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The radical humanism of WEB Du Bois

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The radical humanism of WEB Du Bois

Sixty years on from his death, his writing offers a way out of the identitarian trap.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture Identity Politics Long-reads USA

‘Decolonise the curriculum’ is a movement that wants university courses to focus less on dead white European males and more on writers of colour. Its argument is that black students need texts that speak directly to them. They need books by authors who look like them. They need books about experiences and ideas they can more readily relate to than they can the stuff written about in ‘high white culture’. Black students must be able to recognise themselves in what they study, we’re told, or else they’ll feel cheated and demeaned.

I was surprised to find that one of the leading decolonise movements, at the University of Edinburgh, was arguing for WEB Du Bois’ 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, to be included on the English curriculum. The activists said it was unreasonable to expect black students to engage with so many white authors. They also need to engage with people like Du Bois, in whose work they might ‘recognise themselves’. I was surprised, not because I think The Souls of Black Folk shouldn’t be on more university courses – absolutely it should. No, it’s because The Souls of Black Folk runs so fantastically counter to the entire ideology of ‘decolonise’. It made me wonder if these activists have even read it. Du Bois’ book contains some of the finest arguments you will ever read against the idea that high culture is a white thing that others cannot connect with.

One of my favourite passages in the book, from the chapter on what kind of education black men are fit for, touches on this very question. Here Du Bois makes his critique of those in his own time who were arguing that blacks only require basic education and industrial training. He describes his own experience of higher learning, writing:

‘I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the colour line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension.’

That passage, Du Bois’ moving belief that Shakespeare does not wince at him, captures a central thread of his writing: universalism. Du Bois agitates against accommodating to segregation or low expectations, and argues for the rights of ‘black folk’ to assimilate into the spoils of civilisation; to become, as he puts it, ‘co-workers in the kingdom of culture’. To those in the late 1800s and early 1900s who argued that black people needed a targeted form of culture, one specific to their needs and capacities, Du Bois said: ‘We daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest of ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than breadwinning, is the privilege of white men, and the danger and delusion of black men.’

Du Bois insisted that it is only through assimilation into the ‘kingdom of culture’ that self-knowledge and self-improvement can truly occur. As he wrote: ‘Wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.’ The veil he’s referring to is the veil of colour, the one that separated blacks from whites in post-slavery America. For Du Bois, that veil was best lifted via assimilation into the American republic’s political universe and its realm of culture.

Du Bois’ critique of the notion that high culture was for white men, and would prove mystifying to black men, has sadly been superseded by an ‘anti-racism’ with an entirely different outlook. Now, the supposedly radical stance is to believe that high culture is disorientating for black people, and possibly even damaging to their self-esteem, and therefore they require something more targeted. In short, they need release from the kingdom of culture. That, in essence, is what the decolonise movement desires: the ‘liberation’ of non-white peoples from the cultural gains of Western civilisation. Behold the crisis of universalist belief.

Evicted sharecroppers and their possessions along Highway 60 in New Madrid, Missouri, during the Depression.

Du Bois was a late 19th- and early 20th-century sociologist, historian and civil-rights activist, who died 60 years ago this week. The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of his essays and articles, was published in 1903. It contains some of his most important ideas. It is about the period between the Emancipation of the slaves in 1863 and 1900. It covers the successes and failures in the great project of assimilating the freedmen and freedwomen, as they were called, into the life and culture of the American republic.

The specific sociological focus of the book is the living conditions of black people after slavery. But it also addresses a far larger question, one that touches us all. Namely, how to be human in a dehumanising world. One of my favourite lines is, ‘Is life not more than meat?’, a question Du Bois poses to those who argued that black bodies required training, but black minds were best left alone. One of Du Bois’ great concerns was how to nurture and expand the sovereign human soul; how to create the conditions in which every individual might seek to know both himself and the world about him.

So although the book describes lives none of us can imagine – all that grinding poverty and racial dehumanisation suffered by blacks in post-slavery America – it also speaks profoundly on the question of becoming fully human. And what a struggle that can be in a society that seems more devoted to commerce than self-realisation. This question lies at the heart of The Souls of Black Folk, which is why it still speaks to us, and why it should be on university courses around the world: not because Du Bois is a black writer but because he is a great writer.

The Souls of Black Folk contains one of Du Bois’ most famous lines: ‘The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line.’ The ‘colour line’ was a phrase first used by Frederick Douglass. It referred to the continued segregation of blacks and whites following Emancipation. Du Bois is very clear on how the colour line might be erased. It can only be done, he says, through assimilating black people into mainstream life. He even uses the word conformity: ‘We must foster and develop the traits and talents of the negro in order to bring about a large conformity to the greater ideals of the American republic.’

In Du Bois’ view, post-slavery African-Americans are not fully human without assimilation into the American republic, and equally, America is not truly America until it achieves this assimilation. He argues that black people in post-slavery America, through their very striving to conform to the values of America, were the truest exponents of the human spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This is an important insight. For Du Bois, the problem of the colour line was not that it exposed America as a sinful, foul, inescapably racist nation, a nation that segregated blacks would be wise to turn their backs on. No, he says America is a great and virtuous republic that will be made even more so when it assimilates those whose thirst for freedom epitomises the ideals of American independence. Du Bois’ vision stands in stark contrast to today’s radical view of America as being born from the sin of slavery, a sin it will never wash away. The optimism of assimilation has given way to the pessimism of identitarian self-separation; the cry for inclusion in the republic has been superseded by the political fashion for being an outsider, always skulking on the outskirts of the republic and defaming it as a white-supremacist entity.

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois addresses what he sees as the main barriers to assimilation in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. There were three barriers in particular. First, there were the problems within post-slavery black communities themselves. Secondly, there was the tendency towards compromise on the part of the self-styled leaders of the black community. And thirdly, there was what Du Bois referred to as ‘the curse of double consciousness’.

On the first problem of social degradation in post-slavery communities – Du Bois really doesn’t hold back. He provides his mainly white readers – most of the essays were originally written for the Atlantic Monthly – with a grim insight into the lives of former slaves. He explains why the people in these communities seem so backward. It is their poverty and ignorance that makes them susceptible to quackery and demagoguery, he says. This is why he emphasised the importance of education. His defence of education as a means of improving black communities led to him being accused of ‘elitism’. He was especially criticised for his vision of ‘the talented tenth’. This was his belief that around a tenth of black people in post-slavery America were ready for the highest forms of culture. They were the people who should be lifted up to begin with. He also wrote about ‘the rule of inequality’ – the idea that some people are better suited to carpentry and others to philosophy. ‘Make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers’, he famously wrote.

View of segregated public restrooms labelled 'ladies,' 'men' and 'colored,' USA, circa 1960. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The branding of Du Bois as an elitist was unfair. In truth, he simply had a keen understanding of the deprivation of post-slavery communities, and he was sceptical of the idea that you could swiftly transport a man who had recently suffered the barbarism of slavery into what he called ‘the gilded halls of a place like Harvard University’. He saw the elevation of the ‘talented tenth’ as the right starting point to a broader, longer-term effort: ‘the permanent uplifting and civilisation of black men in America’. In keeping with his robust progressive liberalism, his so-called elitism was in truth another expression of his commitment to humanising a once enslaved people.

Then there’s his second explanation for why post-slavery assimilation failed: the tendency towards compromise among black community leaders. In The Souls of Black Folk, he makes a stinging critique of Booker T Washington. Washington was a black American educator, writer and self-styled leader of African-Americans. Washington argued that black people should be satisfied with work and general fairness and should not bother about voting rights, civil rights or access to the kingdom of culture. This outlook, this belief that black people should count their blessings that they had been liberated from slavery, led to the Atlanta Compromise of 1895.

The Atlanta Compromise was a deal struck between Washington and others in the black community and the political leaders of the racist South. The compromise essentially decreed that blacks should give up their demands for full political rights in return for basic education and due process in law. Interestingly, Du Bois initially supported the Atlanta Compromise. But in The Souls of Black Folk he turns against it and expresses his resistance to any form of accommodation to segregation. Where the Atlanta Compromise accepted the essentialism of racial difference – foretelling identity politics – Du Bois held out for a more universalist politics that emphasised black capacity rather than black particularism.

Then there was the third barrier to assimilation – double consciousness. This was a key idea in Du Bois’ writing. It has been incredibly influential in the world of sociology and history. For Du Bois, the problem with the black man in the late 1800s and early 1900s is that he lived in a world that yielded him no true self-consciousness. Instead, there was a sense in the black man that he was always looking at himself through the eyes of others; that he was always measuring his soul by the tape of a world that looked on in amused contempt or pity.

He wrote that to look inside a black man is to see both ‘an American [and] a negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body’. That internal war, he said, was essentially between the unassimilated black man’s degraded self-consciousness and the consciousness of himself created by others, by the measuring tape of a hostile external world. This idea of double consciousness offers profound insights not only into the predicament of post-slavery black communities, but also into the perennial human problem of alienation itself.

Du Bois’ great concern was with creating the conditions in which double consciousness, alienation from one’s true self, might be overcome. This is why he made the philosophical case for the kingdom of culture, the political case for conformity to the virtues of the American republic, and the tangible case for civil rights. Because he believed these social developments would lay the foundations for former slaves to attain self-conscious manhood: the merging of the double self into a better, truer self.

Today, we are regressing from the humanism of writers like Du Bois. Most strikingly, ours is an era in which we are encouraged not to overcome double consciousness, but to make a virtue of it. What we see now, everywhere, is the sacrifice of the self to the cult of group identity; the dissolving of individual agency into the hollow promises of identitarianism.

The central vision of The Souls of Black Folk is the sovereign individual freely choosing to submit himself to the virtues of community. It is a brilliant intellectual blast from more than a century ago against the regressive racial politics of our time. Today, activists seek not to erase the colour line, but to make it permanent. They demand that we view whites as privileged, blacks as damaged, and alter our speech and behaviour in accordance with these supposed essential truths. They demand not access to the kingdom of culture, but separation from it. In their minds, Shakespeare does wince at the black reader; high culture is beyond the ken of the average black person. Thus does identity politics resuscitate the very racism, the very low expectations, the very obsession with improving ‘black bodies’ while neglecting black minds, that someone like Du Bois so articulately argued against. And today’s activists seek not assimilation but separation. They prefer the posture of alienation to the enlightenment that comes with being a true co-worker in the kingdom of culture.

Earlier writers on race wanted to do away with ‘the veil’ that separated man from man. Today, the veil is being made a central feature of everyday life – we’re all now pressured to wear the veil of identity, a mask of our own otherness. It is a profoundly backward step. The work of Du Bois provides us with a way forward.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

This essay is based on a speech given at The Academy in 2020.

Michael Shellenberger and Brendan O'Neill – live and in conversation

Michael Shellenberger and Brendan O'Neill – live and in conversation

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Topics Culture Identity Politics Long-reads USA

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