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Social Text 19.2 (2001) 15-41

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Reproducing Racial Globality
W. E. B. Du Bois and the Sexual Politics of Black Internationalism

Alys Eve Weinbaum

The symbolic kernel of the idea of race . . . is the schema of genealogy, that is, quite simply the idea that the filiation of individuals transmits from generation to generation a substance both biological and spiritual and thereby inscribes them in a temporal community known as "kinship."

--Etienne Balibar, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities

It may be African-Americans, supposedly those Americans with the most sketchy genealogical records, who have most consistently constructed racial identities for themselves that do not rely on myths of racial purity.

--Harryette Mullen, "Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness"

In my life the chief fact has been race--not so much scientific race, as that deep conviction of myriads of men that congenital differences among the main masses of human beings absolutely condition the individual destiny of every member of a group. Into the spiritual provincialism of this belief I have been born and this fact has guided, embittered, illuminated and enshrouded my life.

--W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn

In the United States black maternity has been persistently constructed as antithetical to national belonging. In a nation whose ideology of inclusion has grounded itself in notions of biological, reproductive, and thus genealogical connection, being "American" has often required having been born to a mother descended from an esteemed family whose Anglo-Saxon pedigree is free of the contamination of so-called interracial sex or miscegenation. Indeed, insofar as the concept of Americanness has been regarded as coextensive with whiteness, the exclusion of blackness and the castigation from the nation of those women thought to reproduce it have been mainstays of U.S. culture. 1 By the turn of the twentieth century, when the activist and public intellectual William Edward Burghardt Du Bois began writing, this ideological construction had found a safe home in a variety of discourses--scientific and legal as well as popular. In view of this situation, this essay reads Du Bois's work as an evolving response to the ideology of racial nationalism and as the articulation of a genealogical counternarrative that argues in some instances for African American [End Page 15] inclusion in the nation, and in other instances for black belonging in the world.

Perhaps the most explicit rendition of the reproductive themes against which Du Bois wrote was the discourse of "race suicide." According to the argument put forth by pundits such as E. A. Ross, Francis Amasa Walker, Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and others, the birthrate among those who had come to call themselves "native Americans" was plummeting, and unless Anglo-Saxon mothers could be recruited into the reproductive service of the nation, the United States would quickly become a land comprised of the darker-hued progeny of prolific foreign-born immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the descendants of African slaves. 2 As Ross, a prominent sociologist, averred, "the superiority of a race can not be preserved without pride of blood and an uncompromising attitude toward the lower races." 3 Expressing precisely such an "uncompromising attitude" in horror-struck, stuttering syntax, one doctor wrote in the pages of the Pennsylvania Medical Journal, "'American families' having no children and the increase of foreigners with large families means . . . that the [national] majority will be the foreign and their children." 4 For this proponent of "race suicide," as for others, white women offered the solution to the dilemma. They were to be guided into the role of nation builders, national reproducers to be exact, and given incentives to steer clear of childless marriages, from labor outside the home that might impact on their fertility, and of course from sexual liaisons across racial lines. As for black mothers, their total erasure from these tracts conveys the message eloquently: cease to reproduce. For unless a mother could bestow white skin privilege on her offspring, her child would not be embraced as a national, as a citizen with...


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pp. 15-41
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Archived 2005
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