- In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America
What if we rethink The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois as a work of political philosophy in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes or John Rawls? What if Du Bois’s contributions to political philosophy were as substantive as his innovations in sociology or the civil rights movement? The latest by Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America, sets out to explore these questions as boldly as its opening declaration portends: “The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is Du Bois’s outstanding contribution to modern political philosophy” (1). From there, Gooding-Williams offers a sustained and rigorous—if at times exhausting—philosophical scrutiny of Du Bois’s most celebrated book. He argues that Du Bois promoted a “politics of expressive self-realization” that contrasts with 1) his contemporary Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist, assimilation-through-submission approach to racial uplift, and more surprisingly, 2) Frederick Douglass’s politics of radical reconstruction—a politics developed in the lesser-read second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom.
In the Shadow of Du Bois focuses on the early work of Du Bois, probing the black sociologist’s intellectual debt to German social and political thought—a debt accrued during his doctoral training at Berlin University in the early 1890s. The Souls of Black Folk, Gooding-Williams claims, weaves a “unified, political philosophical argument” through its varied series of essays, most of which were previously composed for different occasions (25). The move to read Souls as philosophical literature seems a bit odd at first: Souls is in fact an eclectic mix of essay, poetry, narrative, sociology, and song. To read this stew of styles and genres as political philosophy would seem to risk reductionism. Yet Gooding-Williams seems to strive for a systematic rather than reductive approach to Du Bois’s political philosophy.
The opening chapters, “Politics, Race, and the Human Sciences” and “Intimations of Immortality and Double Consciousness,” center on a Du Boisian problematic: How does one reconcile the demands of an educated, self-assertive black leadership with the spontaneous folk spirit of the black masses? How does one close the gap between those fit to rule, the aristocratic Talented Tenth, and those who should be ruled, the democratic black folk? To address this problem, Gooding-Williams claims, Du Bois developed a “politics of expressive self-realization,” a “practice of ruling leadership that could authoritatively and effectively govern the struggle to solve the Negro problem only if it avowed and embodied the ethos of the black folk” (17). Gooding-Williams builds a case for three pillars in Du Bois’s politics of expressive [End Page 537] self-realization: group leadership, political expressivism, and the struggle against social exclusion (19).
Gooding-Williams then charts Du Bois’s relation to the human sciences, or Geisteswissenschaften, and the influence of such German thinkers as Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel. Some of the terrain Gooding-Williams maps echoes what Mark Christian Thompson calls, following Paul Gilroy, a flirtation with “black fascism(s)” in African American thought between the two world wars. While Gooding-Williams avoids the loaded term “fascism,” he nonetheless exposes the influences of Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” philosophy of history on Du Bois’s thought. Elsewhere, Gooding-Williams explains how Du Bois sought out the “model of a domineering despot” and “autocratic statesman,” while also admiring the authoritarian rule of Otto von Bismarck (21). In this crucible between the extremes of autocratic and democratic rule, Du Bois mashes out a notion of a representative aristocracy—the educated “talented tenth”—that can lift the black masses out of their oppressive conditions and lead them toward fulfilling their proper spiritual calling within the American social order.
The middle chapters, “Du Bois’s Counter-Sublime” and “Between the Masses and the Folk,” focus on how Du Bois positions himself in relation to two previous black leaders, Alexander Crummell and John Jones. Gooding-Williams borrows the notion...