A haunting echo: WEB Du Bois in a time of permanent war

The current saturation of modalities of US warfare compels us to revisit Du Bois and the colour-line today.

du bois
In the last decade, nearly one thousand books, theses and dissertations have taken up WEB Du Bois in one way or another, complementing the scores of new editions of his own now-canonical writings [Getty]

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line.”
– WEB Du Bois

This year marks five decades since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As a touchstone for the civil rights movement, it is remembered most commonly for the soaring oratory of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Just beneath the veneer of our glossy national memory, you’ll be moved by the songs of Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, rallied by the fiery rhetoric of SNCC Chairman John Lewis, and inspired by the magisterial photographs of 250,000 people mobilising to demand desegregated schools, fair housing and a liveable wage. 

As we reflect on the meaning and consequences of the March on Washington, let us pause and reach even deeper into its archive. Here we’ll find a fleeting remark packed with meaning for our contemporary moment. Towards the end of a long day, executive secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, invited the attendees to recognise a very recent loss. The night before, across the Atlantic Ocean in Accra, Ghana, at the age of 95, Dr William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had died.

“Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr Du Bois chose to take another path,” Wilkins intoned from a lectern soon to be occupied by Rabbi Joachim Prinz and then Dr King: “It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the century, his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you wanna read something that applies to 1963, go back, and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois published in 1903.” 

Indeed, Souls, and all of WEB Du Bois’ extraordinary life’s work makes for as profound a reading experience today as it must have in 1963. An astonishing number of contemporary authors are inspired by his persistent commitment to effectively understand the meaning of race, blackness, freedom and democracy, inclined always towards justice for the “world’s darker peoples”. 

In the last decade, nearly one thousand books, theses and dissertations have taken up Du Bois in one way or another, complementing the scores of new editions of his own now-canonical writings. The year 2012 alone saw the publication of dozens of scholarly books considering Du Bois in relation to such themes as race and photography, the relationship between race and religion, histories of American socialism and American music, philosophies of education, and the persistent legacies of slavery and debt. 

How should we account for this wide-ranging interest? Why does Du Bois matter so much today? 

The privileges of survival

Clearly, one reason is that, unlike so many key figures enacting what Robin DG Kelley calls “freedom dreams” – those political projects that envision more egalitarian forms of justice – Du Bois survived. He survived multiple professional exclusions, debilitating illnesses and persistent state repression that only increased with age.

He wrote over 20 books (including four autobiographies), supervised a ground-breaking series of sociological studies of rural black life (1897-1910), edited the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis (1910-1934), wrote a major history called Black Reconstruction in the US (1935) and embarked on an encyclopaedic study of Africa and its diasporas. He was instrumental in petitioning the UN on behalf of African-American human rights and fought vociferously to curtail the development of nuclear weapons. Across this gargantuan oeuvre, we learn of the dynamic thought and political acuity of a radical pragmatist, someone who, in the words of Amiri Baraka, was “constantly in the act of changing himself as the open reflection of an ever-changing world”. 

“For a nation built through the dehumanising regimes of European colonisation, chattel slavery, gratuitous violence and the convict-lease system, Souls provides a kaleidoscopic lens to view the glaring contradictions to American freedom.”

At the same time, echoing forth to us from the Jim Crow violence of racial segregation in which Souls was written is the incisive claim that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line”. You cannot understand the modern world, Du Bois argues, without understanding the crucible of race in which it has been forged. For a nation built through the dehumanising regimes of European colonisation, chattel slavery, gratuitous violence and the convict-lease system, Souls provides a kaleidoscopic lens to view the glaring contradictions to American freedom. It frames a powerful theory of double consciousness that emerged from a centuries-long subjection to white supremacy. 

Black people, Du Bois argues, carry a “sense of always look 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”. Such brutalising metrics produce radical limits on how the nation’s racial others view and value themselves, limits buttressed by dominant (and seemingly “neutral”) scholarly assumptions that Souls forcibly contests. Double consciousness enables what Du Bois calls “second sight”, such that black people have knowledge of the deeper truths of American modernity, its violent contradictions as well as its underutilised emancipatory resources. 

In doing so, Souls poses a major challenge to what Reiland Rabaka calls the “epistemic apartheid” that polices what counts as knowledge of the worlds of colour, dwelling instead in the deeper truths of American modernity known only too well by black folk. After all, “we who are dark”, Du Bois wrote in the 1920s, “can see America in a way that white Americans cannot”. 

‘Another path’ in the freedom struggle

Finally, we return to Du Bois because Souls of Black Folk was the beginning of his work, but not its culmination. We return not in spite of his choosing “another path”, as Wilkins intimated in 1963, but precisely because of it. That path led Du Bois to criticise what he saw as the foreshortened horizon of liberal integration epitomised by the March on Washington. 

He resolutely refused America’s Cold War limitations on forms of political thought that described freedom solely through US capitalism’s market-based lexicon, drawing instead on the thick political vocabularies of African and Asian anti-colonialism and Soviet communism. 

At age 93, this “other path” would catapult Du Bois’ expatriation to the newly-independent nation of Ghana, where he resided with his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, to work with the esteemed anti-colonial leader Kwame Nkrumah (when Nkrumah was overthrown by a US-backed coup after Dr Du Bois’ death, Shirley Graham Du Bois joined her son, David, in Egypt, where they together reported on the revolutionary dynamics linking Arab and African struggles for liberation).  

Most pressingly, five decades after his passing and his conspicuous absence at the March on Washington, we dwell with Du Bois to recognise that fighting for a world without exploitation in the United States has always demanded an international vision attuned to the intertwined violences of race, imperialism and war. Du Bois’ own late-in-life revision to the colour-line thesis is especially prophetic in this regard. 

“[T]oday,” he writes in the 1953 preface to the Jubilee edition of Souls, “I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and colour, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilised persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease for the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today, [such that] war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be colour and race.” 

Here, Du Bois underscores the deep cleavages around who has access to conditions of peace and who is subjected to conditions of war. Such divisions draw on, even as they transform, those lacerating circuits of oppression, dispossession and dehumanisation that centuries of European imperial violence and trans-Atlantic chattel slavery have carved into the world. 

Today, another exceptional African-American Harvard graduate, another veritable member of Du Bois’ “Talented Tenth”, has recently been re-elected to his second term as President of the United States. Under his watch, we have witnessed a resolute commitment to liberal integration (now more often termed “inclusion”) – carving out possible pathways to legal status for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, for instance, or expanding access to civil rights for gays and lesbians. 

At the same time, we only need to look at the highly differentiated distribution of wealth, health and life chances to grasp the explanatory power of Du Bois’ striking formulation. Du Bois’ prophetic diagnosis of the racialised means to secure and sustain a semblance of comfort for the “civilised” helps us understand the current landscape of warfare. 

His work impels us to move across scales, from “stop and frisk” policing strategies, to the proliferation of “stand your ground” and “papers please” laws; from the racial demographics of the 7.1 million people in American prisons, jails, or on parole to the 600,000 people that are siphoned through its immigrant detention facilities; from the deployment of an open-ended campaign of aerial warfare to police the homeland’s globalised borders to the boomerang that brings such technologies and their multifarious militarised kin to US cities. 

When the brutalities of a society saturated with such forms of racial violence have been rendered banal, we turn to Du Bois to plumb the thick emancipatory dreams persistently articulated by and for the world’s darker peoples, to draw on their searing legacies and insights. We need Du Bois today, perhaps more than ever.

Keith P Feldman is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He has published in a variety of academic journals and is currently completing his first book, entitled Special Relationships: Israel, Palestine, and US Imperial Culture. A version of this essay will appear in The San Quentin News. 

Follow him on Twitter: @kpfeldman