Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2400
In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” As the century draws to a close, the visionary quality of Du Bois’ thought has become increasingly clear. As Du Bois realized, political events—the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the independence movements which have led to the decolonization of most of the Third World—only hint at the importance of race in the development of the modern sensibility. Of equal importance, but much less widely recognized, is the way in which racial issues shape psychological, cultural, and social experience in areas not directly concerned with race.
The publication of an anthology of Du Bois’ writings in the Library of America thus provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate and reassess the legacy of one of America’s most far-ranging thinkers. Edited by the distinguished Afro-Americanist Nathan Huggins (best known for his ground breaking history Harlem Renaissance, 1971), the volume includes The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1898), a revised version of Du Bois’ Harvard University dissertation; The Souls of Black Folk, the masterpiece of Du Bois’ early career; the prescient, and undervalued, autobiography Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940); a generous selection of essays written during Du Bois’ editorship of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; and numerous other essays, including “The Talented Tenth” (1903), “The Souls of White Folk” (1920), “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926), and “A Vista of Ninety Fruitful Years” (1958). Given the immense quantity of Du Bois’ published writing, Huggins’ selections are excellent, providing both breadth and depth in their coverage of Du Bois’ development. The only serious complaint concerning the volume is that it is destined to stand alone in the Library of America. Readers seeking further exposure to Du Bois’ thought must seek out his poetry, drama (the pageant The Star of Ethiopia, 1913), fiction (particularly The Quest of the Silver Fleece, 1911; Dark Princess, 1928; and The Black Flame trilogy, 1957-1961), and additional nonfiction (the full text of Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920, John Brown, 1909, The World and Africa: Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History, 1947) on their own.
Questions about the editorial policy of the series, however, should not detract from appreciation of this volume. Spanning nearly a century, Du Bois’ career brought him into contact with most of the major figures of twentieth century Afro-American history, most notably Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Frequently cited as the archetypal struggle over Afro-American political strategy, Du Bois’ near-legendary debate with Washington can be traced through various stages. In his classic statement “Of Booker T. Washington and Others,” included in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois opposed Washington’s gradualism with an unswerving insistence on full social and political rights for Afro-Americans. As Washington’s influence began to fade following his death in 1915, Du Bois gradually assumed the more distanced perspective which enabled him to place the original controversy in its historical perspective in Dusk of Dawn. The change reflects the general triumph of Du Bois’ position, which established the theoretical basis of the Civil Rights agitation from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. Ironically, by the time his earlier position had received general vindication, Du Bois had modified his stance to accept some forms of segregation as necessary stages in a larger process. This position, which Du Bois defended as a logical extension of his pragmatic focus, was the issue which lead to Du Bois’ resignation in 1934 after twenty-four years as editor of The Crisis.
While the early stages of Du Bois’ career receive full (and appropriate) representation in Writings, selections reflecting his later fascination with Marxism and Pan-Africanism are relatively sketchy. When he published Dusk of Dawn in 1940, Du Bois was just beginning to articulate fully the changes his thought had undergone during the twentieth century. Insisting that “I was not and am not a communist,” Du Bois nevertheless identified Karl Marx as “one of the greatest men of modern times,” maintaining that “he put his finger squarely upon our difficulties when he said that economic foundations, the way in which men earn their living, are the determining factors in the development of civilization, in literature, religion, and the basic pattern of culture.” For Du Bois, this perception led inexorably to a greater emphasis on the shared economic problems faced by people of African and Asian descent, both on their native continents and in the United States. Not surprisingly, Du Bois’ anticolonial stance brought him into the conflict with the United States government recounted in “The Trial” and “The Acquittal,” originally published in In Battle for Peace (1952), in which Du Bois defends himself against the Red-baiting of the 1950’s. In part because he wrote comparatively little during the ninth decade of his life, the Pan-Africanism of Du Bois’ final years—his death in Ghana on the eve of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington has an unmistakable symbolic resonance—receives relatively little space in Writings. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Du Bois’ insistence on the shared destiny of the black, brown, yellow and red people throughout the world was perhaps as influential as any single element of his thought during the period of racial upheaval which followed his death.
In addition to this substantial historical significance, Du Bois’ work has reemerged in recent years as perhaps the single most important touchstone of contemporary Afro-American thought. To some degree, this renewed interest reflects the almost visionary quality of much of his cultural commentary. Like The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Dusk of Dawn reads in retrospect as a prophetic text. While some specific manifestations have altered, the psychological types described in his chapters on “The White World” and “The Colored World Within” are as recognizable in the 1980’s as they were in the 1930’s. Extending his analysis beyond racial issues per se, Du Bois reveals the underlying contradiction between Christian values and hierarchical thought patterns. Sadly, his satirical portrait of the foreign-policy implications of this tension has lost most of its parodic quality:As Americans we’ve got to be “prepared” for “defense.” Well enough to think of a world of peace, but we haven’t got it. Not only that, but the world is not preparing for peace. Everywhere and all over it is not only preparing for war—it is fighting. What is the sense of man, even though he be big, strong, well, sitting down empty-handed while around him are grouped a dozen men armed to the teeth with every device that brains and money can furnish? No, no, this will never do. We’ve got to have an army and a big army for a big country. We need a militia and a universal draft; we need several big seventy-five million dollar battle-ships with cruisers, airplane carriers and submersibles. We must play expensively at war with elaborate manuevers. Defense, Preparedness—that’s the word.
Disregarding the impact of inflation, little has changed in four decades.
It is precisely this ability to identify the relatively static substructures of cultural psychology that marks Du Bois’ greatest achievement. Time and again, thinkers addressing racial issues find their ideas anticipated in Du Bois’ work. Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to the concept of “double consciousness,” which received its classic statement in the opening chapter of The Souls of Black Folk. Perhaps because of his New England upbringing and his mainstream education in predominantly white secondary schools, Du Bois was acutely aware of the tension between Afro- and Euro-American sensibilities. Although he achieved at an extremely high level from the beginning of his schooling, Du Bois nevertheless recognized that he could not simply assume the validity of the Euro-American “knowledge” which, given the racism that reached its peak early in his professional career, had no way of accounting for his own experience. Recognizing the ambiguity of any success achieved within the confines of such a system, Du Bois advanced a theory which stressed the need for multiple perspectives on any situation involving race. Du Bois’ original statement concerning double consciousness opens almost as a lament: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 two-ness,—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.
Asserting that “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,” Du Bois insisted on the value of both the American and the African selves, sounding a note which resounds, in various tones, through the subsequent history of Afro-American cultural thought.
It seems particularly relevant to reemphasize the germinal quality of the idea of “double consciousness” at a moment in Afro-American history when the tension between white and black worlds has emerged as a dominant issue in both academic and political terms. In Afro-American intellectual history, the 1980’s have been marked by a gradual (and by no means total) transition from the nationalist politics associated with the Black Arts movement to the theoretical and historical researches of scholars such as Lawrence W. Levine, Sterling Stuckey, Bell Hooks, Robert Farris Thompson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Robert Stepto. Like many of the activists of the 1960’s—Larry Neal is perhaps the best example—all these scholars base their approach at least partially on the recognition of the Du Boisean tension between Afro- and Euro-American perspectives. More specifically, each acknowledges the necessity of understanding the dominant culture’s viewpoint as a first step toward formulating an adequate response, whether intellectual or political. Stepto, whose brilliant study of Afro-American narrative takes its title image—From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (1979)—from Du Bois, pursues the implication of double consciousness in the concepts of “ascent” and “immersion.” Marking the passage out of symbolic slavery, the key to a successful ascent is the attainment of “literacy” as the term is understood by the Euro-American mainstream. The cost of ascent, however, is alienation from the Afro-American majority, including in most cases one’s own kin, who remain enslaved. As a result, according to Stepto, ascent generates the subsequent pattern of immersion, a return to one’s racial roots. Just as ascent involves Euro-American literacy, the process of immersion focuses on the (re)attainment of what Stepto calls “tribal literacy,” or competence in the primarily oral communication rituals of the Afro-American community. To a large extent, the twin emphasis on exploration of African-derived vernacular traditions and on the development of European-style theoretical frameworks reflect the two poles of this dialectic. From a Du Boisean perspective, the tribally literate researches of Levine, Thompson, and Stuckey complement, rather than contradict, the theoretical work of Stepto, Gates, and Hooks. Although the connection is frequently obscured by academic infighting, each of these thinkers at best attains a perspective incorporating both modes of literacy. However they may be resolved, the very vitality of the contemporary debates—which are beginning to exert a real influence on mainstream scholarship—testifies to Du Bois’ enduring importance.
Beyond this intellectual significance lies an additional, and in some ways more important, dimension of Du Bois’ example. For, although he was by temperament drawn to scholarship and reflection, Du Bois participated fully, if somewhat reluctantly, in the public life of his time. Repeatedly, he brought his researches to focus on questions regarding the appropriate action to be taken in a given situation. His specific recommendations changed frequently. Responding to the rise of Jim Crow legislation at the end of the nineteenth century, Du Bois insisted on the need for higher (as opposed to vocational) education; faced with the reorganization of economic institutions following the Great Depression, he called for the organization of Afro-American consumer cooperatives; he gave direct personal support to the African freedom movements, particularly in Ghana. At no time was he willing simply to reflect on the complexity of seemingly intractable problems. Consistently, Du Bois’ example implies that, whatever the uncertainties, it is better to act than to withdraw.
Such a stance inevitably requires that difficult decisions be made on the basis of partial information. Not surprisingly, over the course of his career, Du Bois explored numerous approaches which subsequent events were to reveal as inadequate. Some of these he recognized as blind alleys. For example, the events of the 1920’s and 1930’s led him to perceive the limitations of his theory of the “Talented Tenth,” which proposed the development of black professional and intellectual classes as the key to more general improvement in racial relations. On occasion, however, Du Bois maintained positions which have been rejected by most of his intellectual heirs. His unwillingness to recognize fully the importance of Garvey’s Pan-Africanist movement and his condemnation of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) are perhaps the two clearest examples of such stances. Reflecting the Victorian elements of his education and upbringing (the “American” aspect of double consciousness), Du Bois’ distrust of mass movements was reinforced by the degeneration of early twentieth century populist movements into Southern race-baiting in the United States and Fascism/Nazism in Europe. On a deeper level, Du Bois maintained a respect for “scientific” analysis, which many contemporary thinkers would view (at least in its simple form) as another element of the Euro-American hierarchical thought patterns which provide the buttress for global racism.
In relation to Du Bois’ entire career, however, such quibbles reflect little more than the inevitable limitations of a single lifetime. Few Americans have provided lasting insight into as many distinct areas. An invaluable first step toward general recognition of Du Bois’ achievement, the Library of America volume should spark renewed interest in the historical significance, and contemporary implications, of his thought and example.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36
Black Enterprise. XVII, June, 1987, p. 50.
Essence. XVII, February, 1987, p. 26.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 25, 1987, p. 2.
The New Republic. CXCVI, March 16, 1987, p. 32.
The Wall Street Journal. January 6, 1987, p. 26.
The Washington Post Book World. XVII, February 22, 1987, p. 1.
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