. His pageant began with a Prelude that was in the form of heraldry. With the lights of the Court of Freedom ablaze, a trumpet blast is heard and four heralds, "black and of gigantic stature," appear with silver trumpets and standing at the four corners of the temple of beauty say:
Hear year, hear ye! Men of all the Americas, and listen to the tale of the eldest and strongest of the races of mankind, whose faces be black. Hear ye, hear ye, of the gifts of black men to this world, the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and the Sorrow Song of Pain, the Fight of Freedom and of Laughter, and the undying Gift of Hope. Men of the world, keep silent and hear ye this!
Each Gift was dramatized into what Du Bois called Episodes of the drama. The first three Gifts were expressed in terms of the political, military, and cultural history of black Africa. But for the "humblest and mightiest of the races, the Gift of Humility would show how men can bear even the Hell of Christian slavery and live." In this Episode, the Mohammedans force their slaves forward as European traders enter. The Negroes refuse gold but are "seduced by beads and drink." Chains rattle. Christian missionaries enter, but the slave trade increases. Out of this rendering of the African slave trade, known intimately by Du Bois owing to his doctoral dissertation on the suppression of that Dance of Death and Pain, follows the Gift of Struggle Toward Freedom. In it is the story of Alonzo, the Negro pilot in Columbus' fleet; Stephen Dorantes, who discovered New Mexico; the brave Maroons and valiant Haytians; and Crispus Attucks, George Lisle and Nat Turner. Suddenly King Cotton arrives, reminding the audience that had the cotton gin not been invented, slavery in the United States might well have ended early in the nineteenth century. But with King Cotton come Greed, Vice, Luxury and Cruelty to seduce the slaveholders. The old whips and chains appear again. Nat Turner is killed for his rebellion, and slaves drop back into silence and work silently and sullenly.
The next Episode comes through the works of William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass, and through the marching of black soldiers to the Civil War. Sojourner Truth asks Frederick her famous question, "Frederick, is God dead?" and a mighty chorus of voices take up the question and chant it. Douglass answers: "No, and therefore slavery must end in blood."
This pageant of speaking and dancing and singing has traced the history of the black man in the world, particularly his life in America. It has included the symbolic figures of the Laborer, the Artisan, the Servant of Men, the Merchant, the Inventor, the Musician, the All-Mother, who begins as the Veiled Woman, who is now unveiled in her chariot with her dancing brood and with the bust of Abraham Lincoln at her side. Appropriately, the trumpets blast and the voices sing triumphantly while the Heralds sing:
Hear ye, hear ye, men of all Americas, ye who have listened to the tale of the oldest and strongest of the races of mankind, whose faces are black. Hear ye, hear ye, and forget not the gift of black men to this world—the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and Sorrow Song of Pain, the Gift of Freedom and Laughter and the undying Gift of Hope. Men of America, break silence, for the play is done.
And the banners announce, "The play is done!"
The historian-playwright has interpreted the Negro to America. With his pageant he has ordered their experiences on two continents and their progeny have made their statement.
When the Exhibition closed, Du Bois wrote in The Crisis that it was "perhaps the largest single celebration which colored people have had in the North." He said the total attendance was over 30,000; that the order of the crowd was perfect; that not a single arrest was made. There were relatively few exhibits, he admitted—not nearly so many as he had planned. Each was significant, he wrote. Greatest of all, to him, was the historical pageant. Its performance had been his principal motivation for working to bring about the commemoration. He said that it engaged 350 actors. Charles Burroughs, a local elocutionist who specialized in putting on dramatic production in black churches, directed the pageant with the help of other black New York artists, who trained the dancers and singers. Burroughs became Du Bois' associate in the three other presentations of The Star of Ethiopia, the name he gave to the other three productions of his pageant. With this 1913 event, Du Bois began his serious work as an author of dramatic works. To some extent his dramas were part of the NAACP's new plan to use drama as a weapon in the fight for social uplift—particularly against the increasing plague of lynching. One has to remember that Angelina Grimke, a young black high-school teacher at the time in Washington, D.C., wrote her play Rachel as a part of this NAACP thrust. It was staged in Washington in 1916. Most persons who write about early black drama in the United States mention Grimke's play, although they usually call it "propaganda." Strangely, they almost never mention Du Bois' The Star of Ethiopia, although it received a far wider and more sympathetic viewing than did Grimke's. Fannin S. Belcher, Jr., tossed Rachel aside as little more than a sermon against lynching in his monumental history of black stage plays, but even he ignores Du Bois's drama.
Du Bois' own statement about his efforts in this respect seemed unduly modest when he wrote: The Star of Ethiopia—with a thousand actors—that was given for Negroes by Negroes in three great cities to audiences aggregating tens of thousands—but the white world heard of it despite the marvelous color and drama." No doubt he exaggerated when he spoke of the "thousand actors" and of the "tens of thousands" of audience members. But he should be permitted an embellishment, especially since practically no one gave him the honor of forerunner in establishing black American drama.
William E. Cain (essay date Summer 1990)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5644
SOURCE: "W. E. B. Du Bois's Autobiography and the Politics of Literature," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 299-313.
[Cain is an educator. In the essay below, he focuses on Du Bois's decision to join the Communist Party and leave the United States for Ghana.]
During the course of his long career, W. E. B. Du Bois produced superb work in many genres. His Harvard dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896) was a pioneering, minutely detailed analysis of the growth and eventual elimination of the slave trade to the Unites States; his absorbing rendering of African culture and African-American history The Negro (1915) served as "the Bible of Pan-Africanism"; and his later historical book Black Reconstruction (1935) bitingly challenged the traditional view of the post-Civil-War period as a time of white suffering and Negro abuses and abominations. His studies of the black family and community, especially The Philadelphia Negro (1899), remain valuable; his countless essays and reviews, not only in The Crisis but in other academic journals and popular magazines and newspapers, are impressive in their scope and virtuosity; and his numerous articles on education, labor, and the Pan-African movement further testify to his national and international vision of the development of colored people. He also wrote novels, stories, and poetry, and invented mixed genres of his own, as the sociologically acute and lyrical The Souls of Black Folk (1903) demonstrates. Du Bois's many autobiographical writings, notably Dusk of Dawn (1940) and his posthumous Autobiography (1968), are also rewarding texts that situate the life of the writer within the complex trends of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As a premier man of letters, Du Bois has few rivals in this century. Yet with the exception of The Souls of Black Folk, his writings are infrequently taught and rarely accorded in literary history the credit they deserve. In part this results from the fertile ways in which Du Bois's writings cross and exceed generic and disciplinary categories. Who should teach him? Where should he be taught? Du Bois's astonishing range has possibly worked to his disadvantage, particularly in the academy, leaving the majority of his books unstudied because it is unclear to whose departmental terrain they belong. "His contribution," concludes Arnold Rampersad, "has sunk to the status of a footnote in the long history of race relations in the United States."
Another, more commanding reason for Du Bois's uneven and troubled reputation is that he wrote politically: He always perceived his writing, in whatever form or forum, as having political point and purpose. As he noted in a diary entry on his twenty-fifth birthday, "'I … take the world that the Unknown lay in my hands and work for the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development means the best development of the world'" (Autobiography). Du Bois assembled knowledge, fired off polemics, issued moral appeals, and preached international brotherhood and peace in the hope of effecting differences in the lives of the lowly and oppressed. He stood for equality and justice, for bringing all men and women into "the kingdom of culture" as co-workers (Souls). So much was this Du Bois's intention that he was willing to use the explosive word propaganda to accent it. Viewing himself as, in everything, a writer and an artist, he affirmed that "all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy" ("Criteria for Negro Art").
Du Bois's blunt deployment of art as "propaganda" makes plain the reason that he has proved an awkward figure for literary historians, yet it still remains curious that he is undertaught and undervalued. William James, Nathaniel Shaler, Albert Bushnell Hart, George Santayana, and others praised Du Bois during his student days at Harvard. Hart later said that he counted him "'always among the ablest and keenest of our teacher-scholars, an American who viewed his country broadly'" (cited in Autobiography). Some of America's most gifted novelists, poets, and playwrights admired him. Eugene O'Neill once referred to Du Bois as "ranking among the foremost writers of true importance in the country." Van Wyck Brooks commended him as "an intellectual who was also an artist and a prophet," a man "with a mind at once passionate, critical, humorous, and detached" and "a mental horizon as wide as the world." Even earlier, no less an eminence than Henry James termed him "that most accomplished of members of the Negro race." It was William James who sent his brother a copy of The Souls of Black Folk, referring to it as "a decidedly moving book."
The Souls of Black Folk is indeed a landmark in African-American culture. James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography, stated that the book "had a greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin." Rampersad has summarized its significance even more dramatically: "If all of the nation's literature may stem from one book, as Hemingway implied about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then it can as accurately be said that all of Afro-American literature of a creative nature has proceeded from Du Bois's comprehensive statement on the nature of the people in The Souls of Black Folk."
But while The Souls of Black Folk has loomed large within the African-American intellectual community and, to an extent, within the white one as well, it has not generated a more extensive interest in Du Bois's autobiographies and writings in other genres. In part, Du Bois has received relatively little scrutiny because his race has worked against him in the dominant culture: His black skin bars him from reaching the stature that he had, by rights, attained through his publications and activities. But Du Bois remains an outcast as much, if not more, for ideological reasons. His standing has suffered—and he suffered literally in his life—because of his leftist/socialist sympathies and eventual membership, in 1961, in the Communist Party. As not only a black man but, by February 1963, a Communist citizen of Nkrumah's Ghana, Du Bois has been excluded from the main literary and historical register of scholarship and canon formation.
The Autobiography, the last of Du Bois's works, is crucial not only for its review of the formidable span of his career, but also for the ideological positions that it conveys, positions that help account for Du Bois's problematical reputation inside and outside the academy. The Autobiography begins with an intense account of Du Bois's extremely favorable impressions of the Soviet Union and China, and it concludes with ample sections on his "work for peace," indictment and trial for allegedly subversive behavior (he was eventually acquitted), and zealous support for Pan-Africanism and Communism. To be sure, we must attend carefully to the Autobiography as an interestingly structured work of autobiographical art. But at this juncture, we need particularly to engage and reexamine the ideologically charged parts of Du Bois's book, acknowledging his errors and misjudgments where these exist but also perceiving how his Communist views, as he understood them, stemmed from his lifelong commitment to brotherhood and peace. His decision near the end of his life to become a Communist seemed treasonous during the Cold War, and it strikes many as luridly aberrant today, as the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union undergo sweeping transformations. But this decision was one that Du Bois weighed carefully. It is important to grasp its origins and not allow it to blind us to his achievement, integrity, and intellectual conscience. The basic case for Du Bois as an exemplary intellectual and one of America's major writers has yet to be satisfactorily made, and the place to begin, artistically and politically, is with the Autobiography.
Not all readers, it should be noted, have felt comfortable about the status of the Autobiography as a text. The editor of the book, Herbert Aptheker, tells us that Du Bois wrote the first draft in 1958–59 (when he was 90 years old), and then revised it somewhat in 1960. According to Aptheker, Du Bois took the draft with him to Ghana in late 1961, and it was first published, in an abbreviated form, in China, the USSR, and the German Democratic Republic in 1964–65. Shirley Graham Du Bois, the author's widow, fortunately managed to rescue the manuscript after the military coup that occurred in Ghana in late 1966; and Aptheker reports that he prepared it for publication in its entirety, making only a few minor corrections such as fixing a date or providing a complete name. But when the Autobiography appeared in 1968, some scholars testily wagered that Aptheker had probably played a more active role. Truman Nelson, for example, queried the inclusion of the long opening section on Du Bois's travels in, and enthusiastic support for, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Maintaining that this section did not appear in a carbon copy of the manuscript in his own possession, Nelson implied that it might have been stitched into the manuscript by Aptheker. Rayford Logan and others have similarly questioned Aptheker's involvement, noting many resemblances between passages in the Autobiography and much earlier writings by Du Bois (Logan and Winston 196). Aptheker has steadfastly denied that he significantly modified or adjusted the manuscript. In his 1973 Annotated Bibliography of Du Bois's writings, he repeated that he had merely made "technical" changes.
For the literary and historical record, it is obviously imperative to know as best we can the condition of the manuscript that Du Bois himself wrote. One needs also to tally the affinities between parts of the Autobiography and material previously published in The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawn, In Battle for Peace, and other texts. Yet, in another sense, the controversy about the text of the Autobiography simply dramatizes issues of authorship and authority familiar to us from many African-American autobiographies. Who is the real author of the text? Was it actually produced, in part or whole, by a black or white author, co-author, or editor? What is the relation between the manuscript and the published book? These questions, often raised about slave narratives in the nineteenth century, have also figured in discussion of autobiographical writings by Booker. T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X. Such questions, and the difficulty of answering them cleanly, constitute a vexed central feature of the tradition of African-American autobiography.
Often such questions arise because some readers frankly doubt or object to what the text itself says. They do not readily believe in a text that advances a self-representation that is at odds with their own understanding of the author's self and with the historical and political truths that they have embraced. In the case of Du Bois's Autobiography, many readers have doubtless discounted this text as much on political as on scholarly and bibliographical grounds. They would prefer, it sometimes seems, to regard the ardently pro-Communist thrust of the book, and its hugely uncritical attitude toward Soviet state power, to be somehow not "really" present in Du Bois's text—as though these sentiments were more a faithful reflection of Aptheker (a Communist Party member himself) than of Du Bois, who, a tired old man of 90, could not have deeply meant his own words even if he did indeed write them.
The Autobiography is a flawed and disappointing book in certain respects, but we can only make sense of it (and of the life and career to which it attests) if we confront how its words—however much we might disapprove of them—tellingly accord with crucial facts about Du Bois. By the mid-1940s, he was adamantly hostile to the conduct of American foreign policy, and, in the midst of Cold War repression in the United States, he sought to establish connections to and alliances with the Soviet Union. In 1958–59, when he drafted the Autobiography, he traveled extensively in the Soviet Union and China; and, in 1961, his manuscript now finished, Du Bois joined the Communist Party of the United States.
As the Autobiography reveals, the foundations for Du Bois's decisive act of 1961 were laid even earlier than the 1940s. He first became absorbed in Marxism at the time of the Russian Revolution, journeyed to the Soviet Union in 1926, and, after his resignation from the NAACP and return to Atlanta University in 1934, began to teach a graduate course there on Marxism. In Dusk of Dawn, published in 1940, Du Bois speaks skeptically about Communism, rebuking the misguided forays of the Party in America and declaring, "I was not and am not a communist." Yet he also boldly praises Marx, touts the extraordinary importance of the Russian Revolution, and aligns himself with the struggle for socialism in his statement of the "Basic American Negro Creed." Though he claims that he spurns the revolutionary pitch of Communism, he also says openly that "Western Europe did not and does not want democracy, never believed in it, never practiced it and never without fundamental and basic revolution will accept it." Du Bois's belief in Communism did not descend upon him suddenly, nor did it result from world weariness. He knew where he stood—he was not "mindless"—and clearly gauged what he was doing when he at last became a Party member.
The Autobiography not only contains explicit statements of Du Bois's homage to Communism, but also furnishes prophetic signs of the emergence and development of the views he came devoutly to hold in his last years. When he first visited the Soviet Union in the 1920s, what impressed him about the Russian people was their vital, energizing "hope." All of life, he states, "was being renewed and filled with vigor and ideal." Everywhere he looked, he approvingly noticed a dedicated striving to modernize education, abolish poverty, and end the reign of destructive myth and superstition. Nowhere did he detect evidence of race hatred. Returning to the Soviet Union in 1958–59, he saw that the hopes of the Russian people (and his own as well) had taken inspiring form: "The Soviet Union which I see in 1959 is power and faith and not simply hope." Once again, too, he did not sight in the Soviet Union the harrowing fact of bigotry that informed his excruciating vision of America and Europe: "The Soviet Union seems to me the only European country where people are not more or less taught and encouraged to despise and look down on some class, group or race. I know countries where race and color prejudice show only slight manifestations, but no white country where race and color prejudice seems so absolutely absent." Free from the scarring presence of race hatred, the Soviet Union seeks always, Du Bois insists, to lend its support to liberation movements and the worldwide fight against racism, imperialism, and colonialism.
Du Bois's celebration of the Soviet Union is difficult to appraise because it complicatedly blends the country (and ideology in action) that Du Bois actually glimpsed with the country he longed to locate, one that would be constructed according to reason and scientific principle and that would foreground a better, and manifestly attainable, alternative to the oppressive situation in America. The Autobiography can hardly be said to supply readers with a rounded, dispassionate account of the Soviet system. For Du Bois, intolerance and injustice, brutality, imprisonment, and murder do not exist under Communism. To allege that these do exist, or to fasten upon the apparent immorality and human price for converting Communist theory into rigorous, coherent practice, signals political blindness and bad faith, Du Bois believes. Such a critique of the Soviet Union misleadingly and unfairly stresses the "ethics" of the "methods" employed to secure Marxist socialism rather than sympathetically observing the workings of the thing itself.
Du Bois's perspective on the Soviet Union is skewed, but it does reflect an honorable, if exasperating, consistency. It derives from his own bitter disappointment in, and alienation from, the American scene, which seemed to him in the 1950s still to be ravaged by racism despite his own and others' decades of struggle. From one angle, his strangely distanced remarks about the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s, his affirmation of the rightness of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and similarly meager, muted statements about the limits of Communism likely strike us as absurd. Yet it may be missing the point somewhat to label Du Bois in his Autobiography—as does Irving Howe—a dismal apologist for Stalinism "whose final commitment was soiled both morally and intellectually." In large measure, Du Bois's grand endorsement of Communism represents his own implacable verdict upon America; and his refusal or inability to articulate the evils of Communism bears unremitting witness to his desire to preserve a leftist point of view untainted by the U.S.'s Cold War rhetoric. Like Howe, we are inescapably drawn to indict Stalinism, as are now the Soviet people themselves, encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev's new spirit of openness and reexamination of the past. But Du Bois, in the 1940s and 1950s, regarded attacks on Stalinist Russia as always deflecting the gaze away from America's own history and crimes in the present and, furthermore, as weakening the already marginalized American left. Du Bois judged, I think, that when people on the left assailed Communism under Stalin, they recklessly played into the hands of the McCarthyite right; by so self-righteously criticizing an apparently pro-Stalinist left, they threatened to discredit the left in general.
The Autobiography therefore places exacting political pressure on its readers, who face a potent array of pro-Soviet claims. But the book does provide rewards not tied to the ideological strife of the Cold War, including precise accounts of Du Bois's boyhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; his education at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin; his work as a teacher and scholar at Wilberforce, the University of Pennsylvania, and Atlanta University; and his opposition to Washington's program for Negro uplift, his leadership of the Niagara movement, and his leading role in the organization of the NAACP. The Autobiography is, however, regrettably silent or restrained on many key aspects of Du Bois's life. He says nothing at all about his five novels and very little about his other written works, especially such historical studies as the epic volume Black Reconstruction. While he mentions his estimable labor for The Crisis, the NAACP magazine he edited from 1910 to 1934, he offers few details. He omits altogether his relation to the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and refers in a sketchy manner to his ferocious feud with Marcus Garvey. With so much of the beginning of the book taken up with an account of Du Bois's travels to the Soviet Union and China, and with so much space toward the end occupied by Du Bois's work for peace and his indictment and trial in the 1950s, there are inevitably missed opportunities, and much personal, professional, and sociopolitical material is left unexamined.
Du Bois is also guarded about his inner life. He refers to his "habit of repression," hints at the "self-protective coloration, with perhaps an inferiority complex," that marked his life at Harvard, and alludes to his reserve and inhibitions. But these statements are few and fleeting, and do not serve as occasions for deeper probing and meditation. Even the chapter titled "My Character," though surprisingly candid about Du Bois's own sexual disappointment during his first marriage, is rather formal and stiff. Du Bois does not seem at ease with sustained self-scrutiny, finding a chapter on his "character" to be necessary to certify the autobiographical "picture" as a "complete" one but not meeting the assignment with real curiosity or earnest intent.
The cost of Du Bois's relative inattention to his inner life bears upon the politics of his book. It is not just that many readers have heatedly disputed Du Bois's Communism, but that they also cannot clearly perceive its intellectual, emotional, and psychological appeal for him. He exhibits the external conditions in the Communist state that gratify him, yet fails to clarify the human needs that such a state functions to fulfill. When one reads Richard Wright's American Hunger or his essay in The God That Failed, one can apprehend why Communism so attracted Wright and crucially assisted him in forging his identity as a writer. Even as he recants his affiliation with the Party, his prose still testifies compellingly to his gratitude to it for its constructive lessons. In their different ways, the autobiographies of the African-American Communists Hosea Hudson and Harry Haywood also achieve something that Du Bois's book does not. Filled with detail about arduous educational and organizational work, these texts enable readers to appreciate the concrete meaning of Communism for many black Americans, particularly during the 1930s, as they dramatize the powerful feelings of solidarity along race and class lines that both men experienced.
Du Bois's own proud, prickly temperament partially explains the absence of personal inquiry in his Autobiography; he did not view this potential of the genre as one that kindled his writerly interest. In this respect, his term for his autobiographical act in this book—he calls it a "soliloquy"—is admittedly absorbing on a theoretical level but is an inappropriate guide to the nature of what he has actually achieved. Soliloquy implies a 'speaking to oneself,' a disclosing of one's innermost thoughts and feelings unmindful of an audience. It connotes, too, a theatricalized or dramatic posture and pose, a vividly prosecuted, intellectually dense and complex form of speech that highlights self-reflection and risks unanticipated kinds of self-exposure. Du Bois's Autobiography does not really take such a cast or tone. It is less a soliloquy than an elaborate lecture or, better still, the prolonged testimony of an unyielding conscience that accosts America with truths that this nation, in Du Bois's appraisal, was too imprisoned in Cold War defensiveness and guilt to discern itself: "I sit and see the Truth. I look it full in the face, and I will not lie about it, neither to myself nor to the world…. I see this land not merely by statistics or reading lies agreed upon by historians. I judge by what I have seen, heard, and lived through for near a century."
Du Bois suggests that he has earned the right to pronounce this stern sentence through long years of demanding, systematic, progressive "work." Work is, in fact, the key word of the Autobiography. Du Bois uses it many times, nearly always in the context of the building or shaping of a whole "life" in terms of a carefully chosen, determinedly pursued form of work. Preparing to begin his studies at Harvard, Du Bois stresses that he "above all believed in work, systematic and tireless." Later, having finished his advanced training at the University of Berlin, he returned to America to earn his living as a scholar and teacher: "I just got down on my knees and begged for work, anything and anywhere. I began a systematic mail campaign" to find work. Seizing upon an opportunity for an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, he avidly professes that he was "ready and eager to begin a lifework, leading to the emancipation of the American Negro."
These passages and others similar to them show that Du Bois conceives of his life, as represented in his Autobiography, as highly dedicated "work." He undertakes work with a mission, and according to a specific plan: "The Negro problem was in my mind a matter of systematic investigation and intelligent understanding. The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation." The word work is aligned with a group of related words—system, knowledge, fact, basis, truth, plan, organization—and the Autobiography as a whole contains a number of proposals and schemes for mammoth research projects on the condition of the Negro. Writing in his ninetieth year, Du Bois realizes the limitations of his vision of work, especially as he formulated it in his early years as a scholar and educator. Everything he did, he now understands, presumed the willingness of Americans to ponder the conclusions that his work unequivocally disclosed and to do what the true facts mandated. Du Bois concedes that he was naïve about the ability of accumulated knowledge to speak for itself and impel certain reforms. But this by no means lessens his staunch conviction that one's life only matters when "work" defines it.
Du Bois's concern for "work," for visible achievement that ratifies the worth and rightness of life, possibly accounts for the reticence about personal feeling in his Autobiography. Deeds matter more than feelings, in Du Bois's calculation. The self knows how it feels by looking back upon and confidently reckoning what it has done. Though commendable in most ways, such a program has its dangers, and, as Du Bois describes it, it is unduly abstract and theoretical. Indeed, one wonders whether Du Bois's extreme emphasis on resolutely organized work, systematic investigation, highly controlled scientific inquiry, and centralized authority and administration indicates to us why the Soviet state struck him so positively. Accenting everywhere its admirable central planning and scientific efficiency, he does not comprehend, let alone grapple with, the pain and devastation among the masses of men and women that Stalin's work of economic overhaul entailed.
Du Bois admits that his Autobiography is not an altogether reliable record of his life. It is, he observes, "a theory of my life, with much forgotten and misconceived, with valuable testimony but often less than absolutely true, despite my intention to be frank and fair." If the Autobiography fails or disappoints us, it may do so because of the intriguing inadequacy of the very "theory" of Du Bois's life and career that it propounds. Du Bois says clearly that he "believe[s] in socialism" and seeks "a world where the ideals of communism will triumph—to each according to his need, from each according to his ability. For this I will work as long as I live. And I still live." Even as he states his loyalty to the Communist ideal, however, and unflinchingly affirms the model for nationhood that he perceives in both the Soviet Union and China, he adheres to a myth of American exceptionalism and does not recognize the tension and conflict that he thereby introduces into his book—and into his theoretical conception of his life.
"I know the United States," Du Bois concludes. "It is my country and the land of my fathers. It is still a land of magnificent possibilities. It is still the home of noble souls and generous people. But it is selling its birthright. It is betraying its mighty destiny." Du Bois swears that he still loves America, yet how can his profession of faith in this nation stand along-side his passionate fidelity to Communism and the Soviet experiment? To put the question even more pointedly: What does Du Bois mean by his invocation of American destiny? This seems to be a puzzling term for him to employ at this stage of his book (and his career), since he had powerfully sought in his painstaking historical research to demonstrate how American's destiny, and its power and wealth, has been terribly entwined with slavery and racism. It is not as though Du Bois has forgotten these hard facts in his Autobiography, for he refers in his final pages to the tragic legacy of slavery in America. But he appears momentarily to need to lose sight of these facts in order to retain his sense of America as essentially a land of freedom and opportunity that has strayed from its destined path.
Some have said that Du Bois idealizes the Soviet Union, but he may idealize America just as much. In his final paragraph, he states that "this is a wonderful America, which the founding fathers dreamed until their sons drowned it in the blood of slavery and devoured it in greed." Yet Du Bois himself had noted, several pages earlier, that George Washington "bought, owned, and sold slaves"; he knows that the founding fathers compromised their "dream" from the very beginning, and that they, not their sons alone, carry the burden and guilt of slavery.
In his first book, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, Du Bois spoke words that reverberate against the position to which he clings in these final pages of his last one. "We must face the fact," he stated in 1896,
that this problem [of slavery] arose principally from the cupidity and carelessness of our ancestors. It was the plain duty of the colonies to crush the trade and the system in its infancy: they preferred to enrich themselves on its profits. It was the plain duty of a Revolution based upon "Liberty" to take steps toward the abolition of slavery: it preferred promises to straightforward action. It was the plain duty of the Constitutional Convention, in founding a new nation, to compromise with a threatening social evil only in case its settlement would thereby be postponed to a more favorable time: this was not the case in the slavery and slave-trade compromises; there never was a time in this history of America when the system had a slighter economic, political, and moral justification than in 1787; and yet with this real, existent, growing evil before their eyes, a bargain largely of dollars and cents was allowed to open the highway that led straight to the Civil War.
Though the Autobiography announces its acceptance of Marxist-Leninist ideology, it is The Suppression of the African Slave Trade that arguably shows greater insight into the relationship between politics and economics, and that more resourcefully demystifies pure notions of American destiny. Audaciously pro-Soviet and highly critical of American policies at home and abroad, the Autobiography nevertheless gives evidence of Du Bois's deep attachment to America and his inclination to idealize his native land even as he sagely and sometimes savagely criticizes it.
At one point, for example, Du Bois commends the "democratic" theory and practice of Soviet society, citing the frequent debates, consultations, and discussions of common events current there, and he adds that life under Communism thereby resonates with the same democratic rhythms as small-town America. The Soviet people, he says, "sit and sit and talk and talk, and vote and vote; if this is all a mirage, it is a perfect one. They believe it as I used to believe in the Spring Town Meeting in my village."
There is more detail about these town meetings in Du Bois's chapter on his boyhood in Great Barrington, where he tells of his respect for them. There was one old man who regularly attended these meetings, using them as an opportunity to rail against funds for the local high school.
I remember distinctly how furious I used to get at the stolid town folk, who sat and listened to him. He was nothing and nobody. Yet the town heard him gravely because he was a citizen and property-holder on a small scale and when he was through, they calmly voted the usual funds for the high school. Gradually as I grew up, I began to see that this was the essence of democracy: listening to the other man's opinion and then voting your own, honestly and intelligently.
On the next page, Du Bois concedes that the democracy he admired was not truly democratic: "of course our democracy was not full and free. Certain well-known and well-to-do citizens were always elected to office—not the richest or most noted but just as surely not the poorest or the Irish Catholic." Du Bois shrewdly exposes the limits of the ideal he reveres, and he incorporates other de-idealizing devices elsewhere in his book, as when he observes that the "golden" river of his birth was golden "because of the waste which the paper and woolen mills poured into it and because more and more the river became a public sewer into which town and slum poured their filth." Yet he safeguards his exaltation of America's "dream" from irony, despite his own mustering of evidence that would seem to make the irony inescapable for him. In a word, Du Bois exempts America from the indictment that his own reading of our history would appear to demand. This pro-Soviet, anti-American text is, then, confusedly, movingly, and eloquently patriotic—a jeremiad that simultaneously blasts America for its contemptible sins and hymns its magnificent, if not yet achieved, destiny.
Near the center of his Autobiography, Du Bois reflects that his "thought" has long been characterized by a "dichotomy": "How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?" One could conceivably maintain that by the close of his life, as he sums it up in his book, Du Bois had chosen his race and rejected his country, becoming a believer in Communism and a supporter of the Soviet Union because America had come, for him, to stand for sheer intolerance, repression, and militaristic sponsorship of colonialism. But Du Bois never lost his fervent affection for his country. Even at the end, he declared his belief in a distinctive American message and mission, curiously suspending the ironic demystifications of the American dream that he had defiantly undertaken for many decades and that he had reiterated in the Autobiography itself. To say that Du Bois was a Stalinist apologist and, eventually, a Communist Party member registers truths about the life that he led and wrote about. But these explicitly recorded truths perhaps count for less than the queer beauty of Du Bois's lingering love for the America he told himself he had momentously abandoned.
Ronald A. T. Judy (essay date Summer 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10361
SOURCE: "The New Black Aesthetic and W. E. B. Du Bois, or Hephaestus, Limping," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 249-82.
[In the following essay, Judy relates Du Bois's concept of black consciousness as expressed in The Souls of Black Folk to the New Black Aesthetic.]
Such is Beauty. Its variety is infinite, its possibility is endless. In normal life all may have it and have it yet again. The world is full of it…. Who shall let this world be beautiful?… We black folk may help for we have within us as a race a new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of the new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be;… and there has come the conviction that the Youth that is here today, the Negro Youth, is a different kind of Youth, because in some new way it bears this mighty prophesy on its breast, with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind. (W. E. B. Du Bois)
In an ambitious 1989 essay, the novelist Trey Ellis tried to give a coherent expression to a way of thinking about authenticity emerging among an increasing number of young African American artists. The expression he found was New Black Aesthetic (NBA), an apt naming that performs a chief function of the way of thinking it refers to—parody. After all, the NBA is a way of thinking about artistic expression that while recognizing its indebtedness to the agitprop of the Black Arts Movement, and confidently employing the forms and themes of previous black arts, ironically parodies all claims of genealogical purity or continuity. Granted, as J. Martin Favor has recently argued, this parody still falls within the line of a particularly African American form of expression—signifying. Yet, as Favor also notes, this signifying is so thoroughly iconoclastic it problematizes any genealogy, compelling Favor to relate it to the postmodern practice of pastiche. This goes along with Ellis's characterizing the NBA as "cultural mulattos," who following in the steps of the "Third Plane" (artists like August Wilson, Richard Pryor, Toni Morrison, and George Clinton) expand and explode "the old definitions of blackness, showing us the intricate, uncategorizeable folks we had always known ourselves to be." The NBA is about understanding authentic blackness as a practice and not status. It is the practice of generating new signs that transgress dominant cultural norms, and recognizing that every new expression, no matter how subjective, is historically hybrid—it is related genealogically to all those utterances that came before it and are around it. This constitutes the collective enunciation of Black experience. In fine, being a cultural mulatto is being true to the black. Echoing Greg Tate, Ellis calls this a "postliberation aesthetic" that "somehow synthesizes … the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement," in its claim to be "separate but better" than the dominant culture. Ellis's expression of the NBA has gained currency, and his essay "The New Black Aesthetic," has become a manifesto of a new arts movement.
The synthesis of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement that Ellis refers to is that of avant garde modernism and Leftist vanguard agitprop, which Tate also claims as the basis for a popular black poststructuralism, in which "black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary." For both Ellis and Tate, "black culture" signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices, which is why the NBA "can feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of its inheritance." On the face of it, this is a New Black Aesthetic because it has given up trying to work according to modernity's understanding of sign-value; that is, it no longer conceives of the truth of experience as a totality. From this perspective everything can be reinvented. In the world of highly mediated networks of disciplinary institutions and sign-systems that is transnational capitalism, none of the old categories of experience have any explanatory force, or progenitive capacity, least of all nationalism. What is required is critical intervention in the process by which [transnational] capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism. And in Tate's view such a viable non-cultural nationalist resistance is found in the "worldly-wise stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their wings and stay in the black." Or, as Ellis puts it, the NBA.
Although neither Ellis nor Tate make explicit reference to W. E. B. Du Bois, the characterization of the NBA as a "postliberated aesthetic" bears a striking resemblance to Du Bois's conception of a liberated black art that makes use of all the methods of creation available to realize beauty without necessarily abandoning the quest for liberation. Indeed, Ellis fends off accusations of naive optimism and political timidity, by insisting that with NBA we are witness to a collective project of "disturbatory art" that will take us to the next plane. In this he echoes Du Bois's assertion that the artist is
one upon whom Truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as one of the one great vehicle of universal understanding…. The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion. Free he is but his freedom is ever bounded by Truth and Justice; and slavery only dogs him when he is denied the right to tell the Truth or recognize an ideal of Justice. Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.
I've quoted Du Bois at length to leave little doubt about how the pastiche of idioms from the black masses (Houston Baker's vernacular) and elites that define the NBA, and which prompted Eric Lott to claim it to be "one of the only postmodernisms with a conscience," recalls Du Bois's understanding of art as the expression at the nexus of thought and practice. It would appear, then, that what the NBA pulls off is just the sort of grounding of black social praxis in authentic black thought that Du Bois strove for. Insofar as this is so, then the NBA is certainly more of a flash of resistant subjectivity than it is a popular movement of resistance to transnational capital. In other words, it is a form of modernism, rather than postmodernism, in its understanding of culture as the callaloo producing the authentically liberated subject. This is, perhaps, a harsh critique, depending on one's understanding of the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. It is, however, an arguable claim. Making that argument will require more careful elaboration of the resemblance between Du Bois's thought and that of the NBA. What interests me most about Ellis's giving expression to a new way of thinking about black artistic work as being in the van of cultural production, however, is how it echoes W. E. B. Du Bois's project of thinking black thought. A brief exhibition of the unifying themes at work in Ellis's expression will make more accessible the reasons why the NBA prompts this interest in Du Bois's epistemology.
The principal themes of the New Black Aesthetic Movement discernible in Ellis's essay are: (1) "black culture" signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices, with a peculiar capacity for generating new signs that transgress dominant cultural norms; (2) the power of black expression to reinvent experience, and enunciate a new world; and (3) this post-liberation aesthetic is being realized by a new black intelligentsia that synthesizes the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The first and second themes express the underlying necessary principle of the New Black Aesthetic, namely that human emancipation requires the recognition that democratic society is the work of humans, who are conscious of their institutive action. Or, in the language of critical theory preferred by Tate, "democracy creates itself through people's appropriation of their power of signification."
The third theme is what situates this principle in the intellectual genealogy that is of interest here. By recognizing both the Black Arts Movement and the New Negro Movement of the Harlem Renaissance as the foundational sources of the New Black Aesthetic, Ellis provides a direct link to the thinking of Du Bois. Both these movements were explicit in citing the significance of Du Bois's work for any attempt to think rigorously about African American cultural production. In his afterword to the Black Arts Movement manifesto, Black Fire, Larry Neal credits Du Bois with providing the inspiration for delineating the parameters of the Black Aesthetic. The particular manifestation of this revived Du Boisian spirit that so moved the Black Arts Movement was The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. Alain Locke credited Du Bois with producing the conceptual conditions through which the New Negro Movement "gradually gathered momentum." It is also Du Bois who gets the last word in the movement's manifesto, The New Negro, contributing the last chapter, which rehearses the key pronouncement of The Souls of Black Folk: "And thus again in 1924 as in 1899 I seem to see the problem of the 20th century as the Problem of the Color Line." That such antagonistic movements could both find their legitimacy in the same book of Du Bois warrants regarding The Souls of Black Folk as the principal in a long line of texts that attempt to delineate the genealogy of authentic collective African American enunciation.
So it is no surprise at all that in its conception of a politically committed avant garde black art, the New Black Aesthetic appears to have rediscovered the most ambitious aspect of Du Bois's program of racial uplift: the attempt to establish materialist grounds for total human emancipation. What makes it interesting, on the other hand, is that along with that rediscovery comes a particular problem of agency that plagued this program. Du Bois's commitment to the conception of democracy as the work of human reason, and his effort to understand theory as a praxis, led him to view a political episteme as the only agency for achieving justice. His conception of social revolution organized around the work of a vanguard intelligentsia (the talented tenth) was not only elitist, but it was antinomic to the concept of pluralist democracy he espoused in that it derived from an abstract universalization of reason. Du Bois eventually recognized the antinomy entailed in a conception of democratic society founded on rationalism as the method for the universal production of truth. Even so, he remained bound to it by his conception of racialism. Yet, in between the lines of Du Bois's argument for a black intelligentsia there is a permanent reminder of the indeterminacy of knowledge as a necessary condition of democracy. That is to say, when one reads The Souls of Black Folk carefully, one finds a conception of the historical emergence of black consciousness as a contentious process of cognition that resists resolution.
Understandably, this might pose problems for those of us who hypostatize black subjectivity. Nevertheless, Du Bois arrived at his understanding of black subjectivity from assumptions he viewed as hypothesis—i.e., those postulated points of reference necessary for any teleological judgment. The interrogation of those assumptions is, I think, crucial to any reading of The Souls of Black Folk that tries to come to terms with how his conception of black subjectivity is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy, and that tries to perceive the paralogism entailed in the play of figuration about the veil. In this regard, James Weldon Johnson's oft-cited description of The Souls of Black Folk as having "had a greater effect upon and within the Negro race in America than any other single book published in this country since Uncle Tom's Cabin," proves to be insightful, because it draws attention to the specific features of literary form that make Du Bois's book a paradigmatic instance of African American cultural critique. This is the cultural critique both Ellis and Tate claim for the NBA. At first glance, Du Bois's project was considerably more ambitious than that of the NBA. His stated aim in The Souls of Black Folk, after all, was to trace "the history of the American Negro;" while that of the NBA is to draw attention to the emergence of a new way of thinking about and making black art. More careful consideration of both projects will discover that the difference is not all that great. Du Bois's project, like Ellis's, is expressed in terms of three dominant themes: (1) the power of black expression to reinvent experience, and enunciate a new world, (2) intellectual, and cultural vanguardism, and (3) the repressive effects of capitalism. In combination, these three themes of The Souls of Black Folk define Du Bois's understanding of the function of art as intellectual work.
In pursuit of these three themes, let's recall that the focus of the following reading of The Souls of Black Folk is his concept of black consciousness as the presupposition of his understanding of intellectual vanguardism, and how that concept is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy. Interrogating Du Bois's concept of black consciousness will make more accessible the claim that it is paradigmatic for the NBA. Moreover, taking care of the relation between this concept of black consciousness and the antinomy of intellectual vanguardism and pluralist democracy will, at least, offer a glimpse of some of the reasons why it is still possible for the NBA to identify black intellectual vanguardism with societal change. That possibility has to do with precisely what is meant by consciousness in the concepts black consciousness and black experience.
Along these lines, Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk['s] significance stems from its being the most widely-read and definitive expression of what he took black consciousness to mean. Analyzing the text as a combination of philosophical, social, and quasi-religious discourses facilitates reading it as a strategic engagement with that order of knowledge called Geistesgeschichte. This interpretive arrangement of the text, although not reductive, draws attention towards the question of how black thought or consciousness is realized in the world as the paramount concern of Du Bois's book. Although the question of black consciousness is the frame of reference in The Souls of Black Folk, its explicit elaboration occurs chiefly in two chapters: "Of the Coming of John," which is the thirteenth, penultimate chapter; and "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," which is the opening chapter.
These two chapters represent the oldest and newest writings in The Souls of Black Folk. Among the fourteen essays composing the book, seven were written and published previously, and five were published for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk. Among the seven, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" was the earliest, being substantially the same 1897 essay published in Atlantic Monthly as "Strivings of the Negro People." That essay was one of the earliest definitive public formulations of what Du Bois meant by black consciousness. The only earlier, equally precise public expression of that meaning occurred in "The Conservation of Races," delivered to Crummell's American Negro Academy in March of 1897, a piece we will have cause to consider later. By contrast, "Of the Coming of John" appeared for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk, and was Du Bois's first published generically fictional piece. The only such piece in the book, it is its most vivid portrait of double-consciousness. In fact, John Jones, the black protagonist in "Of the Coming of John," is Du Bois's archetypical figure of the traveler who is tragically caught up in the double-consciousness of being an American Negro. What is particularly pertinent about the story of John Jones is how double-consciousness appears to entail an unhappiness that renounces the intelligibility of human reality. But, it is imperative that a careful consideration of what is meant by double-consciousness be undertaken before grappling with this complicated question of renunciation. Such a consideration begins with a close reading and engagement with "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," where the concept of double-consciousness is first formulated in an oftcited passage:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
This passage is generally interpreted to mean that the African American is an essentially fragmented subject. Taken to the extreme, this reading construes the black body itself as a site of contestation and struggle between two heterogenous conceptual schemas that have it as their common percept. Here, the perception of the phenomenal black body is predicated on the dualism of mind (consciousness being understood as synonymous with mind) and body. The body may be something, but the mind is something else, and the givenness of the body as a meaningful object of consciousness is the act of the mind, which determines the possibilities of experience a priori. The difference between American consciousness and Negro consciousness is substantial, then. Not only are there two acts of perception, but each act is meaningful within and according to unique and different conceptual schemas: each perception-act entails the correlation object/subject, but each perception-act is also the correlate of a particular consciousness. This understanding of Du Bois's double consciousness, which lead Larry Neal and the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s to assert that there is something called black consciousness which is the correlate of black experience, is a sort of idealist psychology.
I propose another interpretation of Du Bois's double-consciousness as a particular (American Negro) instance of the fragmentation of subjectivity that is conterminous with modernity. In this reading, the difference is not between two incommensurate consciousnesses occurring in the same body, instead double-consciousness involves the awareness in one consciousness of being both a knowing subject and an abject object. In this reading, the "veil of the seventh son" functions as a "decoding" of the hierarchical structures that characterize the organization not only of society but of knowledge. That is to say, in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois seeks to decode the experiential facts of life as a specific order of knowledge in which the expression "I, a thinking black being," designates the object-matter of psychology.
Granted, the concept of two incommensurate consciousnesses occurring in one body was already an object of psychological study when Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk. Arnold Rampersad refers to the work of Oswald Kulpe, as one of the possible sources in psychology for Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness. In addition to this there was William Palmer's analysis of Mary Reynolds as a case of such double-consciousness, published in the May 1860 issue of Harper's New Monthly; and Alfred Binet's Alterations of Personality (1896) went some way towards establishing the phenomena as a legitimate object of psychology. It is not at all evident that Du Bois was familiar with this work, or made use of it in formulating his concept of double-consciousness. Williams James, however, is generally credited with having had the more significant influence on Du Bois's formulation of the concept of the Negro's double-consciousness. The time during which Du Bois had been James's student (1888–1892) James was teaching the non-existence of consciousness, or rather that consciousness is a function of knowing and not an entity or substance. Even without any recourse to speculation of James's influence, there is good cause in the text of The Souls of Black Folk for reading Du Bois to understand consciousness as a function of knowing, and not as an entity.
Admittedly, at first glance, Du Bois's formulation of his concept of double-consciousness does lend itself to understanding that two incommensurate consciousnesses inhabit the same body. To some extent, this results from his careless use of terms in describing double-consciousness. He begins by describing double-consciousness as the lack of unified consciousness, or "true self-consciousness," resulting from having no subjective sense of oneself. Then, it is a feeling of being twoness—American and Negro, which are described as being two unreconciled striving thoughts in one body. The situation is not helped by his subsequently asserting that the "history of the American Negro is the history of this strife [between two thoughts in one body],—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self."
What is at stake becomes more accessible when we recall that the description of double-consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk derives from Du Bois's autobiographical account of becoming aware that he embodied the Negro problem, and that this account is a first response to the suppositional question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" The awareness occurs at an unspecified age in childhood as a result of a specific rejection. Du Bois and his classmates decide to exchange visiting cards:
The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.
By itself, this passage equates the veil with social, and not conceptual difference. In fact, it explicitly remarks, in order to emphasize the traumatic pain, that up to and including the moment of rejection there was no difference of consciousness between Du Bois and his classmates. This emphatic portrayal of like consciousness is rhetorical. Du Bois introduces the experience of racial hatred from the perspective of a thinking feeling child, who up until the moment he is told he is different is unaware of this difference. In that first moment the child does not understand a difference in consciousness between him and his mates, only a sharp sense of unjust exclusion, an exclusion made all the more painful by the knowledge that he is conceptually the same as them. Not only is the world posited the same way for him as for them, but it is meaningful in the same way; it signifies the same things. The new awareness of difference is made all the more painful and traumatic, in that it doesn't entail a conceptual rupture.
I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. The sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them.
It is noteworthy that Du Bois's experience of himself is chiefly conceptual—no reference is made to physical differences between Du Bois and his classmates (in subsequent versions of this same story it is made clear that this is not because he did not look different, but in The Souls of Black Folk it is purely so). He is conscious of himself as a "little thing, away up in the hills of New England"; a knowing subject in the world of things, this is a conceptual thing, not a percept. That is to say, the boy Du Bois has a concept but no perception of his self. Of course, read in this way, Du Bois's description of his childhood consciousness is a psychologism at best: he has a contentless, pure soul. This is, to a certain extent, part of the rhetorical ploy of portraying childish innocence. But it is also pivotal in understanding the move Du Bois makes from social to conceptual difference. What happens with the girl's rejection is not her establishing for Du Bois that, for her, he is simply a percept—some material thing in the world. He was already that, being a body; and he was a perceived body for himself as well. The text is quite clear, the trauma resulted from a judgment—contempt. The problem with that judgment is that it is apophantic. This is not because Du Bois now knows himself as that which it is predicative of: Du Bois suffers the contempt of his classmates, and reciprocates—if they think they are better than me, then I think I am better than them. In other words, the girl's rejection of him does not compel him to conceptually experience himself any differently than he had previously. Whatever predicable she has in mind is just that, a concept in her mind.
This is a significant point for two reasons. First, the Negro problem is not an object, but a proposition whose precondition is the distinction between reference and meaning—the Negro need not have a truth value (a reference) in order for it to be meaningful. Second, referential indeterminacy does not necessarily equate with semantic ambiguity, instead there is evidence of two incommensurate semantics of Negro. Accordingly, the split consciousness of the Negro is understood as a function of consciously experiencing this incommensurability. Yet, because the very precondition for this semantic incommensurability is the distinction of reference and meaning, whose own precondition is the possibility of object-ness—the positing of an object—it necessarily involves a synthetically unitary (transcendental) consciousness. Insofar as this unitary consciousness is meaningful only semantically (at the level of connotation), semantic incommensurability equates with incommensurate subjective consciousnesses. In other words, the Negro's split consciousness is a function of unfungible value—of having two meanings in incommensurate languages. What makes this incommensurability a crisis is the fact that both systems claim the same reference at the same time. The temporality of reference, however, raises the question of whether or not these unfungible values are indeed heterogeneous. That is, the "Negro problem" Du Bois draws our attention to is only at first glance that of confusing referentiality and meaning; on more careful consideration it becomes that of confusing knowledge about something with thinking on it.
After all, contempt is still not conceptual difference. On the contrary, it contains the risk of the afterthought: "suppose after all, the world is right and we [Negros] are less than men." Here is the rub, Du Bois is capable of having the same concept of himself that the girl has, and achieving the same apophantic judgment without forgetting his prior conceptual experience of himself. In reflecting on the rejection, Du Bois has come to understand that knowledge of self or consciousness is purely conceptual. Social difference becomes the index of conceptual difference. This interpretation, however, begs the question which Du Bois set out in his "Forethought" as the exploration with which he connects the fourteen essays in The Souls of Black Folk: What are "the strange meanings of being black?" It gets rephrased in the first chapter, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" as: "How does it feel to be a problem?" The question of the problem is about what it means to be always at minimum object-plus-subjects. Yet, in beginning to address this question, we still need to know what Du Bois means by consciousness.
Du Bois somewhat carelessly equates consciousness with thought, and understands the latter as something in his "dark body." For both Du Bois and his classmates, his body is a complex percept. For Du Bois, prior to the girl's rejection, that percept was related to his consciousness as a correlate object of it: this is my body, he would state. The statement "I am American" is slightly more complicated, in that American as a concept is also a correlate object of consciousness, and at the same time it is the conceptual correlate of the perceptual body. After the girl's rejection of him, Du Bois still knew his body as a perceptual object of consciousness, but it was also now a correlate of the concept Negro, which in turn was a conceptual object of consciousness. The two correlations, body/American and body/Negro, are objects towards which consciousness is directed: their experiences are intentional experiences. At the same time, the two different concepts, American and Negro, correlate to the same perceptual object—the dark body. There are two concepts and one percept.
Now, every intention has a structure, whose components, while themselves intentional, act in a synthetically unified intentionality. In other words, difference in intentionalities may indicate different moments of consciousness, but these differences act to constitute a unified being—they are changes in orientation of perspective within one stream of consciousness, which is nothing more than the conjunctive relation that provides a continuous associative lineage within the flow of experience. Following this, in asserting that the same object is turned or directed towards two different consciousnesses, Du Bois is asserting that there are two different intentionalities, two different cogitos. That is simply to say that two minds can know one thing. If this, however, is what Du Bois means by the Negro's double-consciousness, then he is maintaining an absurdity. Or else, he understands the Negro to be definitionally a multiple personality.
If consciousness is nothing more than the conjunctive relation that provides a continuous associative lineage within the flow of experience, then both the American and Negro are experiences of consciousness, and not consciousnesses. At this point, it seems clear that what Du Bois means by consciousness is identity. What Du Bois calls double-consciousness in the same mind is more rigorously understood as two disjuncted identities experienced within the stream of one consciousness. Identities are conceptual objects of experience, regardless of how they refer to or terminate in particular percepts. As such they are functions of consciousness and not consciousness itself. Whereas two incommensurate consciousnesses in one mind is an absurdity, two incommensurate identities in one stream of consciousness is not. As conceptual objects the American and Negro need not have a truth value (they need not correlate with aggregates of percepts) to be meaningful—they constitute aggregates of concepts. This reading enables us to gain some significant insights into Du Bois['s] psychology. Du Bois's double-consciousness is now recognized as a serious attempt to think about the American Negro as a particular case of the possibilities of experience in modernity rather than as an object for analysis. Insofar as he succeeds in that attempt he enables us to conceive of black consciousness as a function of experience and not the ground for experience. Black consciousness is a subjective mode of thought.
The possibility of intersubjective (collective) black identity issues from the critical engagement with the tension between the objective conditions of blackness and the subjective consciousness of blacks: other thinking creatures who look like me and have analogous experiences to mine think as I do. Based on his understanding of this tension, Du Bois recognizes black consciousness as a surplus value in the dialectic of the Negro's material abjection and black self-consciousness. In other words, Black consciousness constitutes a collective (class) critical understanding of historical change. Du Bois's proposal to engage the "darker thought,—the thought of things themselves" rather than encouraging us to determine once and for all the fact of blackness, leads our understanding away from the "natural" attitude of beings whose life is involved in the world of things to the transcendental life of consciousness. Taking that into account, his concept of double-consciousness is concerned with the question of essential authentic being, that is, with the very possibility of experience. This question of authenticity is ontological, it is concerned with genuine self-possessedness.
Even though it is Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness that leads us to this question of ontological authenticity, it is not a question he is prepared to address in The Souls of Black Folk. Throughout most of the book, Du Bois considers the meaning of being black—i.e., double-consciousness—in terms of the structures and relations between beings. He focuses on particular sets of social and moral behaviors. In this way the meaning of blackness is ontical, and not a question of essential authentic being. In other words, Du Bois never really does more than continually draw our attention to the "Negro problem" as a function of unfungible values, or referential indeterminacy, which legitimates his consideration of the meaning of being black, and not what the black is. Granted, his consideration is restricted to the ontical, but that is because what he strove to overcome was the positivist cynical disregarding of the Negro's conscious self in order to "gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes." Du Bois strove to overturn positivist sociology's narrow understanding of the Negro as merely a social phenomena, something to be objectively tabulated and studied.
For Du Bois, the only appropriate way to react to the connotation of the Negro as thing-laborer is the application of thought, to turn away from the body as being, from black people in the world as the collocation of phenomena, toward the inquiry into the constitution of the thought of black subjectivity as the ground of being. The "history of the American Negro" traced in The Souls of Black Folk is the projection of Negro being in thought, striving to achieve the annihilation of double-consciousness. It is the history of the dialectic interplay between knowledge and power: black thought emerges in the opposition of Will to the ordering of Ideas. Du Bois's recognizing the Negro as a real ontical being, rather than merely an object for positive scientific analysis, was an extremely radical departure from the established way of thinking. Even though it is not yet there, his departure is towards thinking the question of authentic ontological being. What is lost in the exchange of the empirical black, who was the object of sociological analysis, for the thinking black subject is the ability to unproblematically talk about blacks in the world. What is gained is the ability to think the authentic possibilities of being—the thetic.
This is not to deny the fact that there are Negroes, a fact that the girl's rejection drove home for Du Bois. Instead, it is to deny that the fact of the Negro defines the authenticity of Negro being. For all the limitations of Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness, this is the challenge it draws us towards, the challenge to think the Negro authentically. Thinking the authentic being of the Negro requires the constructive bringing to view of Negro being by projecting the free possibilities of being out of its particular structures. This projection requires, in turn, the deconstruction of that thinking about Negro being that correlates the perceptual and conceptual objects. The proper pursuit of this line of thought would call for a rather rigorous phenomenology of the Negro, which is far more than can be done at this moment. Even though it is Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness that has enabled us to discover the question of authenticity, pursuing it any further along these lines will take us a bit too far from the concern with which we began. That concern was with Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness as the presupposition of his understanding of intellectual vanguardism, and how that is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy.
Appreciating more clearly how Du Bois's understanding of the black intellectual vanguard presupposes his concept of the Negro as a real ontical being requires a more careful interrogation of his notions about the proper socio-political function of the black artist. Succinctly stated, that function was to create in different media as accurate as possible a representation of Blacks' unfailing moral strength in the face of the daily struggle with abjection at the hands of white America. Black artists should be ever mindful that given the historical, political, and social stakes of the division between black and white America, the relation of cultural object to group "being" matters. For Du Bois, artists, and especially literary artists, were ideologues, not as producers of false consciousness, but as the producers of a whole new body of knowledge derived from and constitutive of the lived experience of the Negro. Black art should serve black solidarity. Such a solidarity grounded in objective representation has to construe truth as correspondence to reality, requiring that there be formulated a special relation between belief and their objects, enabling the differentiation of true and false beliefs and thereby entailing the determination of specified procedures of justification of belief. Du Bois understood that relationship as duty: the obligation to know the difference between the best and the worst. Thus, artistic activity relies upon a determination of the nature of things; Du Bois's artist is a modern intellectual who requires that epistemology enable procedures of legitimation that are not merely social but apparently natural, issuing from the linking of human action to nature in general. Only those procedures of legitimation that lead to truth, to the correspondence of knowledge to reality, are truly legitimate under this view.
Furthermore, truth as the result of artistic/intellectual activity was an absolute to be pursued for its own sake, beyond the immediate desiderata and practical exigencies of one's self and/or community, which, again, should themselves derive from this understanding of the truth. As Anthony Appiah has observed, throughout his life Du Bois was concerned not just with the meaning of race but with the truth about race. Indeed, Du Bois's famous Atlanta Conferences were driven by the search after truth.
Prior to The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois sought this truth in social positivism. As he argued in "My Evolving Program," the "long term remedy [to racism] was Truth: carefully gathered scientific proof that neither color nor race determined the limits of a man's capacity or desert." Du Bois employed positivism to reveal the constructed and ideologically determined character of the "givenness" of Black inferiority. Du Bois's conception of the social sciences was that they were the theoretical understanding of existent social phenomena. On this view, science is instrumental, in the logical sense that its propositions are only conditionally heuristic or prescriptive and never absolutely so. This understanding of instrumental reason was the methodological basis for both his Philadelphia Negro and the Atlanta Conferences (1897–1910). As a result of the problems encountered in interpreting and translating into a program of action the data collected by the Atlanta Conferences, however, he concluded that privileging scientific sociology was not the best means for achieving black liberation. Confronted with the "startling reality" of the black's oppression, which called for immediate action to prevent social death (i.e., lynching), Du Bois perceived that positivism's conception of knowledge entailed a dangerous disjunction between theory and its practical consequences.
This is not to suggest that Du Bois abandoned a notion of truth as such, but rather that he began to question the validity of any procedure of rational justification that claimed to derive its legitimacy from determinate knowledge. As far as the social condition of blacks was concerned, there just wasn't enough time to determine the comprehensive grounds for knowledge. Epistemology was useful only insofar as it entailed a theory of action. In Du Bois's thinking, the social interests informing technological progress were inseparably linked to the function of hypothesis-ordering entailed in scientific inquiry. In effect, then, the facts that are most fruitful, including those of the knowledge already possessed, are those that have practical application to given circumstances. Knowledge must constitute theory in an absolute way, as though theory was grounded in the inner nature of instrumental knowledge itself. Or else theory must be legitimated in some other ahistorical fashion, such as the actualization of instrumental interests in nature. At this point, Du Bois's whole attitude toward the function of theory in the social sciences had to change—in the study of human beings and their actions, there could be no divergence between theory and social praxis.
In the course of this celebrated turn from positivism to pragmatism, Du Bois started thinking about the historical emergence of black consciousness as a contentious process of cognition that resists resolution. Du Bois called this crucial irresolvable contention the "dialectic of progression," whose two terms are natural law (necessity) and chance (indeterminacy). Gaining insight into this dialectic required that sociology be reformulated as a philosophy of science, whose work was to determine the relationship of indeterminacy to law. It also required just the sort of elaboration provided in The Souls of Black Folk of how self-reflective subjectivity comes to consciousness through experience. Du Bois's gesture is a calculated one, in which he redirects sociology back toward Kant's anthropology. In his own words, the object of sociology becomes to measure the "Kantian Absolute and Undetermined Ego."
In this context the "veil" of black consciousness functions as the metonymic statement of the unthought in its unthinkableness, whose purpose is to expose thinking as generating complexities and complications in its density, rather than resolving difference in its translucence. This is a restating of our earlier reading of Du Bois's "history of the American Negro" as the dialectic between knowledge and power. Only in this restating, it is far more clear what is at stake in understanding this to mean that black thought emerges in the opposition of Will to the ordering of Ideas. It means black consciousness is truth. The consequent relativization of knowledge is meant to clear a space for the introduction of a theory of value capable of problematizing the material basis for theories of social determinism and their concomitant legitimation of racism. This shift to theory of value notwithstanding, Du Bois does not altogether abandon the conception of an ultimate truth. On the contrary, truth is recognized as a teleology that discovers the essential homogeneity of humanity through the universality of relative values. Truth is preserved as a question that is unanswerable, except in terms of its specific localized expression—i.e., the truth of black consciousness—it remains always as the essential Absolute in which the cultural frame of reference is grounded.
Thus far, I have found it useful to talk about The Souls of Black Folk as Du Bois's presentation of the history of the American Negro. I have also shown how, as such, it is exemplary of his treating the American Negro as the paradigmatic case in his attempt to describe the production of collective identity in terms of discursive effect. I have done so to underscore the extent to which his investment in reasserting the priority of the epistemological subject over and against the ascendancy of the positivist methodology of the social sciences is predicated on his commitment to pluralist democracy. The history of the American Negro outlined in The Souls of Black Folk is a demonstration that truly pluralistic democracy is instituted through people's appropriation of their power of signification. Positivism resists that appropriation; in its asserting that the foundations of the social are determined by objective conditions, independent of human will, it makes foundational knowledge the special province of scientific methodology.
Du Bois recognized that such an exalted methodology, whose theory derives from purely logical or methodological sources, takes the place of religion in its dogmatic refusal to put into question the legitimacy of the status of its knowledge. His dialectic of progress is the desacralization of this knowledge, in which natural law is reconceptualized as a constructed frame of reference marking objective reality, and interacting with our indeterminate knowledge (which Du Bois at times refers to as being an autonomous dynamic). According to the dialectic of progress, liberating sociological analysis does not derive from purely logical or methodological sources, but can only be understood in the context of historical social praxes. Theory as intellectual work is a social praxis actively involved in the instituting of the social. In this way the dialectic of progression produces black consciousness as a principle of social democracy—i.e., the secularization of knowledge gets subjects who are conscious of their power of institution. In other words, whereas positivism saw sovereignty in the correct function of knowledge (i.e., methodology), Du Bois found it in the collective will, the consciousness of the folk.
Recall that in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois displaces the Negro as an object of positive scientific analysis for the Negro as a self-conscious thinking ontical being. The concept of double-consciousness enables this displacement because it calls us to think the Negro authentically. Even though this concept of double-consciousness leads to the ontological question of authenticity it fails to address it. Instead, it serves two strategic (in fact rhetorical) functions. On the one hand, it enables Du Bois to exhibit the Negro as a self-conscious thinking subject. On the other hand, it is the figure of collective psychosis, resulting from social injustice. By the same token, double-consciousness establishes the heterogeneous origins of Negro and American identity. The psychosis of double-consciousness is not the result of a prior unified identity becoming fragmented, it results from the failure to merge two heterogeneous consciousnesses into one identity. At this point, Du Bois is quite clear that pluralistic democracy dictates the annihilation of double-consciousness: "The history of the American Negro is … this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." On the face of it, the argument is that pluralistic democracy requires the merging of the divided racial subject "into" the truer self of the American citizen. Yet, the very next sentence contradicts this, slipping from "into" to "with":
He [the Negro] would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.
This passage is one of the rare moments in The Souls of Black Folk where it's explicitly stated that the two juxtaposed consciousnesses are those of the Negro and the white, and not the Negro and the American. Even in The Souls of Black Folk, the Negro is a consciousness and American is an identity. Arguably, this is little more than Du Bois's revisiting the Jeffersonian idea of the difference between the private and public spheres. According to this concept polity is in the public sphere, and each and every citizen participates as an individual citizen in that sphere regardless of their affiliations or formations in the private sphere of culture or society. Participation in the public sphere does not require the renunciation of the citizen's private interests and affiliations; what guarantees access to the public sphere is the rule of law. The chief problem with this view is it fails to take sufficient care of the problems of movement between the two spheres. If any one corporate interest of the private sphere gains hegemony over the public sphere through its controlling the conditions in which the rule of law is interpreted, then the effectiveness of the distinction between the two spheres is lost. Of course, it was precisely such a hegemony Du Bois sought to problematize: the law defined the Negro as property in accordance with certain collective interests in the private sphere; that fact of law precluded the Negro's gaining direct access to the public sphere where, as free citizens, they could amend the law. The violent rupture of civil war precipitated the amendment of the law; yet since the war was principally a political, and insufficiently a private issue, the broader societal factors, the complex of private interests, that had enslaved the Negro legally, interpreted the law so as to maintain their hegemony.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois identifies the relationship between ideology and law when, writing about the failure of the Freedmen's Bureau to exercise its juridical function, he states: "Almost every law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,—to make them slaves of the state, if not of individuals." Or again, writing about the possibilities of the Negro's participation in the public sphere, he proclaims: "The laws are made by men who have little interest in [the Negro]; they are executed by men who have absolutely no motive for treating the black people with courtesy or consideration." This interrelationship between ideology and law creates, in Du Bois's view, the circumstances in which "the Negro is coming more and more to look upon law and justice, not as protecting safeguards, but as sources of humiliation and oppression." The rule of law has become the means by which the Negro is enslaved, the cause is in "the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil." Hence, the urgency with which Du Bois argues that the recognition and development of the Negro as a thinking subject as the prerequisite for complete democracy. For that matter, pluralist democracy is not possible in America as long as the racial subject is antinomic to the citizen. Merging the racial subject with the citizen is the solution called for in The Souls of Black Folk, the way of achieving this offered in "The Conservation of Races" is to formulate a legitimating collective narrative capable of transcending comprehensively the plurality of communities within the nation. That narrative is based on understanding the real meaning of race, which recognizes racial identity as a function of historical development towards the realization of absolute human spirit: "that one far off Divine event."
Recognizing that Du Bois thinks about race in terms of Identitätsphilosphie (identity-philosophy), is a sine qua non for understanding the idealism operating in his conception of race and its connectedness with his notion of social democracy. Race for Du Bois is Gemeinschaft, an assemblage of human beings according to common history, traditions and impulses, "who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life." The subject of race results from the authenticating genealogy or collective narrative of shared historical experience, giving rise to what Du Bois called culture. The conception of race as culture and not biology is fundamentally an argument for the discursive constitution of subjects. But in Du Bois's theory of the historical construction of collective identity, a fundamental and universal consciousness drives each collective identity in its specificity. Racial difference functions according to a dialectic of progression in which each race strives to realize the utopian movement in which the spirit of humanity will return to itself. As he puts it in "The Conservation of Races," the "full complete Negro message of the whole Negro race" is to be given to the world through "the development of Negro genius, of Negro literature and art, of Negro spirit."
Understanding the subject of race to be a specific expression of the essential, or Absolute, human entails taking the exclusionary legitimation of the American citizen to be the annihilation of the human. As Du Bois pointed out in his Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and later in Black Reconstruction, where the American citizen is the subject selected as the legitimate custodian of political will, it is selected as such in exclusion of specific other subject-constructions, specifically blacks. When the state invests in such a narrow definition of the citizen as its sole legitimate subject, it cannot bring the collective human will into full effect. Du Bois's corrective for this was a program of intellectual activity that reaffirmed the subject of race as the sole legitimate space for socialization. The merger of the Negro's double-consciousness into a truer self called for in The Souls of Black Folk is not so much a merger as the accommodation of the political will to racial identity. Positing the universality of the subject of race as an abstraction, Du Bois discovers the psychology of the Negro as the case for thoroughly calculating the generation and effect of cultural representations, and displacing the speculative interests of social positivism with the figure of the racial subject as the legitimate grounds for organizing the social. Accordingly, black intellectuals are the legitimate representatives of the race—race-men. Their election, however, is based on a propriety of knowledge that presupposes rightful participation in a public sphere that already excludes the Negro from civil society (which Du Bois came to identify with economy). The principal function of the talented tenth, then, is to engender an order of publicity, aimed at the inclusion of the Negro in civil society (hence Du Bois's insistence that an additional function of the tenth is incorporation in economic co-operatives). In other words, the legitimate work of the black intellectual is to both represent the essential humanity of black folk, and to create the conditions in which that humanity is recognizable as valuable to civil society.
Du Bois's argument that the development of the Negro subject was a prerequisite for complete democracy notwithstanding, having race monopolize legitimate socialization is antinomic to democracy precisely because it disassociates the political will from the social in such a way that social authority is the determinant of legitimate accesses to the public sphere. In the case of the black intellectual, social authority is a function of racial authenticity, which is acquired by defining the grounds of legitimate folk expression. In the movement from racial subject to citizenship that characterizes the merging of the Negro's double-consciousness into a truer self, the public sphere is not produced by the continuous conscious spontaneity of action on the part of free individuals under the rule of law; instead, it is the sphere of struggle between organic collective constituencies. Even as indeterminacy points to the limitations of prescriptive natural law, it reveals the subjugation of the political subject (the citizen) to racial identity. The logic of racial emancipation in differentiation is, thus, discovered in the socioeconomic and political totalitarianism of a patria. Here is where the antinomy of race and democracy I spoke of earlier strikes. Establishing the universality of the subject of race as an abstraction is the first step towards achieving the annihilation of the political subject. Having engaged in an anti-foundationalist critique of sociology in order to recognize that a condition for democracy is the indeterminacy of knowledge, Du Bois reaffirms that the foundations of the social are determined by objective conditions after all: the almost mechanistic dialects of race and bloodline.
This careful retracing of the tortuous turns in Du Bois's critical theory was undertaken in order to understand how Du Bois's theory of intellectual vanguardism presupposed his concept of black consciousness, and how that concept is antinomic to his commitment to pluralist democracy. Simply put, the black intelligentsia are race-men, whose authority derives from their ability to define black consciousness as the only authentic mode of being in which the Negro can enter the public sphere. Such a consciousness is antinomic to pluralist democracy because it subordinates the political subject to the racial. The need to understand this was prompted by the New Black Aesthetics' offering us a return to racial vanguardism as the means of affirming social democracy. More is at stake here, however, than simply establishing that Du Bois's concept of black consciousness is paradigmatic for the NBA. The more crucial issue is how is such a conception of black consciousness as key to social change still possible, given the absurdity inherent in its formulation. As stated earlier, that possibility has to do with precisely what is meant by consciousness in the concepts black consciousness and black experience.
Black consciousness, for Du Bois, is a function of experience and not the ground for experience. It is a mode of thought that emerges in interplay between knowledge and power. As such, the concern of Black consciousness is authenticity as genuine self-possessedness. The thing is, in Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness, the question of authenticity is misconstrued. Rather than being the concern with genuine self-possessedness as the very possibility of experience, The Souls of Black Folk is concerned with the socio-political meanings of Black consciousness. What this means is that the question of authentic Black being is presupposed by the concept of double-consciousness, but never addressed. This failure to address authenticity proves critical, for in order to establish the Negro's consciousness Du Bois is compelled to ground it in an unsubstantiated notion of exceptionalism: "[The Negro] would not Africanize America, for America has much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world."
The self-conscious parody and ironic signifying of Ellis's NBA—i.e., the idea of the "cultural mulatto"—is best understood as a form of this same exceptionalism, only with a deft modernist spin to it. Like Du Bois, the NBA understands culture as a field of human activity that although historically related to material economic conditions transcends those conditions. Again, as with Du Bois's thinking, the NBA defines black identity in terms of culture. Culture is not simply derivative of what used to be referred to as political economy; it does not represent the system of the material socio-economic relations that regulate the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the material socioeconomic relations in which they live. That is to say, individuals live in the moment of their imaginary relations to the material, and this is culture.
There is an acute sense of the present as a constitutive element of aesthetic experience in Ellis's conception of the NBA as a postliberation aesthetic. This is underscored in his emphasizing its being the synthesis of past aesthetics (the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement) that rearticulates them into a representation of the present. We have not adequately addressed the question of time in Du Bois's and Ellis's conceptions of aesthetics. A beginning gesture towards addressing this question—which is all there is time for in this closing summary of resemblance—would be to note the permanent parabasis (the stepping aside) prevalent in so much NBA work, such that it constitutes the narrative structure of Ellis's Platitudes, and Darins James's Negrophobia, as well as being expressed musically in sampling and scratching. Permanent parabasis, so Friedrich Schlegel defined irony, and irony, for Ellis, is a constitutive element of the NBA.
The idea of the cultural mulatto is, after all, the idea of the permanently self-conscious narrator, whose enunciations continually discover the temporal predicament of the "now": the mere coincidence of material reality and the reality of enunciation. There is a sense of Baudelaire's driven and harassed man (imitant la toupie et la boule) in Ellis's characterization of the New Black Aesthetic as "neobarocco." In other words, the cultural mulatto is caught up in an unrelieved vertigo, in which identification and stability exist only in the symbolic power of the mind. Thinking about irony in this way is to think, again, like Baudelaire, for whom irony was the absolute comedy in its tendency towards hyperbole.
To suggest that the New Black Aesthetic is a form of absolute comedy, is not to dismiss it, but, instead to remark on its relationship to Du Bois's Romantic idealism in its understanding of aesthetics. This is the end of an already complicated and conceptually burdened essay, and so it is not the moment to embark on an elaboration of the etymology of "aesthetics." What can be stated sensibly at this juncture is that in claiming for the NBA a transforming robust spirituality—Ellis calls it the attitude of liberalism—with global implications, Ellis understands aesthetics to be sentimental. This means that the disturbatory expression of the NBA is focused on the interiority of the new black, cultural mulatto consciousness. Hence, the overemphasis on formalism in Ellis's descriptions of what makes the NBA "new." Thing is, this understanding of aesthetics becomes the basis for a supremacist sense of black cultural difference. Ellis asserts that the NBA dominates popular culture because it is separate from and better than the dominant culture. This claim for the NBA catches it in a vexing dilemma. How can the NBA be an anti-aesthetic when it persists in seeing culture as the terrain of subjective formation? Auto-parody leads to a stasis of thought when the NBA can proclaim that "'that other culture is definitely spent,' while black people have yet to see the best days of our race," and still claim to be "an attitude of liberalism rather than a restrictive code." The notion of cultural exceptionalism is also intimated in Tate's arguing that it is the "worldly-wise stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups" who embody the viable non-cultural nationalist resistance to transnational capitalism. Tate's parody of Du Bois's concept of the talented tenth keeps him caught up in Du Bois's concept of thinking humans as the agents of historical change. For the NBA, as well as for Du Bois, there are thinking subjects who collectively enunciate society.
To hold culture as the grounding of the triad culture/subject/society so that culture describes thought—as in black culture black thought—is to still work according to modernity's understanding of sign-value: to hold the truth of experience as a totality. Tate, more than Ellis, has some sense of this when he calls for a form of resistance that doesn't aim for transcendence of corporation into some mythical liberated zone of authentic identity, but for critical intervention in the process by which transnational capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism. Doing this becomes possible, however, only by letting go of a certain way of thinking about thought in relation to society, an abandoning of the Hegelian dialectic of recognition lurking in the identification of beauty and truth with which this essay begins. This, of course, is an altogether different question of authenticity.