Booked #4: What Did Race Mean to W.E.B. Du Bois?

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by Dissent contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Kwame Anthony Appiah about his new book Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Is there a more impressive figure in the intellectual history of the United States than W.E.B. Du Bois? I remember first asking myself that question in the spring of 2005, after listening to a lecture on Du Bois’s career from Kwame Anthony Appiah, then a professor of philosophy at Princeton. Today, Appiah is at NYU, and that lecture has grown into a book. Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity explores Du Bois’s work with the rigor of a philosopher, the subtlety of a historian, and a grace that’s rare in any branch of the academy. It opens a new vantage point on a thinker who, though born in the aftermath of the Civil War, remains our contemporary in the age of Black Lives Matter.

—Timothy Shenk

Timothy Shenk: The obvious place to start is with the question of race, not least because, as you note in the book, Du Bois wrote that his life was “the autobiography of a race concept.” This is a tricky question, because the answer changes over the course of his life, but what did “race” mean to Du Bois?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Not only does the answer change, but he’s not always got one answer at any particular time. He begins life as a young African American in Western Massachusetts in a place where there are not a lot of other black people. He knows in the first instance that race distinguishes him and people like him from the white people around him, and he knows that from a very young age—a young girl in his class wouldn’t shake his hand. But then he goes south to Fisk University to begin his undergraduate career, and it’s the first time in his life that he spends a lot of time around a community of black people. This is a period in the late nineteenth century when questions of what is going to happen to the black community and black leadership would have been widely discussed at a place like Fisk. For him the question of race is clearly a political one: what are we to do about the black community?

All of this is in place by the time he’s a young man, and without his having had to think about it very theoretically. It’s a practical question; it has to do with things that happen in everyday life. Then he goes to Harvard, gets his second bachelor’s degree, and from Harvard he goes to Berlin. In Germany, for the first time in his life, he’s in a place where his being black is not the most important thing about him for people. People respond to him as a student, as a young man qualified to enter the University of Berlin, as a member of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie. It was a great revelation to him that you could live in a world in which your race was a secondary thing, and not an obstacle to interaction. A young woman he met before he matriculated fell in love with him.

Shenk: He used a remarkable phrase to describe this experience in Germany: “I became more human.” It’s especially striking because Ralph Ellison uses the same phrase at a pivotal moment in Invisible Man, when the narrator writes about having “become more human,” but has trouble explaining what that really means.

Appiah: At Fisk Du Bois had gotten used to the idea that in America every white person he met was racist, basically, and he had to relearn how to interact with people in a place where that wasn’t the assumption. There was race prejudice in Germany, but he had to realize that it was possible to relate in this different way. So he starts out with the recognition that race is not a fixed thing, that it can change from place to place. But he’s not really thinking about the matter in a very theoretical way yet. When he goes back to Harvard, he writes a dissertation that probably only an African American would have written because it’s about part of the history of the Atlantic slave trade, but it’s not about race.

Shenk: But Germany still has a major impact on his thought. One legacy of the period, you argue, is his embrace of “cosmopolitan nationalism.” To contemporary ears that sounds like a contradiction. How did Du Bois reconcile these two concepts?

Appiah: An assumption that we would make now is that there’s an opposition between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, which was absolutely not the case in the thinking of much of the German nineteenth century. So he was raised with a view in which you should be both cosmopolitan and nationalist and patriotic. The background Du Bois inherited is very much one in which the assumption is everybody’s got a nation, and you share the spirit of your nation. He inherits an idea—“folk” is in the title of his most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk—so it’s Volk, right?

Shenk: The Geister of Black Volk . . .

Appiah: And the Volk in the German of his day would be like “people” in English. That is, it’s split between a political and an ancestral notion. The way he begins to theorize a black identity is as a Volk identity, the identity as a people. What that meant for someone with his background was a people with a shared spirit. There’s an obvious—at least obvious to us—problem with applying the theory of the German Volk to black people, which is that when he speaks of the Negro, he means including the people in Africa. And of course the one thing that gives a serious reality to the German Volk is that they all speak German, and so they do have a shared language and at least access to a shared culture. Du Bois doesn’t know a lot about Africa at this time, but he was aware that there was not an African culture or an African language, and that African Americans—so far as they had culture in common—also shared a culture with white Americans. Nevertheless I think that is the framing that he begins with.

Then he comes back to Harvard, and William James was one of his mentors. The Harvard philosophy department was a home of an American Hegelianism, and most of the people in that department had German philosophy degrees.

Shenk: Part of the book is a narration of Du Bois working through these twin inheritances—Harvard pragmatism versus the continuing effects of his education in Germany. The balance shifts in his career over time.

Appiah: I think it does. James is not part of the Harvard Hegelian thing.

Shenk: He brings the pragmatist background.

Appiah: Yes, and he was the most influential of his philosophy teachers. But Du Bois still has this German idea that the way you think about a Volk is by thinking about its spirit, and that’s the natural approach for him when he turns to thinking about what race is. It’s only in the first decade of the twentieth century that he starts being aware of and keeping up with a more scientific literature on race.

Shenk: And here anthropology is crucial, figures like Franz Boas.

Appiah: Anthropology very much comes in. Of course Du Bois knew Boas, who was also educated in Berlin—he was sort of the founding genius of American anthropology. That anthropological literature is skeptical about the biological notion of race—the idea that what makes a person black is some set of inherited, physical characteristics. By about 1911, Du Bois’s thinking still had traces of that kind of ancestral, biological understanding of race, but he’s committed to the view that race is not a scientific concept.

These two things—the pervasive, biological understanding of race, and the notion of the Volk—are very hard to keep together. While the idea of the Negro is obviously a cultural product, you can’t refer to a cultural content of blackness, because it’s just not empirically there. You couldn’t give an account of Africa as an expression of a single cultural form. So when Du Bois faces the difficulty that there isn’t a single cultural shape to black identity, he tends to fall back either on something mystical—there are a lot of passages where he says, “I know it’s not biological but on the other hand there must be something there . . .”

Shenk: He calls it “the mystic spell of Africa.”

Appiah: Exactly. And it’s easy for us to see that, in a way, the problem he is trying to solve doesn’t have a solution. There isn’t a correct account of what black people have in common. There are only stories about what black people have in common, which shape the experience of people who are identified as black. But he’s looking for the correct answer.

Shenk: That search eventually took him to Karl Marx, a thinker Du Bois did not seriously engage with during his time in Germany in the 1890s. Another one of the extraordinary things about Du Bois is that he basically lives forever—you note that he was born in the heyday of Wagner and died when “Surfin’ USA” was topping the charts. But even though Du Bois didn’t have time for Marx when he was a young student in Germany, by the end of his life in 1963 he was a member of the Communist Party. How did Du Bois’s Marxist turn alter his understanding of race, and his thought more generally?

Appiah: I think one thing to say about the absence of Marx in the early period is that the form of progressive thinking that Du Bois interacted with in Berlin was really around people like Gustav Schmoller, who were the foundation of the tradition of social democracy. So they weren’t Marxists, they were what some of their enemies called Kathedersozialisten—lectern socialists. So of course everybody was aware that there were other more radical forms of socialism, but you could tell Du Bois’s position by looking at the way he dressed. He got himself a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache and beard.

Shenk: That’s a great part of the book, that you can literally see the legacy of Du Bois’s time in Germany on his face.

Appiah: He is very much identifying with the educated bourgeoisie. That shows up in his musical taste. He discusses Wagner in The Souls of Black Folk, which is one of the more surprising things in that book. And the great problem of these people, the Kathedersozialisten, was the cultural uplift of the new working class. Du Bois is not thinking about it in a Marxist way at all, and I don’t think he knows very much in detail about Marx. He’s not a member of the Communist Party in the ’30s, ’40s or even during the McCarthy period in the ’50s, though he knows communists because the Communist Party was one of the political groups that was most progressive on race questions at that time in the United States.

Shenk: But even though he did not join the CP, he moved much closer toward Marxism. You can clearly see this in Black Reconstruction in America, his classic history of the Civil War, where he attributes slavery’s dissolution in large part to “a general strike” among the enslaved.

Appiah: There are two things going on there. In the early part of the twentieth century, Du Bois really does think that the solution to American racism is education. He thinks that you just have to tell white people the truth about black people, and then they’ll see that they’re wrong about them and they’ll stop treating them badly. That is a picture that he has at least until the First World War. But then when he’s thinking about Reconstruction, when he’s thinking about labor relations in America in his own time, what he begins to see is that there is a class interest—that the racial division between black and white workers is used not just to control black workers, but also to keep the white working class down.

Shenk: The indictment of American racism moves from personal ignorance to structural oppression.

Appiah: Exactly. By the time he wrote Black Reconstruction, there’s very much a class picture in there. But he’s not a member of the Communist Party.

Shenk: You argue that part of that had to do with frustration over how the Communist Party in the United States dealt with questions of race.

Appiah: Du Bois never gave up the thought that race is an independent category that needs analysis of its own. But he did think, increasingly, that material and economic interests were behind a lot of racial structure in the world—whether it’s imperialism or Jim Crow. And he probably thinks that from fairly early on, though not in a way that would have made him a Marxist.

I think his official conversion to Marxism was a gesture, not a reflection of a deep change of mind. He was denied a passport in the ’50s, which meant that he couldn’t go to the Ghana independence celebrations in 1957, which he wanted to do. When the Supreme Court finally decided that the State Department couldn’t deny people passports because they didn’t like their politics, he got a passport and went to Moscow where he accepted the Lenin prize from Khrushchev. That was all about pissing off the people who treated him badly.

Shenk: Which raises the question of Du Bois’s political activism. You open the book in the 1950s with Du Bois receiving an honorary doctorate from his alma mater in Germany, which by this time is part of the German Democratic Republic. In the ceremony, a faculty member praised Du Bois for having forged a “unique synthesis of scientific knowledge and politically directed action.” This is the classic Marxist notion of praxis, the unity between theory and practice. And in one way this makes a lot of sense. Du Bois is arguably the premier social scientist of the United States in the twentieth century, and he’s also a major political figure. We haven’t even mentioned, for instance, that he’s a co-founder of the NAACP. So if Du Bois doesn’t fit the model, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could.

At the same time, on the question of identity—which is a major theme in the book, and in some of your other work—matters were a lot more complicated. As you write, when Du Bois tried to understand racial identity, he “couldn’t find a rational account that theoretically supported what he felt.” As a matter of theory, part of him wanted to demolish concepts of identity like race, but in practice he thought it could serve a valuable political purpose, and he never figured out how to bridge that gap.

Appiah: When Du Bois got up in the morning, he looked at himself in the mirror and thought “there’s a Negro.” His being, as he would have said, a Negro, was central to how he thought about himself. When he gives the account in his 1940 essay “Dusk of Dawn” of his first landing in Africa, he has this immediate visceral emotional sense that he’s home, though it makes absolutely no sense from many theoretical points of view. His account of his sense of coming home is very moving. But it’s sort of nonsense.

Shenk: But you see it all the time. I mean, there’s even a series about it on PBS, where celebrities explore their ancestry. And sometimes people feel this profound connection with an ancestral homeland they just discovered they had a connection to.

Appiah: Yes, this is a real human thing, but it’s very hard to give a theoretically adequate account of it. It doesn’t work for Du Bois because he thinks, “Look, I haven’t got a satisfactory theoretical account of this. But when I land in Liberia and shake hands with an African, I am shaking hands with someone with whom I feel a bond, even though we may not have a language in common.” So there’s the personal aspect of the search and the political, and these two don’t necessarily align. I think if you had asked Du Bois at the end of his life, what’s the most important thing you’ve done? He would have pointed to political things more than to intellectual things, even though we now think of him more as someone who had a profound intellectual impact. I do think in the end he was trying to change the world.

Shenk: Which brings us to the world today, and especially the African-American experience, after Ferguson, after Baltimore . . .

Appiah: Whenever Du Bois had difficulty giving a theoretically adequate account of race—and he knew too much about race to think that any of his answers were theoretically adequate—he would go back to this formulation, a Negro “is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia.”

Shenk: That’s one of my favorite Du Bois lines.

Appiah: That remark can be used, like any proverbial formulation, to many effects. But part of what he means is: all this theory is all very well, but in the end what you want to do is get rid of Jim Crow, right? With the recent killings of black men by policemen, it’s only the result of the accident of the invention of the video camera on smart phones that we have been forced to face what’s actually going on. Part of what’s happening with Black Lives Matter is people are saying, look, we’ve had these interesting theoretical discussions. We’ve talked about race as a social construction. That’s all very well, but death is not a social construction. And another thing is the polling data shows us over and over again there’s a very wide gap in perceptions between people who identify as black and people who identify as white as to what’s occurring on the racial front. Most white people don’t think of themselves as racist. Maybe they have implicit attitudes that they don’t know about, but their explicit views are non-racist. And many of them think,“We’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve got a black guy in the White House, isn’t it over?” And some of these events are an occasion to say it can’t look like that to a black person. If you are much more likely to be arrested, and if you’re more likely to be shot than a white person, that can’t look like a problem that’s solved. And nothing brings that into focus more than seeing someone being choked to death, or shot in the back as happened in South Carolina. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s good that people are raising these questions and that more people are thinking about them, and that there is a real discussion going on, but I have to say that I’m not confident that it’s going to have a huge effect.

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