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Hope Draped in Black
Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress
By Joseph R. Winters
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
DU BOIS, THE SEDUCTION OF OPTIMISM, AND THE LEGACY OF SORROW
The twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously claimed that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Sometimes it feels as if African American studies consists of a succession of footnotes to W. E. B. Du Bois. Not only do many genealogies of black intellectual production, to the chagrin of some scholars, begin with Du Bois, but many authors continue to draw from his corpus in order to frame, explain, and put forth solutions to the problems that currently beset black people. Although there are glaring blind spots and omissions within his corpus, he confronted many of the unpleasant realities, conditions, and topics that continue to haunt the social order — the problem of the color line, the subordination of women, the complicated relationship between race and class, Western imperialism, and the pernicious consequences of the capitalist-inspired accumulation of wealth, especially for the darker denizens of the world. In this chapter and chapter 2, I also argue for Du Bois's ongoing relevance, underscoring the capacity of his ideas to illuminate and reconfigure our understanding of the present. I am particularly interested in how the trope of sorrow operates in The Souls of Black Folk to challenge facile notions of racial progress. In this work, Du Bois adopts a melancholic mood or attitude in response to the harrowing dimensions of his recent past (a past that includes chattel slavery and the Civil War) as well as the postbellum arrangements that prevent black bodies from flourishing and living well after the putative triumph of emancipation. As Terrence Johnson suggests, the spirituals, or sorrow-song tradition, constitutes a central part of Du Bois's thought and practice; this musical legacy contributes significantly to his understanding of race, American history, religion, human suffering, and hope.
However, turning to Du Bois to develop a critique of progress is not an easy task. As many commentators have stressed, Du Bois adopts Enlightenment-inspired assumptions about the process and triumph of civilization, an inheritance that influences his conception of racial uplift. In his famous essay on the "Talented Tenth," a term that refers to the educated black elite, Du Bois takes for granted that "the Negro race, like all races will be saved by its exceptional men." These exceptional men will be those who have absorbed the higher ideals and truths of humanity, those who have been trained and acculturated to rescue the masses of black folk from their benighted state. These agents of civilization and uplift, to put it succinctly, will redeem black people. Du Bois's faith in cultural redemption exhibits a troubling elitism. More generally, it betrays a commitment to categories and processes — the civilizing process, for instance — that have had pernicious, if not ambiguous, implications for black people. As Cornel West points out, Du Bois appears to be "seduced by the Enlightenment ethos and enchanted with the American Dream." His optimistic vision of humanity, according to West, prevents Du Bois from wrestling sufficiently with evil, tragedy, and the legacy of white supremacy. Although there is some truth to West's concerns, to simply locate Du Bois within this Enlightenment trajectory flattens the complexities and tensions within Du Bois's corpus. More specifically, this reduction downplays the significance of sorrow, tragedy, and death in his writings, especially in The Souls of Black Folk. In this chapter, I argue that Souls is a fissured text. Although Du Bois occasionally locates black strivings within an all-too-familiar telos of human advancement, he also draws from the sorrow-song tradition to undermine narratives of progress. I encourage us to read this tension in a productive manner — as a commitment to a better future for blacks and other subjugated groups, but a vision that is mediated and informed by memories of racial loss and trauma.
Lawrie Balfour reminds us that Souls was written at a critical and painful juncture in black American history. The powerful concepts and metaphors that Du Bois introduces in this work — double-consciousness, the Veil, the color line — mark a moment in which the new freedoms and opportunities acquired by blacks after the Civil War have been undermined by the emergence of Jim Crow laws and practices. As Balfour describes, "Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Du Bois uses this language to limn the contours of a world in which long-awaited emancipation and new citizenship gave way to disenfranchisement, debt peonage, and de jure segregation, enforced by terror in the South and inaction in the North." Souls, as I argue in this chapter and chapter 2, reflects this broken predicament; it exists in a space between melancholy and hope, disappointment and possibility. Consequently, there are moments when Du Bois contends that the end of black people's strivings and aspirations should be "co-participation" or mutual recognition within existing social and political arrangements, a projected end that invokes Hegel's well-known Master-Slave dialectic. Along this line of thinking, American citizenship is imagined and valorized as an unequivocal ideal and good. Yet there are other moments in this collection when Du Bois suggests that the prevalent arrangements of America and modernity rely on the violent exclusion of certain kinds of bodies and communities, rendering integration a dubious, tension-filled aim. Mutual recognition (between whites and blacks, the oppressors and the subjugated) is a marker and benchmark of racial progress, and Du Bois hints at the losses, constraints, and failures that undermine endeavors to integrate formerly excluded groups into the nation-state, social order, and unstable category of the human. His writing renders us more attuned to those individuals, communities, and experiences that don't quite fit into overconfident narratives of freedom, civilization, and reconciliation. In this chapter and the next, I trace Du Bois's attunement to those bodies and subjects that cannot be easily placed in unifying imaginaries and optimistic frameworks of meaning.
DOUBLE-CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE DUPLICITY OF RACIAL RECOGNITION
The play between optimism and lament in Du Bois's thought is articulated powerfully in "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," the first chapter of Souls. In this chapter, the reader encounters Du Bois's early attempts to wrestle with self-estrangement, an uncanny mode of existence that reflects black people's marginalized status within the contours of American democracy and the modern world more generally. In this essay, Du Bois invites the reader to confront the harrowing question, what does it mean to be a problem? He begins, "Between me and the other world, there is an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy by others through rightly framing it." The word between here denotes both separation and proximity. Even as Du Bois is immersed in the other world of white bodies, expectations, and desires, he never feels quite at home. In other words, "being a problem is a strange experience," and this experience, or condition, renders the black subject a stranger to herself. This sense of Unheimlichkeit (traumatic uncanniness) is experienced at a young age for Du Bois as he frolics with other (white) children. After being refused by his classmate during an exchange of cards, he realizes "with a certain suddenness that he is different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil." Here Du Bois introduces the notion of a veil, which connotes darkness, mystery, concealment, altered vision, as well as mourning and loss. In addition, the veil signifies separation and protection, an appropriate set of meanings since the color line functions to prevent "threatening" black bodies from entering spaces inhabited by white Americans. Several anticipatory questions emerge from this unsettling event in Du Bois's life in which he encounters this vast racial veil. First, does this veil enable black Americans to see and think differently even as it constrains and limits their participation in American life? In other words, what are the auspicious implications of being a "stranger in one's own house" and seeing the world through a dark lens? If there are empowering aspects of seeing through a veil, do these favorable aspects clash with the veil's more debilitating tendency to obscure or conceal similarities between both worlds, the ways blacks and whites are "alike in heart and life and longing"?
Du Bois's conception of double-consciousness is a response to this socially produced veil that, among other effects, alienates blacks from whites and from the broader social world, thereby producing divisions within the black self. In other words, this idea reflects social conditions that prevent black Americans from completely "fitting" into the democratic polity and consequently from becoming coherent selves. Yet his articulation of this double-consciousness also reflects Du Bois's implicit refusal to completely accede to the pressures of the racial and social order, to uncritically venerate a nation founded on theft, dispossession, chattel slavery, and racial injustice. Even as he affirms the principles of American democracy, he is attuned to how the ideals of the so-called founding fathers have historically excluded and failed black bodies and other communities. Consequently Du Bois, through this notion of double-consciousness, attempts to mediate between "tasteless sycophancy [on one hand] and silent hatred of the pale world and mocking distrust of everything white [on the other]." The following well-known passage expresses this experience of living between two separate, yet connected, worlds:
The Negro is sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with a second sight in the American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, by measuring one's soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength keeps it from being torn asunder.
In this passage, Du Bois again highlights the peculiarity or strangeness of being a split, fragmented subject. He laments the fact that the racial order prevents the Negro from attaining true self-consciousness, which entails the elimination of debilitating divisions within the black soul. He contends the Negro is out of joint with himself precisely because he is denigrated by the "other world," reduced to a "tertium quid," or an undefinable, illegible object, by the prevailing order. He looks at himself through the so-called normative gaze of white supremacy, which "looks on with amused contempt and pity," feelings that are internalized by black selves. The ideals and practices that define the social order are defined over and against blackness; white supremacy operates by marking the black body as other, deviant, inferior, and not quite human. The black self, at this stage, can only see a distorted, fragmented image of herself in the world dominated by her white counterparts. The true, integrated self, on the other hand, is only possible when black strivings coincide with the collective desires of the nation, or when Negro and white American are not imagined as contending identities.
It is important to keep in mind that the concept of double-consciousness signifies and recalls a legacy of both psychic and physical violence. If the term double connotes a division or a split, then it conjures up a history of black bodies being "torn" from African communities, black flesh being cut or torn open by the lash of the whip, black female slaves being routinely forced to "open" their bodies to the Master, and black body parts being cut off during the ritual of lynching. As Hortense Spillers argues, the distinction between the flesh and the body enables us to track the kinds of injury inflicted on black subjects. Whereas the body is usually imagined as relatively whole and coherent, the flesh, which is prior to the body for Spillers, registers and underscores the routine vulnerability and permeability of black selves within modern regimes of power. As Spillers puts it, "If we think of the 'flesh' as a primary narrative, then we mean its seared, divided, ripped apartness, riveted to the ship's hole, fallen, or escaped overboard." In this allusion to the Middle Passage, Spillers repeats images and tropes associated with the cut or the wound, a repetition designed to underscore the violent tearing that black bodies and flesh endured at the advent of modernity and progress. By drawing attention to the "ripped apartness" of black flesh, Spillers enables us to connect double-consciousness to the physical wounds involved in the formation of modern black selves. Double-consciousness signifies this collective wound.
While double-consciousness marks a division or split in the black self, Du Bois does not necessarily endorse a simple form of reconciliation to fix this historical condition and experience. In other words, he does not suggest that black identity should be erased or replaced by a broader, more encompassing category of American identity that would eliminate the tensions, complexities, and possibilities of black existence. He writes, for instance, "The history of the longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to emerge his double self into a better and truer self, in this merging he (the Negro) wishes neither of his older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows the Negro blood has a message for the world." For Du Bois, the truer self that emerges in the development of black identity will encompass both of his "older selves," both of his hitherto unreconciled strivings. As Shamoon Zamir rightly points out, it is important to recall the influence of Hegel's dialectic on Du Bois here. Hegel's notion of aufheben, which according to Charles Taylor is "Hegel's term for the dialectical transition in which a lower stage is both annulled and preserved in a higher one," helps illumine Du Bois's analysis in "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." For Du Bois, the Negro's strivings are dialectically related to the aspirations of the broader American nation. This simply means that DuBois's Negro identity is (temporarily) opposed to his American identity, even as each opposing category is only identifiable in relation to its other. What Du Bois means by the truer self, as intimated above, is a black soul that has undergone the proverbial aufheben, a process through which the previous rift between black and American identity is overcome, but in a manner that difference and tension are not completely eliminated. Double-consciousness is therefore the "lower stage" of the self, which is both "annulled and preserved" as the higher self unfolds. It is important to note that, for Du Bois, both black and white American identities are transformed and synthesized in this dialectical progression toward a higher self. The Negro purportedly becomes more attuned to the higher ideals and values of American and Western civilization, while white Americans become more aware of and sympathetic to the losses, sufferings, aspirations, and gifts of black selves — qualities expressed through songs, narratives, church practices, and freedom struggles. We might wonder how this reconciliation occurs, especially without the metaphysical dimensions of Hegel's understanding of history and freedom. Will reconciliation between blacks and whites be the result of a universal history that necessarily bends toward reason, freedom, and equality? Or will blacks become reconciled to the broader nation-state through contingent, fallible institutions that promote equal education, black civic participation, the cessation of racist laws and codes, and the deepening of democracy? Will blacks gradually overcome inequality and division through ongoing political struggles by striving for common democratic goods, and by collectively bearing the memory of those who have vanished behind the veil?
Excerpted from Hope Draped in Black by Joseph R. Winters. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. Unreconciled Strivings: Du Bois, the Seduction of Optimism, and the Legacy of Sorrow 31
2. Unhopeful but Not Hopeless: Melancholic Interpretations of Progress and Freedom 57
3. Hearing the Breaks and Cuts of History: Ellison, Morrison, and the Uses of Literary Jazz 85
4. Reel Progress: Race, Film, and Cinematic Melancholy 137
5. Figures of the Postracial: Race, Nation, and Violence in the Age of Obama and Morrison 187
Select Bibliography 287
What People are Saying About This
"Joseph R. Winters argues that the tragicomic dimension of African American life manifests as a kind of 'melancholic hope.' He traces this uncanny desire to hear the anguished cries of the ancestors, to revisit the site of historical trauma, across multiple domains: from the foundational scholarship of Du Bois to politics in the age of Obama. Drawing on the spiritual/blues/jazz impulse in black culture and Walter Benjamin, Winters reveals the capaciousness and paradoxical productivity of hope draped in melancholy."
"In this thought-provoking, demanding, and courage-inspiring book, Joseph R. Winters urges his readers to embrace narratives of progress that force them to confront loss. In so doing, he opens us up to more realistic and more human possibilities for identity and community. Winters's ethical passion is lovely to behold."