28 August 2008

On Not Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois: Interpreting a Silence

Forty-five years ago yesterday, W.E.B. Du Bois passed away at the age of ninety-five in Ghana on the eve of the historic March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Five years after this death, Dr. King delivered a speech celebrating the one-hundredth birthday of Du Bois, proclaiming that, “History cannot ignore W. E. B. Du Bois.”

Yet, forty-five years later, there is much blog and news chatter about the resonances between Dr. King’s famous speech and tonight’s expected historic moment—the acceptance speech of the first Black presidential candidate of a major political party in the United States—but little to say about the passing of Du Bois. After some searching, I’ve only turned up two commemorations of Du Bois in the past few days—a biographical summary from Mark Anthony Neal at Vibe and a short post with a link to Neal's article from Basement Elevation (from whence I grabbed the portrait of Du Bois below).

This is a little peculiar, as Du Bois had an "improbable" story (to use some of that over-employed campaign rhetoric) not entirely unlike Obama's. Raised by a single mother in Great Barrington, Massachusetts (a location just as atypical as Hawai’i in black life), Du Bois was a multiracial man of great intellect who dedicated his adult life to social justice.

The problem is that, despite these biographical commonalities, it is near impossible to reconcile the story of Du Bois’s life and death with the biographical narrative of Obama as being spun at the DNC. For unlike Obama, after over a half-century of dedicated work for the betterment of American life, Du Bois was reviled by the US government, which tried to send him to jail and revoked his passport, and excluded from the mainstream of both black and white political discourse during the Cold War. Eventually, he left the United States to move to Ghana at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah. This is a story quite different from the anyone-can-make-it-here rhetoric peddled at the DNC last night.

Now, one could put the stories of these two lives together. But it would take a serious and complex analysis of the history and contemporary realities of race over the past century, as well as the real differences between the politics of Obama and Du Bois.

Please don’t get me wrong. The prospect of a black president gets me just as excited as it does Nas. I just don’t think we should get confused about what is, and what isn’t, amazing about this moment.


Total aside: did anybody else find Hillary Clinton’s invocation of Harriet Tubman the other night, after her horrible gaffe of “white working people” during the primaries, a little painful?


Anonymous said...

I had hoped she would mention the first woman who was nominated for Prtesident at a Democratic convention, namely the late Shirley Chisholm, but no luck.

Thanks for the DuBois tribute, and the link to Bill Fletcher's article. Black Reconstruction had a major influence on my view of the world--I had never before thought of the mass flight of slaves during the Civil War as a general strike, the greatest in US working-class history, for example--and his life of John Brown also taught me a lot; here's a favorite quote:

"The free state settlers [of Kansas]... found themselves in three parties: a few who hated slavery, more who hated Negroes, and many who hated slaves."

And another:

"To reduce the slave to this groveling, what was the price which the master paid? Tyranny, brutality, and lawlessness reigned and to some extent still reign in the South. The sweeter, kindlier feelings were blunted: brothers sold sisters to serfdom and fathers debauched even their own dark daughters. The arrogant, strutting bully, who shot his enemy and thrashed his dogs and his darkies, became a living, moving ideal from the cotton-patch to the United States Senate..."

There was plenty to criticize in the CPUSA's address to the issue of racism, but it was from them that I learned the concept of "centrality," even if they applied it half-heartedly, and it's been a pillar of my thinking ever since.