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  • Black Male Feminism and the Evolution of Du Boisian Thought, 1903–1920
  • Nneka D. Dennie (bio)

W. E. B. Du Bois begins and ends his 1903 essay "The Talented Tenth" with a single statement: "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men."1 He continues, "The college-bred Negro … is, as he ought to be, the group leader, the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements."2 These were not simply rhetorical claims, but gendered declarations of Du Bois's conceptualization of race leadership and racial progress. Similar statements abound throughout his early work, particularly in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). As Du Bois discusses the possibility of black people and white people living together in a peaceful and just society, he contends that "it will demand broadminded, upright men, both white and black, and in its final accomplishment American civilization will triumph."3 In addition to portraying black men as responsible for determining the fate of the race, Du Bois normalizes "the Negro" as a masculine figure. He does not do so in a purely symbolic sense, but rather in order to present a model of African American education, self-consciousness, and leadership that revolves around black men. Because Du Bois universalizes African Americans as predominantly male, he is unable to analyze the nuanced lived experiences of black women, and he cannot fully theorize how their oppression is distinct from that of black men. It is evident from the rhetoric and content of Du Bois's works that earlier in his career, he constructed a masculinist framework for overcoming racism.4 Du Bois's later writings, however, offer black male feminist interpretations of racism and sexism. [End Page 1]

In "The Damnation of Women," a chapter from Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, Du Bois exemplifies his ability to use intersectional approaches to critique an oppression that is not his own. He establishes that "despite the noisier and more spectacular advance of [his] brothers, [he] instinctively feel[s] and know[s] that it is the five million women of [his] race who really count."5 Du Bois provides a detailed analysis of the inequalities between black women, white women, and black men. He envisions a world where

we will pay women what they earn and insist on their working and earning it; we will allow those persons to vote who know enough to vote, whether they be black or female, white or male; and we will ward race suicide, not by further burdening the over-burdened, but by honoring motherhood, even when the sneaking father shirks his duty.6

In "The Damnation of Women," Du Bois readily discusses black women and the connections between racial and gendered oppressions. By 1920, Du Bois's positions on gender had greatly shifted. Therefore, this article describes how and why Du Bois's theorizing of black women's oppression transformed between 1903 and 1920.

Although Du Bois authored a significant body of work, few studies consider how Du Bois's feminism evolved over time. David Levering Lewis's biographies examine the trajectory of Du Bois's political thought throughout his career, but they do not devote significant attention to the changing manifestations of Du Bois's gender-progressive thought.7 While scholars including Joy James and Farah Jasmine Griffin have debated the merits of Du Bois's feminism, many base their arguments on either The Souls of Black Folk or "The Damnation of Women."8 An overemphasis on these two texts obscures the ways in which Du Bois's analyses of race and gender changed over time. Susan Gillman and Alys Weinbaum's edited volume, Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois, offers a variety of perspectives on Du Bois's discussions of race and gender at different points in time.9 However, literature on Du Bois has yet to explore how his understanding of the injustices faced by black women gradually progressed. Therefore, I suggest that it is necessary to consider the trajectory of Du Bois's political thought rather than strictly focusing on...


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