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USA: W.E.B. Du Bois as relevant as ever

Thursday 25 August 2022, by siawi3


W.E.B. Du Bois Is as Relevant as Ever

Elvira Basevich’s new book takes a look at the scholar’s work through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement.

by Norman Stockwell

December 15, 2020

11:31 AM

W.E.B. Du Bois (photo via Creative Commons)

More than a century ago, sociologist and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) published his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. In a combination of analysis, storytelling, autobiography, and gospel song, Du Bois sought to address what he saw as the crucial issue of the time: “the color line.” The book ends with what he calls an afterthought: “Hear my cry, O God the Reader; vouchsafe that this my book fall not still-born into the world wilderness.”

The long history of racial violence and terror might suggest that racism is too resilient to crumble under public scrutiny or government intervention, however well intentioned.

In W.E.B. Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, a new monograph for the Polity Press series “Black Lives,” poet and assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Elvira Basevich offers insights and context that clearly show how relevant and important Du Bois’s work is in the context of twenty-first century anti-racism work.

Here is an excerpt of Basevich’s new book:

Du Bois Among Us: A Contemporary, A Voice from the Past

In a tape-recorded conversation with Margaret Mead in 1971, James Baldwin described the problem of racism in the United States: “So that’s what makes it all so hysterical, so unwieldy and so completely irretrievable. Reason cannot reach it. It is as though some great, great, great wound is in the whole body. And no one dares to operate: to close it, to examine it, to stitch it.”
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Baldwin discerned racism as an open wound that spans “the whole body” of the republic. Poets, philosophers, and social scientists struggle to explain its stubborn bloodletting rituals; like a chant, it has no clear beginning or end, pervading the legal and social conventions of our past and reaching out to cloud our future.

In Between the World and Me, a spellbinding reckoning with white Americans complicity in white supremacy, Ta-Nehisi Coates remarks that racism has left him wounded, unable to console his young son in the face of perpetual loss. “I can only say what I saw, what I felt,” writes Coates. “There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.”

If one were to place a stone or a flower at every tree, church basement, stairwell, or dark stretch of road where a person of color has lost their body and left there a wound still painful to touch, a cemetery would overlie the entire geography of North America. Marx had once warned of the specter of communism haunting Europe, whereas actual ghosts haunt the United States.

In his characterization of American racism, Baldwin invoked two notions that, at first blush, appear to stand in opposition. He observed that reason “cannot reach it” and yet the “wound” remains open because “no one dares to operate: to close it, to examine it, to stitch it.” Reason is both powerless against racism and an indispensable tool to combat it. And so one is left wondering if it is possible to mend the wound using the power of reason in some broad sense, employing persuasion, imagination, and fact-based arguments.

The long history of racial violence and terror might suggest that racism is too resilient to crumble under public scrutiny or government intervention, however well intentioned. And yet Baldwin maintained that one must nevertheless “dare” to “close [the wound], examine it, stitch it.” He thus asked his reader to redress the evil of racism. In doing so, we realize that racism, like all evil, as Hannah Arendt had put it, is “banal”; that is, it is a social phenomenon that, like any social phenomenon, originates in the human will and is therefore capable of being rooted from the world, however monstrous its proportions and stranglehold on institutions.

What people have willed into existence including a force as recalcitrant as white supremacy, by the same token can be willed out of existence. Racism is not a random and unstoppable event in the natural world, like an earthquake or the death of a star. To be sure, the fight against it must stretch the boundaries of the moral imagination, drawing on cultural and spiritual resources that are often overlooked as inspirations for democratic agency. The process must also support the transformation of major social and political institutions. But the prospect of a just world, nevertheless, remains viable. The question is only how and when to build it.

Du Bois and the Black Lives Matter Movement: Thinking with Du Bois about Anti-Racist Struggle Today

During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, the prominent civil rights leader Roy Wilkins announced that Du Bois had died the night before: “If you want to read something that applies to 1963, go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois published in 1903.”

There are as many reasons why it is helpful to look to Du Bois today as there were in 1963 and in the early twentieth century. A voice from the past meditating on slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, Du Bois wrote about a world that appears bygone and foreign—a world that is not our own.

One might wonder what his political critique can add to our understanding of the world today. His writings often conjure up images of dusty country roads, shaded by poplars, carrion-eating birds, and a fragment of dusk that approaches like a threat of violence. The takeaway from Du Bois’s writings is that today—as in the past—any meaningful political analysis must underscore our racial realities.

In the United States, racial matters constitute the central obstacle to the flourishing of the republic and the central contradiction between empirical reality and democratic ideals. This is why Du Bois asserted that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. The problem of race and racism implicates the entire nation and stretches across historical time.

To motivate sustained public scrutiny of the significance of race remains a hurdle and explains, at least in part, why Du Bois’s writings continue to spell both trouble and an opportunity to reflect on our world. In response to the Holocaust in Europe, Hannah Arendt warned that “once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.”

In his foresight, Du Bois intimated that the problem of the color line will re-emerge as the problem of our century.

Excerpted with permission from W.E.B. Du Bois: The Lost and the Found by Elvira Basevich, published by Polity Press on December 15, 2020.

Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.