Posted: October 12, 2004
.E.B. Du Bois is the seminal figure in 20th-century African-American political thought. Among black leaders, only Frederick Douglass surpasses him in importance, and among black intellectuals, he has no equal. Du Bois is among the progenitors of nearly every 20th-century African-American political movement, from civil rights to black Marxism and nationalism. He also is among the most poetic channelers of African-American spirit in its every mood, from hopeful and compassionate to despairing and enraged, and his writings contain both dreams of reconciliation and fantasies of retribution. Stanley Crouch, wellknown music critic and commentator on race, is right that Du Bois "championed some of the best and the worst of the ideas proposed to make the world better for Negroes."
To assess Du Bois's legacy, one must disentangle the best from the worst and try to understand how Du Bois's capacious soul contained what look today to be irreconcilable ideas and tendencies. The Souls of Black Folk is Du Bois's best and most beautiful book. And it is more than that. Playthell Benjamin, a journalist who has written for the Village Voice among other publications, is justifiably confident, it seems to me, that no one can "name a work that combines innovative social science and art on the level of Souls." David Levering Lewis, the most authoritative of Du Bois's biographers, offers Max Weber himself as witness for the sociological importance of Souls. Weber undertook to have Soulstranslated into German and offered to write an introduction to Du Bois's "splendid book." Even allowing for the "melodrama" that Crouch criticizes in Souls, Benjamin is probably safe to assert that no work of comparable sociological merit contains the "lyricism" that Crouch praises there. Benjamin and Crouch's assessment of Du Bois and his legacy centers on The Souls of Black Folk and is structured as an exchange between Benjamin and Crouch. But since they rarely engage each other, I will consider their reflections separately.
Stanley Crouch gets top billing in Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk, but Playthell Benjamin does fully two-thirds of the reconsidering. Rather than address the apparent contradictions in Du Bois's thought and legacy, Benjamin praises them in more or less every aspect. Benjamin appreciates Du Bois's appeal to the universal truths of the Declaration of Independence but also appreciates what he sees as Du Bois's unmasking of the greed and hypocrisy of the founders and his appeal to an alternative African tradition. He appreciates Du Bois's attempts to reason and work with whites but also, "after reading countless scholarly histories on race relations in the modern world," finds it surprising that more blacks have not concluded with Louis Farrakhan that "the white man is the Devil." While it may not be impossible to explain how Du Bois could embrace socialism and liberalism, separatism and integration, universalism and cultural nationalism, Benjamin evidently does not think there is a problem to address here, even though the warring ideas in Du Bois's thought are precisely the ideas at war in African-American political thought altogether.
However evenhanded Benjamin's praise of the different sides of Du Bois's thought may be, his own sympathies emerge in the charged language he uses to criticize other African-American thinkers and the West. Gerald Early, a professor of African-American studies at Washington University, "a major white academy," is a "bourgeois," part of a group of "cultural assimilationists." Early also finds himself in the ranks of "soulless careerists without empathy for the struggles of the striving masses," and even in a company of assorted "neurotic black intellectual lickspittles." Cornel West, is another "pampered bourgeois intellectual," who is blamed not only for his intellectual failings but for being "scandalously overpaid." Benjamin repeatedly returns to the high salaries and speaker's fees hauled in by his opponents, as if wealth and success were prima facie grounds for supposing them unqualified to comment on the condition and needs of African-Americans. As for the West (not to be confused with Cornel West) its intelligence agencies and multi-national corporations, Benjamin suggests, bear primary responsibility for the corruption of leaders in Africa. Benjamin also has the radical's tendency to confuse disagreement with betrayal. He calls "Uncle Justice Thomas" an "intellectual quisling." He accuses Henry Louis Gates of "many blunders and lies," because of one error Gates may have made in his description of a conference organized by Benjamin Chavis when Chavis was executive director of the NAACP. All this from a man who admires Du Bois's evenhandedness.
It is worth noting that Du Bois's evenhandedness, which Benjamin repeatedly praises, is sometimes more rhetorical than real. Consider one of the most important essays in Souls, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," which Benjamin regards as an example of "scrupulous evenhandedness." It is true that Du Bois praises Washington but only for the successes he achieved through shrewdness, enthusiasm, and narrowness of vision: "It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force." This observation is condescending coming from a man who thought he had a great deal of force and much broader vision than Washington's. Moreover, Du Bois's apparent evenhandedness cloaks a one-sided treatment of Washington, in which Washington's attention to the virtues that industry fosters and to the Christian virtues that he thinks should lead blacks to opt for conciliation, even in the face of white hatred, is somehow transformed into a single-minded devotion to commercialism and an indifference to the "higher aims of life." Whatever one might think of the prudence or imprudence of Washington's program, it is a stretch to describe Du Bois's treatment of him as evenhanded. Instead, one is tempted to see "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others" as an early indication of Du Bois's talent as a propagandist, a role he self-consciously takes up not long after Souls as director of publicity and research for the NAACP.
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Stanley Crouch, who actually has some kind words for Booker T. Washington, confronts the problem that Benjamin dodges. In thinking through Du Bois's complex legacy, Crouch arrives at this thesis: Du Bois's main contribution to African-American thought is to continue "the extraordinary battle against hierarchy" which had been partly won during the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had simultaneously given birth to the Declaration of Independence and the pseudo-science that sanctioned slavery by declaring blacks naturally inferior to whites. Du Bois, insofar as he follows in Frederick Douglass's footsteps, and attempts to purify the Enlightenment of the last traces of prejudice, is to be celebrated. But insofar as his romanticism leads him to embrace Africa and cultural nationalism, he is inadvertently on the side of "nut cults" like the Nation of Islam. And insofar as his "vast bitterness and great rage" lead him to entertain "fantasies of a world revolution," he is, consciously as it turns out, on the side of murderers like Stalin, whom he praises profusely long after there can be any excuse for it.
Crouch's argument is sensible, but it conflates the battle against hierarchy with the battle for individual rights, which, as Tocqueville warns, do not always go together. This conflation is particularly important in Du Bois's case, as he is from the beginning of his career far more an advocate of equality than an advocate of rights as they are commonly understood. Du Bois casts his ballot for Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs in 1904, not as a protest vote but because, as David Levering Lewis reports, he finds Debs and socialism appealing. In an 1898 address, he speaks disparagingly of "discussions of the rights of man that belong to the eighteenth century" and continues, throughout his career, to dismiss the "Freedom of 18th century philosophy." For Du Bois, the pure spirit of the Declaration of Independence is equality, not rights, so much so that until the end of his life, long after he embraces Marxism and becomes an apologist for Soviet Communism, he continues to appeal to the Declaration and the America "of which the Founding Fathers dreamed."
In addition, while Crouch is certainly right and prudent to warn about the perils of nationalism, he denounces nationalisms indiscriminately. As Allan Bloom observed, distinctly national authors can "afford a peculiar and powerful perspective on life's perennial problems." Descartes and Pascal, though they mean something to all of us, mean something more to the French, even as Goethe means something more to the Germans, Shakespeare means something more to the English, and Dante and Machiavelli mean more to the Italians. When the project of nationalism limits itself to the development of a distinct outlook on universal and enduring questions, as it generally does in the Souls of Black Folk, it is hard to see what serious relationship it has to the "nut cults" to which Crouch links Du Bois's nationalism.
Du Bois's pan-African nationalism is, to be sure, hardly above reproach. The characteristics he identifies as distinctly African, from communalism, to simplicity, to emotion, are the same characteristics commonly attributed to peasants and primitives. They do, indeed, seem to be, as Crouch suggests, the product of Du Bois's romantic imagination, more than they are the product of his research. Moreover, even as we bear in mind that all nationalisms contain mythical elements, one can question the wisdom of asking the descendants of slaves, who were brought over mainly from West Africa, to identify with an entire and extremely diverse continent.
That said, Du Bois's particular version of nationalism, in its best moments, has much to recommend it. It is moderated by the assertion that although human beings may be different in "form and gift and feature," they differ "in no essential particular" and are "alike in soul." It is moderated by the assertion that although Africa is the carrier of a distinct "race ideal," no race ideal is so distinct that it cannot be judged by standards of humanity, justice, beauty, and truth that are in principle recognizable to all human beings. It is moderated by the recognition that, however much injustice may have to do with the shortcomings of African culture in the modern era, that culture is not merely to be praised but also to be criticized and developed. It is moderated, finally, by the recognition that culture is not an end in itself. The art, music, and philosophy of different cultures are responses to and reflections upon common human experiences; the individual can benefit from seeking out the best of such responses and reflections, wherever they come from. Thus, Du Bois, who is so moved by the Sorrow Songs, is also influenced decisively by European art music. The Souls of Black Folk, even when it reflects on racial distinctiveness, is never provincial; the book points toward what may be described as a fusion of cultures. Insofar as the black American is drawn to Western and African ideals, his task is not to choose one in favor of the other but to "merge his double self into a better and truer self " so that "neither of the old selves is lost."
Again, one might reasonably question the sense of speaking of a distinctly African ideal, and especially of speaking of "race ideals" as Du Bois is prone to do. That is presumably what provokes Crouch's dismissal of this whole side of Du Bois's thought. Yet especially at a time in which multiculturalism is well established in our universities and to some extent in our politics, one should not be too quick to dismiss its more moderate forms. Moreover, Du Bois insists that African-Americans should enter the national stage not only as rights-bearers but also as participants in the "delving for truth, and searching out the hidden beauties of life, and learning the good of living" that is the peak of civilization. This is useful at a time when such delving is regarded in many quarters as naïve and futile. As Crouch himself observes, "The Souls of Black Folk announced the arrival of the contemplative Negro American."