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W. E. B. Du Bois vs. "the Sons of the Fathers" [1]: A Reading of The Souls of Black Folk in the Context of American Nationalism.

In his discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois's essay "On Alexander Crummell," the twelfth chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, Eric Sundquist implicates Du Bois in a patrilineal descent of African American political thought:

One of Crummell's early addresses in Monrovia, devoted to the creation of a generation of leaders of a republican Liberia, had been entitled "The Responsibility of the First Fathers of a Country for Its Future Life and Character" (1863). For Du Bois, Crummell functioned symbolically as such a father, although one can deduce that his purpose was in fact one of psychological transference in which Crummell became the mechanism for Du Bois's own ascendancy to the position of founding father of modern African American thought, thus eliding the alternative challengers Douglass and Washington. (Sundquist 517)

Du Bois's chapter on Crummell is indeed replete with paternal and filial references, and so is the whole collection of essays. Not all of these references, however, fit into Sundquist's pointedly Afrocentric reading of The Souls of Black Folk. In the ranks of the "good folk" credited with helping out Crummell, for instance, Du Bois includes the "gently" urging "young John Jay, that daring father's daring son" (358). The "daring father" in this case is politician John Jay (1745-1829), who, among his other services to the young American Republic, negotiated, alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the peace treaty between the newly independent American Colonies and Britain in 1783 and collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on The Federalist Papers. Du Bois's reference to Jay is thus nothing less than an invocation of one of the "Founding Fathers"--the eighteenth-century politicians who still hold their place of repute in the mythological pantheon of American nationalism. In defining Du Bois' s project as an attempt to ascend to "the position of founding father," Sundquist places Du Bois within a framework reminiscent of and parallel to the American nationalist mythos, especially in light of the fact that the documents created by the actual Founding Fathers of the American Republic were some of the earliest harbingers of the discourse of the nation-state. This is a curious gesture on Sundquist's part, since his own agenda in tracing the musical epigraphs to each of the chapters in The Souls of Black Folk back to their African origins is to find the roots of African American culture outside the American context and to emphasize Du Bois's Pan-Africanism; that is, to break away from the circuit of American nationalism. [2]

A reading of The Souls of Black Folk in terms of its place as a link in the chain of the American national narrative does not necessarily imply a refutation of Sundquist's Afrocentric reading. In its richness and ambiguity, Du Bois's work obviously spans continents, as did Du Bois himself in his lifetime. Born in Massachusetts, educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin in Germany, Du Bois at the end of his life became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in 1963. Yet Du Bois did not sympathize with Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa Movement, and at least at the time of writing The Souls of Black Folk, he advocated the acceptance of African Americans by the largely inimical American political, legal, and social institutions. His solution to the problem of double-consciousness was "to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face" (215). As a citizen of the United States working within the parameters of American democracy, Du Bois repeatedly took to task the "sons" of the Founding Fathers for disregarding the originary documents of the Republic. In doing so, he was involved, as were others before and after him, in the paradox of upholding the Enlightened universalism of the Declaration of Independence and the humanist abstraction of the United States Constitution--the two documents whose aura of universality was made possible precisely by the elision of race, yet which in their claim to a democratic universality seem to fulfill the role of the "empty signifiers" without "any necessary body, any necessary content" that make democracy possible, according to Laclau (90). [3]

The Souls of Black Folk appeared in print on April 18, 1903--127 years after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and 116 years after they adopted the United States Constitution in 1787. In the intervening nineteenth century, the two documents were involved in the justification of a series of contradictory political moves. In 1861 the Southern States used the Declaration of Independence to sanction their secession from the Union; their Confederacy then adopted a revised version of the U.S. Constitution as the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. At the head of the other warring party, the arch-defender of the Union, President Abraham Lincoln, invoked the Jeffersonian moral fervor of the Declaration of Independence in his now-famous short address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery in the fall of 1863. On January 1 of the same year, he had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in all rebellious states. This war measure, sanctione d by the U.S. Constitution, was to be permanently recorded in the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The freedmen were given legal and political rights as American citizens in the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, respectively. The three amendments comprised the first open mention of slavery, race, and color in the text of the U.S. Constitution. In the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), both Justice Brown, who delivered the majority opinion, and the dissenting Justice Harlan derived their arguments from the recently added amendments to the Constitution. The decision of the Supreme Court, which effectively sanctioned Jim Crow apartheid, echoed the "separate and equal" provision of the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

What such a cursory glance over some of the major political documents of American history makes clear is that the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States have been used to serve the particular interests of numerous exclusive and hostile-to-each-other political parties who "compete to give their particular aims a temporary function of universal representation" (Laclau 90). If Laclau is correct in his defense of the universal as the paradoxical "empty signifier"--that point of contention which is a necessary condition to democracy--then it is important to locate the actual production of universal claims in the founding documents beyond the particular interests vested in them at any specific point in time. What precedes my reading of The Souls of Black Folk, therefore, is a detour through the familiar terrain of American nationalist discourse in an attempt to distinguish between the often conflated categories of the universal and particular. Only such a distinction ena bles the use of democratic procedure by minority figures like Du Bois who, as many have argued, were foundationally excluded from it.

The universal has often fallen under criticism of the kind Paula Rothenberg levels at the Declaration of Independence: "When the authors of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, they meant 'men' quite literally and white men specifically" (Rothenberg 372). In this view, the Declaration carries no meaning beyond the particular historical interests of the representatives of the United States of America assembled in General Congress in the year 1776; its claim to universality "is no more than a particular that has become dominant" (Laclau 87). Rothenberg's criticism targets the most often quoted passage of the originary document, the drafting of which is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Her criticism seems valid if one considers the fact that, in the deliberations which produced the final draft of the Declaration, the all-white, male Congress turned down the clause in which Jefferson, a slave owner himself, accused the British king of waging

a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither.....Determining to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. (Jefferson 39)

It is worth noting that the language of this clause echoes the initial proposition of the Declaration that all men are endowed with "certain inalienable rights" among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This time the proposition is made in the particular case of representing the interests of enslaved Africans. Such a rhetorical move would not be possible if, as Rothenberg argues, only white men were the referent of the initial proposition.

The fate of the anti-slave trade clause, however, is an entirely different matter. In his Autobiography, Jefferson notes that the above text

was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others. (35)

Although the clause was drafted as a grievance against the British king and the slave trade was cast as an outrage against human nature, slave trade was as much a national, as it was an international and moral, problem. Jefferson's notes from the Congressional meeting show that the reason the issue of slavery was left out of the Declaration of Independence was because of the particular interests of certain states, both Northern and Southern. Georgia and South Carolina, the same states which moved to strike the clause from the final version of the Declaration, later opposed the proposal to record the wartime ban on slave trade permanently in the U.S. Constitution. New England joined into the bargain, and so the importation of slaves was extended until 1808. The official text of the Constitution, however, did not reflect the institutionalization of slavery, since all articles pertaining to the peculiar institution were cast in neutral terms. Regarding slave trade, the U.S. Constitution postulated simply that "t he Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or Duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person" (Article I, Section 9). Here, as well as in several other passages in Article I, Section 2, and Article IV, Section 2--having to do with the apportioning of taxes and representatives, and with the treatment of run-away slaves-the euphemism "person" stood for "slave."

One of the important changes that the Southern Confederacy introduced into its version of the Constitution in 1861 was that it made explicit the language of slavery. In its Confederate version, Article I, Section 9 read in part:

1. The importation of negroes of the African race, from any foreign country other than the slave-holding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectively pre vent the same.

2. Congress shall also have power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy ....

4. No bill of attainer, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed. ("The Constitution" 181) [4]

By 1861, the United States had banned the importation of slaves into the country, which explains the discrepancy between the Confederate beginning of Section 9 and that of its U.S. counterpart. The rest of the section, however, boldly flaunts in the face of the Union the resurfacing of its national repressed. Ironic as the ways of history can be, the Confederate Constitution repeated with a difference the U.S. Constitution in much the same way as the rebellion of the Southern States summoned up the righteous fervor of the American Revolution. Historian George C. Rable writes that

faith in their ability to build an ideal republic gave the Confederate revolution a hint of universalism. Perhaps the Southern states held the last hope for liberty; perhaps the Confederacy would survive as one of the few remaining refuges from the oppression of both tyrannical monarchies and despotic majorities. This did not make Confederates into messianic crusaders bent on conquering and remaking the World, but it ennobled their cause by lending an air of broader purpose to an essentially conservative movement.(48)

If one takes the Southern rebellion to be a conservative revision of the American Revolution, the Confederate Constitution, with its bringing to the surface of the submerged element of the U.S. Constitution, can be said to give the lie to the foundational document of the American Republic. The U.S. Constitution has indeed had the reputation of taking a more reactionary turn than the Declaration of Independence. One might argue that the elimination of the anti-slave trade clause from the Declaration had a less pernicious effect on American history than the cooptation of slavery in the Constitution. Yet both acts were essentially prompted by the same motive and initiated by the same states, and resulted in the elision of race from the final drafts of the two documents.

While both documents might very well be implicated in the institution of slavery, however, the question of their role in the production and regulation of American democracy still remains unanswered: If the Declaration and Constitution responded to the particular needs of a particular agent at a specific point in history, what explains their subsequent use as basic referential tools in negotiating the social, legal, and political achievements of the disadvantaged minorities whose interests they initially disregarded? Two centuries and twenty-eight amendments later, the answer, in the case of the Constitution, seems obvious. The hard-won battles of particular groups whose rights were not adequately, or at all, represented in the body of the Constitution have found their resting place in these amendments. Every new amendment importantly affects the meaning of the preamble, "We the People of the United States." The expansion of the set of referents of the foundational term people to accommodate the citizenship s tatus of African Americans, Native Americans, and women reflects on the capacity of the universal to tailor itself to the various particulars it comes to represent. Laclau writes:

If the social struggles of new social actors show that the concrete practices of our society restrict the universalism of our political ideals to limited sectors of the population, it becomes possible to retain the universal dimension while widening the spheres of its application--which, in turn, will redefine the concrete contents of such a universality. Through this process universalism as a horizon is expanded at the same time as its necessary attachment to any particular content is broken. (90)

But if the amendments of the Constitution change the historical referent of its preamble, how can one account for the lasting relevance of the Declaration of Independence, which has not undergone any modification since 1776? Its specific political purpose, according to Jefferson's notes from the Congressional meeting on Saturday, June 8, 1776, was to serve as a diplomatic tool with the help of which the rebellious Colonies intended to procure for themselves allies in the Revolutionary War. Congressmen agreed that only a Declaration of Independence could render the Revolution "consistent with European delicacy, for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador from us." They saw such a declaration as a matter of expediency so that, "during the summer, France may assist us effectively, by cutting off those supplies of provisions from England and Ireland, on which the enemy's armies here are to depend.. (Jefferson 33). In its conception, then, the Declaration of Independence was an opportun istic act of strategic military import.

To explain how this particular act produced the universality that it has been credited with, it is necessary to note that the document which Congress ratified in 1776 consists of three distinct sections. The preamble contains the most often quoted passages of the Declaration--a sure sign of its universal appeal. The middle section, which begins halfway through the second paragraph, builds the particular case for the grievances of the Colonies against British rule; it consists of a list of historically specific examples and is generally remembered for its exclusion of Native and African Americans from the ranks of "the good people of these Colonies" (Jefferson 41). Native Americans are depicted as "merciless Indian savages," threatening the "inhabitants of our frontiers" (39); African Americans, after the abolition of the anti-slave trade provision, which originally belonged in this section, are left out entirely. After the exclusion of all ethnic others, the historical interest represented in this section is undoubtedly that of the white colonists.

The actual declaration of independence follows the list of grievances. It clearly stamps the final section of the document with its solemn performativity:

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled, appealing to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these COLONIES, SOLEMNLY PUBLISH AND DECLARE, THAT THESE UNITED COLONIES ARE, AND OF RIGHT OUGHT TO BE FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; THAT THEY ARE ABSOLVED FROM ALL ALLEGIANCE TO THE BRITISH CROWN, AND THAT ALL POLITICAL CON-

NECTION BETWEEN THEM AND THE STATE OF GREAT BRITAIN IS, AND OUGHT TO BE, TOTALLY DISSOLVED; ... and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. (Jefferson 41) [5]

The military concern which, according to Jefferson's notes, inspired the creation of the document is apparent in the ordering of the list of rights to which the independent states were entitled. While it spells emphatically the states' war-time rights, the Declaration is completely unclear about what "other acts and things" the independent colonies are entitled to.

The document also purports to represent "the authority of the good people of these Colonies" (Indians and slaves excluded), but the Congressional deliberations show that the formula "We, the representatives, do in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies" was a result of the consolidation of majority opinion, since Congress presumed:

That the people wait for us to lead the way:

That they are in favor of the measure, though the instructions given by some of their representatives are not:

That the voice of the representatives is not always consonant with the voice of the people, and that this is remarkably the case of these middle colonies.... (32)

Besides its appeal to the authority of the people and "the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," what justifies the act of secession from the British sovereign is the evocation of the abstract concept of universal "rights," which gives credence to the particular demand for independence on the part of the Colonies. Such procedure is characteristic of democratic policy:

As the demands of various groups will necessarily clash with each other, we have to appeal to more general principles--if not some kind of preestablished harmony--in order to regulate such clashes. In actual fact, there is no particularism that does not appeal to such principles in the construction of its own identity. (Laclau 87)

In order to regulate the conflict between the Colonies and Britain, the preamble to the Declaration creates a precedent for modern democratic thought, appealing to the basic principles of Enlightenment natural and political philosophy: the belief in human reason, the equality of people in the state of nature, the rights of citizens, and the sovereignty of the state:

We hold these truths to be sell-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with CERTAIN [inherent and] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. (Jefferson 36)

It is this preamble that generally substantiates the battles for democracy in the United States; it also sends historians out to research the beliefs of eighteenth-century politicians. In his 1976 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, historian John Hope Franklin collated a series of facts in defense of the argument that "the principles for which the colonists fought did not transcend race" (12) and that, "for all its emphasis on natural equality and human liberty, the ideology of the American Revolution was not really egalitarian" (15). Franklin is correct in his conclusions as far as the particular historical situation is concerned, but what is embedded in the preamble of the Declaration is a rhetorical gesture which in its abstract universality exceeds the specific moment of the revolution led by Northern merchants and Southern slave owners. If in this particular case the universal of human equality is invoked to justify one specific revolution, it is not exhausted by it.

Regardless of Jefferson's and his colleagues' true beliefs on the subject of human equality, the preamble provided the opportunity for later rhetorical appropriations of the universal in the political struggle for human rights. (It has to be noted, of course, that political rhetoric does not necessarily equal political practice.)

That the idea of human rights was common currency in the late eighteenth century is evident in the fact that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted by the French National Assembly in 1789, worked from the same basic "reflections on natural and political man." In her analysis of the French Declaration, Julia Kristeva concludes that, "basing itself on a universal human nature that the Enlightenment learned to conceive and to respect, the [French] Declaration shifts from the universal notion-'men'--to the 'political associations' that must preserve their rights, and encounters the historical reality of the 'essential political association,' which turns out to be the nation" (148). While in its preamble the American Declaration made a similar move from universal humanity to political citizenship, it technically inaugurated the independence of the Colonies as separate states, loosely bound in a Confederation by a rather weak central government. Only after the Revolutionary War, when Congress ad opted the U.S. Constitution and the original thirteen states ratified it, did the United States have to confront the idea of forming a single nation. Even then nationalism at the federal level felt like an alien idea, and the secession of the South some eighty years later would prove how vulnerable the federal Union actually was.

If the popular mind usually traces the beginning of nationalist feeling back to the Founding Fathers, it is to a large degree due to the Unionist propaganda during the Civil War when, in order to strengthen the breaking federal Union, its common origin was posited retroactively. In the Gettysburg Address, for instance, Abraham Lincoln clearly works the foundational documents of the American Revolution into a mythical national origin: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" (284). Lincoln refers back to the year 1776, and tropes heavily the humanism of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. He ends his speech on the solemn declaration that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth" (285), recasting in effect the eighteenth-century universalist po litical claims into a clearly nationalist context. An installment in the mythical national narrative, the Gettysburg Address--to follow Lincoln's recurrent familial metaphors--can be seen as the son's appropriation of the discourse of the fathers. Half a century later, W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk looked back at the eighteenth-century universal ideals from a vantage point opened by this nineteenth-century nationalism.

The Gettysburg Address, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is race-blind. By the time of its delivery, Lincoln had already signed the Emancipation Proclamation "as a fit and necessary measure for suppressing [the] rebellion" of the South (Lincoln 239). As much as the Emancipation Proclamation is particular in its action, targeting only certain states for a specific reason, the Gettysburg Address, in the abstract chivalry of Lincoln's formulations of "the unfinished work... so nobly advanced" and "the great task remaining before us," behaves indeed as an empty signifier. This is precisely where The Souls of Black Folk intervenes, by bringing the invisible race problematic distinctly to the forefront, shifting visibly historical agency, and aggressively appropriating for the exslaves the nationalist rhetoric. The beginning of Du Bois's chapter "Of the Dawn of Freedom" makes this intervention particularly clear:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. (221)

To Du Bois, the American Civil War is only one manifestation of the worldwide "problem of the color-line," in the context of which both the Unionist and the Confederate discourses appear to be disingenuous rhetorical moves devoid of historical significance. He sees the North and the South as having virtually no agency or control over the Civil War. What led to the Emancipation Proclamation, writes Du Bois, was the steady stream of fugitive slaves who fled to the ranks of the Northern armies as soon as those set foot on Southern soil. The ensuing confusion in army policy and regulation is a clear enough sign for Du Bois that neither the North nor the South was prepared to free the slaves, but as "this deep question ever forced itself to the surface despite effort and disclaimer" (221), "the long-headed man with care-chiseled face who sat in the White House saw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of the rebels on New Year's, 1863" (223). Du Bois practically rewrites the record of the Civil War around the black slaves--the very element missing from the Gettysburg Address, as well as from its eighteenth-century predecessors.

On a broader scale, too, Du Bois's ideological project in The Souls of Black Folk is to restore "black folk"--one of the ignored elements of the American national narrative--to their place of importance, frequently making of them the constitutive or representative element of American cultural nationalism. On three occasions--Chapter I, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"; Chapter X, "Of the Faith of Our Fathers"; and Chapter xiv, "The Sorrow Songs"--Du Bois points out that there is "no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the American slave," and that "the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African" (220). In "Of the Faith of Our Fathers," he claims further that "the Methodists and Baptists of America owe much of their condition to the silent but potent influence of their millions of Negro converts." Especially in the South "the religion of the poor whites is a plain copy of Negro thought and methods" (339). A cultural nationalist, Du Bois is prone to zoom in on the spiritual contributi ons of his race to the grand American narrative. But he intervenes at other points as well, questioning the primacy of the white settlers whose interests the Declaration had defended--"Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here"-- and claiming recognition for black labor which "lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it" (386-87).

More importantly, however, Du Bois keeps returning to the rhetoric of Enlightenment universalism through the prism of nineteenth-century nationalism popularized by the German Romantics, whom he held dear, [6] but also by Northern Unionist discourse, to which Du Bois was a weary heir. Thus, he speaks of the "demands of Negroes as men and American citizens" (246), as well as of their "responsibility to this nation,--this common Fatherland" (249). His insistence on the human rights and civic duties of the freedmen is steeped in the ideals of the classic eighteenth-century philosophical thought; his tautological invocation of the nation-fatherland hearkens back both to Herder and to the Unionist Civil War rhetoric of the common nation.

Not surprisingly, the Declaration of Independence comes to serve as the universal through which Du Bois justifies the particular demands of his race:

By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers fain to forget: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (252)

If this passage sounds ironic, it is not because Du Bois doubts the postulates of the Declaration. On the contrary, in yet another stroke of historical revisionism, he claims its lofty ideals for his people, since "there are today no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes" (221). In its "pure" humanity, the spirit of the Declaration is obviously not the property of any one race; its universality only opens an empty political space which is there to be claimed, and so Du Bois claims it. The irony in the reference to the Declaration comes from elsewhere. Unlike Lincoln, who in the Gettysburg Address appropriates the spirit of the document in his status as the legitimate descendant of those whom he calls "our fathers," Du Bois accepts its provision of human equality, while simultaneously criticizing the "sons of the Fathers"; that is, the white sons of the white fathers from whom he has distanced himself and his own race. His own "fathers" (note that the plural form of the noun always marks the nationalist register) are "black" (351). In a paradoxical twist of his argument, Du Bois endorses the Unionist idea of the common fatherland, but disowns the white fathers, while appropriating their founding ideals. [7]

Du Bois takes a rather peculiar stand in relation to the first-person plural pronoun we, which characteristically comes to represent the collective will of the people in such foundational phrases as "we, the representatives of the United States," "we, the people of the United States," and "us the living" descendants of "our fathers"--phrases which the historical debates behind the construction of the documents where they appear reveal to be much less monolithic and much more problematic than they might seem in their enshrined final versions. At times he adopts the rhetoric of representation to produce the empty space of the universal ideal, as in the following excerpt from "Of the Sons of Master and Man," a chapter with an interesting title which once again plays on the filial metaphor of double descent:

In the attitude of the American mind toward Negro suffrage can be traced with unusual accuracy the prevalent conceptions of government. In the [eighteen] fifties we were near enough to the echoes of the French Revolution to believe pretty thoroughly in universal suffrage. We argued, as we thought then rather logically, that no social class was so good, so true, and so disinterested as to be trusted wholly with the political destiny of its neighbors; that in every state the best arbiters of their own welfare are the persons directly affected; consequently that it is only by arming every hand with the ballot,--with the right to have a voice in the policy of the state,--that the greatest good for the greatest number can be attained. To be sure, there were objections to these arguments, but we thought we had answered them tersely and convincingly; if some one complained of the ignorance of the voters, we answered, "Educate them." If another complained of their venality, we replied, "Disfranchise them or put them in jail." And, finally, to the men who feared demagogues and the natural perversity of some human beings we insisted that time and bitter experience would teach the most hardhearted. (326-27)

The satiric overtones of the passage stem precisely from Du Bois's appropriation of the pronoun from which he is excluded. In the second half of the paragraph, where black people make their appearance, Du Bois switches to an objective, third-person enunciation of history:

It was at this time that the question of negro suffrage in the South was raised. Here was a defenseless people suddenly made free. How were they to be protected from those who did not believe in their freedom and were determined to thwart it? Not by force, said the North; not by government guardianship, said the South; then by the ballot, the sole and legitimate defense of a free people, said the Common Sense of the Nation. (327)

Neither the "we" of the earlier part of the passage nor the "common sense of the nation" here is tied down to a specific referent. As signifiers, they are as free-floating as the point of enunciation is in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence--"We hold these truths to be self-evident"--or in Lincoln's injunction that "it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us."

To be sure, Du Bois's subject position in relation to this ideal space of enunciation is not easy to negotiate, which makes the fluctuation of pronominal references throughout the text all the more significant. On the one hand, Du Bois casts himself in the performative role of representing the collective black consciousness, as in this allegorical apostrophe to white America: "Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? ... Are you afraid lest peering from this high Pisgab, between Philistine and Amalekite, we might sight the promised Land?" (284). What entitles him to speak for black people, as he states in the Forethought, is the then-current biological conception of race as residing in the flesh: "And, finally, need I add that I who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil?" (209). Yet, the polarized pronouns I and them immediately problematize the logic of this justification because, as Du Bois admits himself, by virtue of his being a black Northern intellectual he "dwelll[s] above the Veil" (284).

This paradox is of dramatic importance to the construction of the text precisely because it creates the instability and the multiplicity of subject positions from which Du Bois writes. While it is true that he journeys South in the Jim Crow car (261,286), Du Bois nevertheless records his observations of the black Southern peasantry as an outsider--a teacher, a traveler, a scholar who brings back to the North his sociological and ethnographic studies of the natives. When he takes his stand as a scientist, Du Bois actually produces passages which in their scientific objectiveness can be rather dehumanizing and can go against his own injunction that the South be studied in "frank and fair" terms (321):

It is easy for us [scientists] to lose ourselves in details in endeavoring to grasp and comprehend the real condition of a mass of human beings. We often forget that each unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul. Ignorant it may be and poverty stricken, black and curious in limb and ways and thought, and yet it loves and hates, it toils and tires, it laughs and weeps its bitter tears, and looks in vague and awful longing at the dim horizon of its life,--all this even as you and I. (307)

While the passage is meant to draw attention to the humanity of particular individuals in the mass of black folk, the neuter pronoun references produce the unexpected effect of completely objectifying the living "human souls." As a representative scientist, here, Du Bois casts himself as a standard for humanity, alongside his presumably white colleague and reader, who is encoded in the second-person pronoun you. Such passages, as well as some of his discussions of the South, "where we are dealing with two backward peoples" (273), ring quite clearly with Northern condescension.

The referential fluctuation in this now classical text of African American nationalism necessarily draws attention to the single point of enunciation which controls the language of the universal in such foundational documents as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address, in which the collective pronoun we, in its subsumption of an indefinite number of referents, eventually empties itself of any specific meaning. The pronominal instability in The Souls of Black Folk might be a corollary to Du Bois's own liminal position between two races; in this sense it is a sign of the essential instability of the movement of any particular into the domain of the universal. But it is also a sign of the nation's division against itself, a problem which American nationalist ideology has been trying to mend for centuries now.

Roumiana Velikova is a doctoral candidate in English at SUNY at Buffalo, specializing in ethnic American literatures. Her dissertation examines early-twentieth-century minority writers' use of the George Washington myth. Her work has appeared in Arizona Quarterly and is forthcoming in MELUS.

(1.) I borrow the phrase in my title from Du Bois's closing remarks in "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others": "By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident...'" (252).

(2.) The paternal imagery in Crummell, Du Bois, and Sundquist, as well as in the popular reference to the politicians of the American Revolution, is an obvious manifestation of the gendered economy of nationalism. While gender will not be the focus of my study here, its centrality to any theory or practice of nationalism requires at least a brief acknowledgment. In Anne McClintock's analysis of the nationalized-naturalized gender division, men constitute the progressive element ("forward-thrusting, potent, and historic"), while women are "atavistic and authentic" (McClintock 263). A similarly deployed family metaphor is one of the recurrent organizing principles in The Souls of Black Folk within which there stands out the inert and antiquated figure of the archetypal African mother, "her awful face black with the mists of centuries," whose rape by her white master initiated race strife (Du Bois 232). The actual racial strife is then posited to occur between the male children; that is, the "Sons of Master and Man."

(3.) There seems to exist a necessary connection between the democratic universal and the formation of nations in the Western world. As Julia Kristeva points out, "The free and equal man is, de facto, the citizen" (149). One of the basic characteristics of the nation, according to Anthony Smith, is the "unified legal code of common rights and duties, with citizenship rights where the nation is independent" (69). Smith also claims an origin of "bureaucratic incorporation" for the Western nations, in which case the nation coalesced around the bureaucratic state rather than around a demotic feeling (54-61). Consequently, the United States nationalists have been more successful in positing a political, rather than an ethnic, origin of the nation based on such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

(4.) All quotations follow the formatting features of the source texts.

(5.) Small caps here mark the substitutions made by Congress.

(6.) In his monograph The Folk Roofs of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry, Bernard W. Bell proposes and traces out in detail the influence of Johann Gottfried von Herder's "folk ideology" on the production of a "distinctive" American and African-American national literature (16, 44). Bell claims that in the musical prefaces to his chapters "Du Bois restated in Afro-American terms Herder's ideas on the importance of folk music as a window into the souls of a people and as a basis of a new nation's formal art" (24).

(7.) Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historical speech "I Have a Dream" stands in a curious relationship of continuation of but also of deviation from Du Bois's use of American nationalist rhetoric. Like Du Bois, King heavily tropes the "sacred" texts of American democracy: The beginning of his speech ("five score years ago") employs a construction parallel to the opening phrase of the Gettysburg address ("four score and seven years ago"), and the rest of the speech abounds in references to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence couched, however, in a more business-like tone than Du Bois ever used. King also makes a number of filial and fraternal references--that according to his dream "sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" (2532), but he noticeably avoids the paternalist slant of American nationalism by calling the eighteenth-century politicians "the architects of our Republic" (2530) and making no overt paternal refe rences whatsoever. Thus, Du Bois's romantic notion of the common fatherland in which racism splits the democratic ideals into the binary precepts of the black and white fathers is replaced in King's speech by the unified religious image of "all of God's children" (2533).

Works Cited

Bell, Bernard W. The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry. Detroit: Broadside P, 1974. "The Constitution of United States and Constitution of the Confederate States of America in Parallel Columns." The Confederate Constitutions. Ed. Charles Robert Lee, Jr. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1963. 171-200.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon, 1965. 207-389.

Franklin, John Hope. Racial Equality in America. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1976.

Jefferson, Thomas. Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Capricorn, 1959.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. "I Have a Dream." 1963. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1998. 2530-33.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Laclau, Ernesto. "Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity." October 61 (1992): 83-90.

Lincoln, Abraham. The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Richard N. Current. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

McClintock, Anne. "'NO Longer in a Future Heaven': Nationalism, Gender, and Race." Becoming National: A Reader. Ed. Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 260-84.

Rable, George C. The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.

Rothenberg, Paula S. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998.

Smith, Anthony D. National Identity. Reno: U of Nevada P, 1991.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
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Author:Velikova, Roumiana
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:7326
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