- Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois
A scholar friend of mine once remarked that he had been reading Du Bois his entire life and was dismayed to see that he might not live long enough to read everything. The seemingly inexhaustible Du Bois truly contains multitudes, without himself being contained. While sheer bulk alone is no guarantee of significance, the fact remains that there are few arenas of modern [End Page 527] human endeavor Du Bois failed to affect with his entrance. The body of scholarship surrounding his life and works has grown exponentially both in quantity and in critical acuity. “Always something new out of Du Bois,” one might paraphrase. Laying a dire prophecy at the threshold of the twentieth century, Du Bois limned a modern two-ness rooted in race and colonial oppressions. Readers have long recognized the significance of gender in the primal scene painted by Du Bois describing his coming to knowledge of the role race was to play in his early life. A matter of Valentines and recognition, the scene replays in the reader’s imagination as simultaneously familiar and alienating; it becomes impossible to separate questions of desire from questions of race in Du Bois’s writing. Similarly, when Du Bois writes of receiving an untranslatable ancient melody from his grandmother, there’s an ineluctable sense of linkage between gender and culture, though Du Bois himself has little to tell us regarding the politics of that linkage. It is just that politics that Gillman and Weinbaum hope to anatomize in their edited collection Next to the Color Line.
The criticism of recent decades has been marked by major efforts at imbrication and articulation. For Gillman and Weinbaum it is imperative that we now pursue what they term a “politics of juxtaposition,” one that “positions multiple political issues and related world historical movements for social justice as associated, as necessarily juxtaposed, if not fully interlinked, or self-consciously interwoven” (3). Hence the “next to” of the book’s title; hence, too, a critical flexibility permitting the pursuit of manifestly pertinent inquiries without the necessity of constant linking to authorial intention. Over and over again in this collection editors and contributors alike are at pains to remind us of their address to the fuller significance of Du Bois’s discourse as opposed to making easy points against the author. Hazel V. Carby, for instance, insists that it is not her intention “to claim that W. E. B. Du Bois was a sexist male individual” (237). Rather, Carby’s commitment is to exploring “the ideological effect of the gendered structures of thought and feeling at work in any text one might write and publish” (237). For their part the editors alert us early on that their critique is meant not “to discount Du Bois’s ‘pro-feminism,’ but rather to show how reading Du Bois against the grain can constitute a feminist politics” (19). Following the editors on this journey into the politics of juxtaposition, it comes as no surprise to learn, brings us to confront yet further instances of Du Boisian double consciousness, for concluding as these writers do that gender and sexuality “are simultaneously central to and outside of Du Bois’s anti-imperialist internationalist imaginary” (26) is the seemingly inescapable conclusion to be drawn from that liminal moment at the opening of The Souls of Black Folk. [End Page 528]
While a number of the essays in Next to the Color Line have previously appeared elsewhere, they appear here in the company of newer essays often responding directly to them and engaging in a continuing debate. A good example of this is the colloquy surrounding Claudia Tate’s “Race and Desire: Dark Princess: a Romance,” an essay which not only had the effect of bringing Du Bois’s novel Dark Princess out of the shadows of critical neglect but which has come to be regarded as canonical...