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  • Political Theory from the Shadows
  • George Shulman (bio)
Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. $35.00 (hardcover) 368 pp. ISBN 9780674035263

In the Shadow of Du Bois is an important book, for several reasons. First, Gooding-Williams reads Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk as one of the “great works of political philosophy” and he rigorously reconstructs its central claims through a meticulous reading of its intellectual sources and arguments, its tropes and literary strategies. Second, Gooding-Williams uses this seminal text to identify an “Afro-Modern” genre of political thought, and to address in new ways its characteristic thematic preoccupations—the organization of white supremacy, the impact of racial ideology on the marked and unmarked, the defining and practice of “black politics,” the limits of the liberal nation-state and the possibility of reform, the meaning of freedom. By focusing on both race and genre to think “black politics,” In the Shadow has the effect of expanding what we count as “political thought,” and how we read it. But his avowed purpose is to expose and contest, not the racial innocence of canonical genres of political theory, but the hegemonic form of Afro-modern political thought. Third, by creating a stark contrast between Du Bois and Frederick Douglass over the question “What form should black politics take?” he re-frames current debates about race and Black politics, but also and thereby about the politics of identity and the meaning of the political.

Gooding-Williams focuses on Souls to identify its authority over subsequent Black political thought, but he does so to displace not to confirm this influence. His key claims are: Du Bois creates a political philosophy that is coherent and comprehensive; his political project is “predicated on his theory;” and his theory remains both hegemonic and deeply problematic for how black politics is theorized and practiced now. The bulk of the book, therefore, “reconstructs” Du Bois’ central arguments about white supremacy and black politics, in relation not to his own Jim Crow context but rather to our own post-civil rights era. Gooding-Williams’ crucial, penultimate chapter openly uses a reading of Frederick Douglass to reject, and present an alternative to, the theory and politics he attributes to Du Bois. The final chapter, in turn, depicts contemporary theories of black politics “in the shadow” of Du Bois.

At its simplest, Gooding-Williams’ argument is that the “young” (but now hegemonic) Du Bois defines white supremacy as extrinsic not intrinsic to modernity, and as a problem of exclusion not domination; he defines black politics in Weberian terms as rule, so that agency is reduced to leading or obeying, and he defines the task of leaders as both overcoming white prejudice and modernizing backward black “masses” to gain civic and political rights. 1He endorses a politics of “assimilation by assertion” against Booker T. Washington’s “assimilation by resignation,” but also what Gooding-Williams calls “political expressivism,” a view that politics (or political leadership) must “avow and embody a racially specific and collectively shared spiritual or cultural orientation that antecedently unites all Black Americans” (187). Du Bois thus bequeaths to black politics both a discourse of modernization (which normalizes deficient black masses who “deviate from Eurocentric norms”) and a discourse of authenticity (which aims to “realize” the cultural identity that unifies and validates them as a folk) (53). Depicting mass and folk, Du Bois’ theory links uplift to authenticity: Black politics must overcome exclusion, achieve social advance, and represent identity. But according to Gooding-Williams, “he cannot coherently endorse a politics that both uplifts and masses and expresses a slavery-based racial identity, for uplifting the masses requires the demise of that identity” (132).

Against Du Bois claim that he is the true heir of Frederick Douglass, Gooding-Williams uses Douglass’ My Bondage, My Freedom to criticize the elements in Du Bois contradictory synthesis. First, Douglass views slavery—and white supremacy more broadly—as constitutive of American society and citizenship. Second, therefore, he does not aspire to eliminate an “anomaly” in the practice of American citizenship (15–18), but rather to “enlist citizens in the...

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