- Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual
The first two-thirds of Ross Posnock’s provocative, learned, and flawed Color and Culture concentrates on the philosophy, art, and politics of W. E. B. DuBois. Posnock argues that DuBois was an “antirace race man” who followed his mentor, William James, in developing a labile pragmatism that regarded distinction and aesthetics as alternatives to constricting emphases on racial authenticity. Even when advocating the “propaganda” functions of art, or pressing for segregation as one antiracist strategy during the Depression, DuBois refused final solutions, save one: he was, according to Posnock, clear on the ultimate desirability of a society in which race was transcended. Early and, especially, late in the book Posnock discusses an array of African American writers who in very different ways similarly opted for a politically engaged universalism, at least in the longest run. These include such likely candidates as Alain Locke and Richard Wright (both of whom Posnock effectively links to James), Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, as well as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Jean Toomer, Samuel Delany, Adrienne Kennedy, Pauline Hopkins, and, pushing the argument a bit, Amiri Baraka. In defining what he sees as a “cosmopolitan” African American tradition, Posnock believes he is writing against a narrowly group-conscious grain, but at an opportune moment when the identity politics of multiculturalism and postmodernism are giving way to universalism’s triumph. Posnock scores heavily in pointing to the strong strain of universalism that coexisted with black consciousness in writers like DuBois, Locke, and Baraka. This theme, so brilliantly developed in Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, bears the elaboration Posnock gives it, and his readings of individual works, such as DuBois’s Dark Princess and Wyndham Lewis’s Paleface, are engaging. However, there are significant problems with the text. One lies in the bedrock assumption that a scarcely historicized “politics of authenticity” holds sway today as it has for at least a century. Wanting to fight an uphill battle, Posnock at times writes as if Ellison were a marginalized figure or DuBois not already seen as a quintessentially cosmopolitan figure. If, as he holds, virtually every major black writer inhabits the counter-tradition he describes, in what sense is it a counter-tradition? A second problem lies in an overwhelming [End Page 599] explanatory emphasis on the history of ideas, especially pragmatic ideas, to the exclusion of the social history of African American people. Unlike Stuckey, who so thoroughly roots DuBois’s productive contradictions in African American life and history, Posnock verges on portraying DuBois as a Harvard man. Lack of attention to the specific ways the word cosmopolitan figured in nineteenth-century black protest discourse exemplifies this problem, as do the absences of slavery, jazz, and African in the index. Finally, there is the vexing question of whether the universalism Posnock applauds is transcending color, race, or national consciousness. Sliding transitions are made on this point, and where the “American” (United States) consciousness of intellectuals is treated, its possible tensions with universalism are too little explored.