- A Political Companion to W. E. B. Du Bois ed. by Nick Bromell
Editor Nick Bromell introduces this collection of essays on W. E. B Du Bois as a political theorist with the assertion that "race lies at the very heart of the Western philosophical tradition, including the branch of it we identify as political philosophy" (p. 2). This statement begins to convey the scope of Du Bois's scholarship in the many fields in which he worked. Indeed for Bromell, the collected essays suggest that the concept and practice of race was a key element of Du Bois's thought—even as the essays acknowledge that "Du Bois was not in any obvious sense apolitical theorist" (p. 1). Yet "Du Bois's insight that race is central, not peripheral, to history, culture, and politics" was as important as his "critical practice," recognized by the editor and contributors to this volume as "poetic and historical, imaginative and empirical, reserved and passionate" (pp. 2-3). Historiographically, Du Bois's scholarship laid the foundation for the political theory found in the work of C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, Paul Gilroy, David Roediger, and Rogers Smith, among others (and I would add Achille Mbembe). While, as Bromell reminds us, Du Bois wrote that he was "'aghast at what American historians have done to this field'" of historical study regarding the humanity of black lives, Bromell also stresses, as did Du Bois with the theoretical underpinnings of his scholarship, "that the nation's racial past remains disturbingly present" in the political discourse and practices of our own day (p. 4).
With eleven collaborating essays, Bromell's collection proposes areas of study to consider Du Bois as political theorist. For example, Charles W. Mills and Lewis R. Gordon each address Du Bois and political philosophy, challenging E. Franklin Frazier's "'We have no philosophers,'" and insisting that Du Bois was among those qualifying as such (not to mention the philosopher Alain Locke, who was Frazier's Howard University colleague and who in 1918 became the first black man to take a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University) (p. 9). Building on Mills's challenge to consider Du Bois's critique of "the entire project of Western liberal political philosophy," Gordon interprets Du Bois's rhetorical praxis as a "countertradition of Africana philosophy" (pp. 9, 10). As an "Africana political theorist" steeped in a methodology of intersubjectivity, Du Bois envisioned a world yielding a "'true self-consciousness'" (pp. 58, 63). "In effect, then," Gordon writes, "one moves from seeing oneself as a problem into seeing oneself as part of a society with . . . a tendency of treating certain groups of people as if they were not human beings" (pp. 63-64). Similarly, Du Bois's "critique of hegemonic historiography," which questioned the Dunning School's thesis of Reconstruction, with its "presumption of black inferiority" and related "presumptions of universal white normativity," revealed the deeper racism of the proffered "rigorous history" (pp. 64,67,65). As Du Bois well might have argued, these presumptions merely disguised the "lack of history in hegemonic American historiography" (p. 65). The critique illustrates for modern readers in political economy that "Du Bois's political theory is often occluded" in his scholarship—though it was arguably at work as a "project of social transformation" (pp. 69, 72). [End Page 495]
Throughout, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction (1935) logically and richly inform these collected essays. Drawing on Black Reconstruction to examine the "imperial miracle," James Edward Ford III reads the "poetic fragments" that end each chapter as being engaged in "an interminable analysis" (pp. 104, 11, 102). Following Nathaniel Mackey, Ford suggests that the poetry serves as "a 'paracritical hinge,' a 'door . . . between disparate modes of articulation'" (pp. 101-2). For Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, as Vijay Phulwani writes, the question remained "how to build durable political institutions for African Americans out of the fragmented and loosely organized...