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W.E.B. Du Bois: Of Cultural and Racial Identity.

Robert Gooding-Williams, ed. W. E. B. Du Bois: Of Cultural and Racial Identity. Massachusetts Review 35.2 (1994). 166 pp. $6.00.

In his otherwise sagely perceptive To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1992), Eric Sundquist remarks that The Souls of Black Folk "has had little voice in the years since Du Bois first wrote" it, and that even by the early 1990s the book was "not often carefully read and even less appreciated." If this puzzling appraisal were ever true, it would surely call for reconsideration in light of many of the essays in Robert Gooding-Williams's recent collection, many of which deal carefully with Du Bois's great and influential book, and all of which examine the resonant voice he communicated through his vast and wide-ranging body of literature.

In his Introduction, editor Robert Gooding-Williams rightly declares that, "whether we know it or not, Du Bois's writing continues to shape our own thinking about issues of racial and cultural identity. To engage Du Bois, then, is to engage many of the concerns, questions, and perspectives which animate contemporary debates about these issues" (168). Methods of analysis vary from article to article, but many profitably play off Du Bois's thinking and writing against the work of another writer in a comparativist fashion. Thus, Anita Haya Goldman uses Ralph Waldo Emerson's conflicted ideas about liberal nationalism to dig into what seems to be Du Bois's own hardly unified thinking on the concept; Gooding-Williams contrasts Du Bois's responses to slavery with those of his revered sometimes idol Alexander Crummell to show that in embracing (or rather recognizing within himself as though within his blood) the slave's history of suffering Du Bois distanced himself from Crummell's rejectionist stance. Du Bois suggested that the freedom route for black Americans led through such acceptance, and not along the lines Crummell drew in his "New Ideas" essay that advocated escaping "the `limit and restraint' of both the word and the thought of slavery" (219).

Dale E. Peterson investigates the "intellectual and structural similarities that connect" The Souls of Black Folk and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead as "the foundational narratives of modern Russian and African-American cultural nationalism" (225). Kathryne V. Lindberg spins out an entertaining and intensely provocative, if occasionally squawky, riff on the symbolic life of himself Du Bois created, starting with the motif of "pregnant silence" he maintained about the Spanish Civil War, which Lindberg insists "should have been Du Bois's war." Lindberg plays against this gap James Yates's 1986 book From Mississippi to Madrid: Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which she says, "with attention to the (Hegelian) movement from subjective to objective narrative and with full benefit of hindsight over Du Bois's life and his own, has appropriated and nuanced Du Bois's radical and accommodationist lives" (288-89). Here the effect is like listening to two works being performed (though not by their original creators) in different rooms at the same time, and realizing how much each can be made, sometimes, to add to the other. Brook Thomas very clearly works out has version of a sparring match between "Schlesinger and Du Bois on the Old New World Order: A Prehistory of the Canon Wars" in a fashion that reminds me of the computerized recreations of prizefights between old champs and new: Who would win between Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson? Edmund Wilson and Edward Said? Arthur "Schlesinger depends on romantic organicism for his vision of a unified culture." Then "Du Bois turns to a different view of the world generated by romanticism." But "Schlesinger could respond that such a vision is a false utopia, that history proves it unworkable." But "Du Bois could respond that it is the fear of those like Schlesinger that keep it from working." In describing the battle, Thomas is pretty much fair and always lucidly enlightening, but usually, as the home-town guy, Du Bois (with Thomas in his comer) is allowed the last wallop. In the present flurry, "perhaps Schlesinger, for all his pragmatism, is the naive utopian, since he continues to hold onto a vision of the melting pot that has never been realized" (314). Still, Thomas wisely concludes that some of the most important cultural points of view Du Bois and Schlesinger advance complement, rather than function antagonistically toward, each other. "Schlesinger's argument that a democratic function of works of literature is to place pressure on even our most cherished political beliefs" should not be "dismisse[d] as elitist," just as "the prophetic role of literary works that has so powerfully appealed to Du Bois and others intent on transforming the order of the world" should not be labeled "simply naive" (318).

Ronald A.T. Judy's contribution, "The New Black Aesthetic and W. E. B. Du Bois, or Hephaestus, Limping," cutely and acutely searches out connections between Du Bois's aesthetics and those of other blacks, most notably what Trey Ellis has popularized in his term the "NBA" (New Black Aesthetic), whose "characterization ... 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" (251). This essay sifts cleverly through many fascinating pieces of the black aesthetics picture (like Greg Tate's "Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke") that here emerges sometimes as a mosaic and sometimes as a puzzle, and maybe could have profited from Darwin Turner's earlier, less trendy and exhausting, but still very solid "W. E. B. Du Bois and the Theory of a Black Aesthetic" (Studies in the Literary Imagination 7 [1975]).

The comparative method is often helpful in reconfiguring Du Bois as a thinker firmly lodged--whether oppositionally or as a central disseminator--in the network of important discussion about "Cultural and Racial Identity" that is so crucial to understanding the American experience. The many contexts in which his thought is examined reveal his significance in explaining America's past and present, and even in mapping probabilities of its future. The focus on him sometimes reshapes those with whom he is compared, perhaps less justly. For example, in Goldman's bright, hard look at the tensions within and between Emerson and Du Bois concerning their concepts of race, property, and individual rights, she seems to hop on Emerson for what she considers a "powerful, disturbing passage" of his that in an accepting fashion "vividly depicts Columbus' violent appropriation of land" (180-81) that others may feel looks more like standard nineteenth-century fine writing about "purple mountains ... palm-groves and savannahs." In his "Antislavery Remarks at Worcester, 3 August 1849," Emerson also notes that Columbus, "the foremost man in the world of his time," was the "one who introduced slavery into this country." Emerson's famous "Ode Inscribed to W. H. Channing" attacks far more vividly and powerfully his country's "violent appropriation of [Mexican] land":

Go, blindworm, go,

Behold the famous States

Harrying Mexico

With rifle and knife!

The reader is told rightly that Emerson "shared many of the racist perceptions of his time, even when such perceptions contradicted his belief in democratic first principles" (181-82), but not that the more he studied and bitterly hated slavery the more he attacked conventional racial platitudes. He grew greatly away from many of his earlier prejudices, not simply questioning commonly held white concepts of black inferiority, but categorically denying them. In an address he gave on August 1, 1844, commemorating "The Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies," he declared that this liberation "marks the entrance of a new element into modern politics, namely the civilization of the negro. A man is added to the human family. Not the least effective part of this history of abolition is, the annihilation of the old indecent nonsense about the nature of the negro." In a speech delivered a year later celebrating this emancipation, Emerson attacked the word and idea of nigger, maintaining that the image of black inferiority both implied was counter to his notion of a Creator. In comments he made in 1854 on what he deemed the odious and not-to-be-obeyed Fugitive Slave Law, he caustically jibed, "The plea that the negro is an inferior race sounds very oddly in my ear from a slave-holder."

In these speeches against slavery (handily assembled and neatly edited in Len Gougheon and Joel Myerson's Emerson's Antislavery Writings [1995]), Emerson demonstrates, for example, in the talk just alluded to that "any weakness in race, as in the black race," is political and social environmental, not inherent. It is their lack of power, of control over their lives, that holds black people down. He delighted in his 1844 "Address ... On ... Emancipation" to record that, despite what whites had "done ... to keep the negro in [a] hoggish state," including discriminatory "laws [that] have been furies," once free, black West Indians had emerged from the images of inferiority imposed upon them, to be visible as architects, physicians, lawyers, magistrates--to manifest "a valued and increasing political power."

Still, Goldman is correct: Emerson was at least double-minded, "Negotiating Claims of Race and Rights," as was Du Bois when writing profoundly on these twined topics. Her essay suggests that Emerson is not the only figure in America's problematically standard intellectual history who would be cast into a somewhat flattened shadow when observed close to the bright if not always tightly focused light of Du Bois's understanding.

The essays in this special issue of The Massachusetts Review, taken as a group, offer a deeper it! not clearer perception of Du Bois's contribution to our country's--indeed our globe's--ongoing and necessary fixation with cultural and racial identity. The graceful lucidity of Robert Gooding-Williams's essay is particularly refreshing, as are the good sense and sensibility of David W. Blight's review of David Levering Lewis's "meticulously researched and often beautifully written"--if, Blight feels, a bit overly detailed--biography of the master (320). Blight's commentary accurately gauges the high value of Lewis's book, reviews many of its chief arguments, and provides Blight with a fair chance to state a few of his own insights into Du Bois and his work.

I sighed often while reading certain of the essays, apprehending the chasm between Du Bois's rich, suggestive, sometimes over-ripe but nearly always absolutely clearly stated prose, and the dense, gummy language of contemporary academic writing. At one point I thought I might scream if I encountered the word discourse again, and some essays, such as Ronald Judy's, were an exasperating mix of jazzy, provocative exploration and close to impenetrable lucubration (a word I have long known and wanted to use in public, which Judy's thicketed phrasing inspires me to employ now for the very first time). Do tough topics demand tough-to-slog-through writing? Maybe so, nowadays.

As individual essays, each piece in this anthology made me wish I could confront it--to applaud or occasionally to address my own differences with it--in this current review, which I feel is a heavy mark of the collection's success.
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Author:Moore, Jack B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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