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  • Du Bois’s “Afterthought”A Pedagogical Variant for Continental Philosophy
  • Hernando A. Estévez

The Souls of Black Folk is a pedagogical text that echoes continental philosophy’s aim of preparing humankind for the genuine practice of philosophical life through critique. In this text, Du Bois uses pedagogy to expose destructive and oppressive aspects of the Western tradition in its conflicting ideas and practices. In particular, I read Du Bois’s “afterthought” in Souls of Black Folk as a form of critique that is expressly pedagogical, in that it prepares black individuals to play their destined role in this new era of history, and it calls for a continuous rethinking of the politics of higher education. While describing his early academic, political, and intellectual journey, Du Bois alludes to his initial and persistent concern with the impact of education on the formation of black men’s civil subjectivity. According to Du Bois, “My problem then was how, into the inevitable and logical democracy which was spreading over the world, could black folk in America and particularly in the South be openly and effectively admitted; and the colored people of the world allowed their self-government?” (Du Bois [1940] 1983, 29). For Du Bois such a question has sufficient political and social force to de-center the truths produced by the Western tradition as well as the precepts determining individuals’ subjectivity and self-government. Self-governance underlies Du Bois’s pedagogical and political projects as it is responsible for transforming black individuals’ self-perception and their relation to society. Du Bois approaches autonomy and self-governance pedagogically, by awakening individuals’ capacities for them by means of critique, through [End Page 82] questioning the historical basis on which the black race has been determined politically by the Western tradition.

Du Bois’s essay Of the Training of Black Men (1902)1 begins by describing three “streams of thought,” which carry within the depth of their ideological flow ideas and ideals about humanity. Each stream has an epistemological and ontological force, which organizes the source of knowledge about the nature of black individuals’ being and existence. The force of the first stream of thought calls for an ethos that could unify humanity by multiplying its wants through worldwide cooperation. The second stream affirms the racism produced by theories explaining the origin of the black race, and the third calls for a civil struggle of black and whitened individuals whose political ideals challenge the presumed universal validity of the first two. Each stream of thought is followed by an afterthought, which questions the epistemological ground for moral and ontological claims of each of the three streams regarding the relationship between black individuals and the world. Du Bois deploys the pedagogical force of the afterthought most effectively in the political strength of the third stream of thought, in the emergence of suspicion. Through suspicion, a different possibility appears for thinking black individuals’ relationship with the world. This suspicion initiates a descriptive and normative analysis by challenging the pedagogical system on which beliefs and ideas about black individuals’ reality and future have been invented. In other words, suspicion dislodges history’s determinism by provoking self-reflection through critique of the Western philosophical tradition.

In the words of Du Bois,

And last of all there trickles down that third and darker thought—the thought of the things themselves, the confused, half-conscious mutter of men who are black and whitened, crying “Liberty, Freedom, Opportunity—vouchsafe to us, O boastful World, the chance of living men!” To be sure behind the thought lurks afterthought,—suppose, after all, the World is right and we are less than men? Suppose this mad impulse within is all wrong, some mock mirage from the untrue?

(Du Bois [1903] 2006, 68; my emphasis)

Furthermore, the “afterthought” and its immanent force of suspicion explore other subjective dimensions—the desires, struggles and dreams of the black race—which reveals alternative modes of being in the world.2 The political shift initiated by the afterthought’s critique is capable of opening up new historical categories and reconstructing the arena in which subjectivity occupies a new theoretical framework. The afterthought identifies and supersedes...


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pp. 82-86
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