W.E.B. Du Bois’s Hermeticism
W.E.B. Du Bois’s Hermeticism
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter concerns W. E. B. Du Bois's utopianism during the last fifteen years of his life, after his final break with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The chapter tracks his increasing commitment to Soviet communism and examines the difficulty and efficacy of his Autobiography (1962, 1968). It asks how Du Bois's utopianism led, finally, to a utopia of one. In the book, Du Bois does more than document the development of his thinking about race and politics, and prefigure the “philosophy of Black Power”—he attempts to radically transform his life. Autobiography is fundamentally different from Du Bois's earlier autobiographies. Indeed, the book addresses the future—an American public (black and white) finally ready to hear the truth about liberalism and communism.
On the eve of the March on Washington, on August 27, 1963, W.E.B. Du Bois died in Accra, Ghana. He was ninety-five. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), announced his death to the quarter-million men, women, and children gathered in the National Mall:
Regardless of the fact that in his later years Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause. If you want to read something that applies to 1963 go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk by Du Bois, published in 1903.1
The Souls of Black Folk did indeed anticipate the aims of the March on Washington—and the African American civil rights movement, more generally. “This, then, is the end of [the American Negro’s] striving,” Du Bois wrote in the book’s opening chapter: “to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.”2 Sixty years later, Martin Luther King Jr. reaffirmed this vision of racial equality: “With this faith,” he announced in “I Have a Dream” (1963), “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”3
But what about Du Bois’s “later years”? What does Wilkins mean by “another path”? The story will be familiar to Du Bois scholars. In 1948, Du Bois was fired from the NAACP, owing, in part, to his endorsement of Henry Wallace for president. (Wallace supported rapprochement with the Soviet Union.) In 1950, Du Bois completed Russia and America: An Interpretation, a passionate defense of Stalinism. (His publisher, Harcourt, Brace, rejected the book—and it remains unpublished.)4 In 1951, he married the activist and Communist (p.34) Party member Shirley Graham (who became Shirley Graham Du Bois).5 Later that year, he was indicted by the federal government as an “unregistered foreign agent” for his work with the Peace Information Center, an antiwar organization in New York. (He was acquitted after a five-day trial in November.) In 1955, he was refused a US passport to travel to Poland, and again, a year later, to travel to China. In 1958, after the Supreme Court, in Dulles v. Kent, voided a State Department policy denying passports to alleged communists, he traveled to Europe and the Soviet Union, and then, in 1959, to China, Ghana, and Nigeria. In 1961, he joined the US Communist Party and settled permanently in Ghana.6 In 1963, he became a Ghanaian citizen—a decision that required him to give up his US citizenship. To Wilkins and others, Du Bois had abandoned the American dream at the moment King was revitalizing it.
What caused this change? Did Du Bois truly abandon the American dream? The development of Du Bois’s thinking about race and politics has been well documented, especially by Du Bois himself.7 Over his eighty-year writing career, he published almost 2,500 discrete items, including 4 autobiographies and 58 autobiographical essays. (He published his first article in 1883, when he was fifteen.) After his departure from the NAACP in 1948, he published more than 250 items, including his trilogy of novels, The Black Flame (1957, 1959, 1961), and his final autobiography, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1962, 1968).8 For Du Bois, writing about race and politics, and writing about his own life, were inextricably linked. As he argues in Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940), “My life had its significance and its only deep significance because it was part of a Problem; but that problem was, as I continue to think, the central problem of the greatest of the world’s democracies and so the Problem of the future world.”9
What do these autobiographical texts reveal? For the vast majority of his career, Du Bois is both a pragmatist and a utopian—indeed, his pragmatism is an instrument of his utopianism.10 In light of new evidence, he revises his tactics for achieving his ideal of racial equality. In “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” (1944), he divides his life into three overlapping phases. From 1885 to 1910, he addressed “the majority of white Americans” with “the assumption that once they realized the scientifically attested truth concerning Negros and race relations, they would take action to correct all wrong.”11 (His sociological studies represent this phase.) From 1900 to 1930, he addressed both white and black Americans, with the aim of showing how racism threatens democracy “not only for Negros but for whites; not only in America but in the world.”12 (Here, his work in the Crisis is representative.) From 1928 to 1944 (and after), he addressed black Americans with the aim of encouraging “[s]cientific investigation and organized action … until the cultural development of America and the world is willing to recognize Negro freedom.”13 (Phylon at its founding is representative.)14 For Du Bois, disappointment is (p.35) an engine of innovation. When his tactics prove inadequate, he adopts a new approach to “the central problem of the greatest of the world’s democracies.”
Du Bois’s pragmatism leads him to revise his conception of how to achieve racial equality. In The Souls of Black Folk, mutual understanding is key:
And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.15
By Darkwater (1920), he is focused on economic issues:
If the white workingmen of East St. Louis felt sure that Negro workers would not and could not take the bread and cake from their mouths, their race hatred would never have been translated into murder.16
This shift defines Du Bois’s career after Souls, and eventually leads to his gradual rejection of liberalism and his embrace of socialism and, ultimately, communism.
In Dusk of Dawn, written at the end of the Great Depression, Du Bois criticizes the liberal policies of the NAACP:
One thing, at any rate, was clear to me … continued agitation which had for its object simply free entrance into the present economy of the world, that looked at political rights as an end in itself rather than as a method of reorganizing the state; and that expected through civil rights and legal judgments to re-establish freedom on a broader and firmer basis, was not so much wrong as short-sighted.17
Later in Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois affirms his belief in economic determinism and praises the “miracle of Russia.” But he stops short of endorsing communism. “I was not and am not a communist,” he writes; “I do not believe in the dogma of inevitable revolution in order to right economic wrong.”18
By In Battle for Peace (1952), Du Bois’s criticism of liberalism is more virulent—and his praise of communism is more passionate. Efforts to end segregation, he argues, are not simply short-sighted, they are counterproductive:
The very loosening of outer racial discriminatory pressures has not, as I had once believed, left Negros free to become a group cemented into a new cultural unity, capable of absorbing socialism, tolerance and democracy, and helping to lead America into a new heaven and new earth. But rather, partial emancipation is freeing some of them to ape the worst of American and Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, luxury, showing-off and “social climbing.”19
Conspicuous consumption and “social climbing”: this is the result of “partial emancipation” in America. In Du Bois’s view, communism, and especially Soviet (p.36) communism, is now the best model for achieving racial equality—“a new heaven and new earth.” The Soviet Union, he concludes, is “the most hopeful nation on earth, not because of its theory, but because of what it has accomplished.”20
In Autobiography, Du Bois’s conversion is complete. American liberalism threatens the world:
Today we are lying, stealing, and killing. We call all this by finer names: Advertising, Free Enterprise, and National Defense. But names in the end deceive no one; today we use science to help us deceive our fellows; we take wealth that we never earned and we are devoting all out energies to kill, maim and drive insane, men, women, and children who dare refuse to do what we want done. No nation threatens us. We threaten the world.21
In contrast, Soviet communism promises to save the world. In Du Bois’s view, the Soviet Union supports anticolonialism, Pan-Africanism, and world revolution. It favors nuclear disarmament and centralized planning by an intellectual elite. It champions racial and gender equality, and secular education. It even promotes open, informed debate:
Nowhere are public questions so thoroughly and exhaustively discussed. Russians sit and listen long to talks, lectures, expositions; they read books … not just picture books. Each problem of existence is discussed in village and factory. Comments, spoken and written, are welcomed, until every aspect, every opinion has been expressed and listened to, and the matter rises to higher echelons, and is discussed again. Gradually agreement is approached, until when the thrashed-out result reaches the All-Soviet height, there is usually but one opinion and decision. … This is a sifting of democracy which the West has lost.22
The Soviet Union, in other words, reflects Du Bois’s own commitments—and, crucially, has the power to implement them. “I now state my conclusion frankly and clearly,” he declares in Autobiography, “I believe in communism.”
By the end of his long career, Du Bois had indeed abandoned the American dream. Wilkins was right. Future generations of Americans, Du Bois argues, must either begin again from scratch—“Our children must rebuild it”—or learn to tolerate injustice.23 At his ninetieth birthday celebration, he addressed his speech to his two-month-old great-grandson, Arthur Edward McFarlane II. Autobiography includes an excerpt:
You will find it the fashion in the America where eventually you will live and work to judge that life’s work by the amount of money it brings you. This is a grave mistake. The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get.24
This is the best McFarlane can hope for in America: satisfying work.
(p.37) Du Bois wrote Autobiography in 1958 and added a “postlude” a year later.25 “[W]hen completed,” Shirley Graham Du Bois recalls, “publishers in the United States would have none of it.”26 Harper and Brothers rejected it outright. Knopf asked for a rewrite. (“I urge you to give up the chronological form,” Knopf’s Angus Cameron wrote; “I know I ask a great deal, but it seems to me fitting that you should step into the present struggle with complete engagement.”)27 Du Bois even submitted chapters to academic journals, receiving rejections from the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, among others. (Only the Massachusetts Review accepted a chapter.)28 In 1959, he sent the typescript to the Soviet Union. In 1962, after he had moved to Accra, Autobiography was published—in Russian translation—by the State Publishing House of Foreign Literature in Moscow.29 In 1968, five years after his death, it was finally published in the United States—and in English—by International Publishers, a communist press in New York.
If The Souls of Black Folk was sixty years ahead of its time, one could argue that Autobiography was nine. By 1968, American audiences were finally ready to join Du Bois and reject American liberalism. (They remained skeptical of his valorization of Soviet communism—especially after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.) In a review of Autobiography for the Saturday Review, Gilbert Osofsky celebrates Du Bois as “a seer who sensed the future before most of his contemporaries were aware of the present.”30 In a review for the New Republic, Martin Duberman argues that “Du Bois prefigured by at least five years … the line of thought that has culminated in the philosophy of Black Power.”31 At the height of the Vietnam War, American liberalism was in crisis—and Du Bois was once again relevant.
In a speech commemorating Du Bois’s centennial in 1968, King himself praised his intellectual forebear: “It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.”32 The speech, delivered in the middle of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, celebrated Du Bois as a model for young African Americans. The “life style of Dr. Du Bois is the most important quality this generation of Negros needs to emulate,” King argues. “He exemplified Black power in achievement and he organized Black power in action. It was no abstract slogan to him.”33 Du Bois, in this way, regained much of the status he had lost almost twenty years earlier.
This survey simplifies a long and complex life—and, more crucially for this chapter, obscures the difficulty and efficacy of Autobiography. In the book, Du Bois does more than document the development of his thinking about race and politics, and prefigure the “philosophy of Black Power”—he attempts to radically transform his life.
(p.38) Autobiography is fundamentally different from Du Bois’s earlier autobiographies. For example, it does not follow the template outlined in “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” and target a specific community of readers. Osofsky and Duberman argue that the book addresses the future—an American public (black and white) finally ready to hear the truth about liberalism and communism. The book’s reception history indicates the “second world”—the Soviet Union and its socialist allies.34 A typescript copy in the Du Bois Papers indicates the past—Du Bois dedicates a draft to “the Dead,” naming his great-grandfather, grandfather, parents, first wife, and son and daughter, all of whom predeceased him.35 The book’s content corroborates all these scenarios. Du Bois includes speeches to his great-grandson and his fellow communists in Accra, Moscow, and Beijing, and he concludes the book with an apostrophe to the dead: “Suffer us not, Eternal Dead to stew in this Evil … Teach us, Forever Dead, there is no Dream but Deed, there is no Deed but Memory.”36
Autobiography, in this way, addresses everyone and no one. Everyone because its address is universal: black and white Americans (past, present, and future), Soviet and Eastern Bloc workers, Chinese and Ghanaian revolutionaries, and Du Bois’s family.37 No one because its intended audience was not yet open to its message or no longer alive—or already convinced of its truth. Du Bois’s few remaining supporters in the United States already endorsed his politics. Second-world communists already disapproved of American liberalism. At the moment of its composition and initial reception, Autobiography does not present a practical model for action. Du Bois is, at once, no longer and not yet relevant.
The book’s content and form reflect (and exacerbate) this vexed relationship to audience. Autobiography opens with five chapters about Du Bois’s travels after the Supreme Court decision in 1958. (“In the first paragraph he is literally escaping from the United States,” observes Kenneth Mostern.)38 Du Bois discusses his earlier autobiographies and autobiography as a genre, and then turns to politics. He celebrates the spread of communism to China and the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He does not present reasoned, evidence-based arguments. His goal is not to persuade skeptics. (“It is hardly conceivable,” writes James C. Hall, “that Du Bois is attempting any kind of seduction, or, less pejoratively, attempting to convince African-Americans of the necessity of joining the Communist Party U.S.A.”)39 “China is no utopia,” he sardonically claims; “Fifth Avenue has better shops where the rich can buy and the whores parade.” Defending the invasion of Tibet, he simply asserts, “The truth is there and I saw it.”40
These five chapters lead to an interlude. “I believe in communism,” Du Bois announces in italics:
I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.41
(p.39) “Who now am I to have come to these conclusions?” he asks. “This is the excuse for this writing which I call a Soliloquy.”42 Over the next nineteen chapters (including the postlude), he narrates his life up to his ninety-first year—ostensibly to justify his conversion to communism.
Most of this narrative, however, is taken, almost verbatim, from Du Bois’s earlier autobiographies. “[S]ome two hundred pages are drawn from Dusk of Dawn,” notes Nathan Huggins; “the account of the trial and acquittal comes from In Battle for Peace… ; and the Postlude chapter is taken from ‘A Vista of Ninety Fruitful Years’ in the National Guardian.”43 Much of the remaining material comes from The Souls of Black Folk and Darkwater. Chapter 6, for example, revises the opening of Darkwater, written forty years earlier: “I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which began the freeing of American Negro slaves.”44 Only the final clause is new. (In Darkwater, the sentence ends after “Proclamation.”)45 What is the significance of this revision? Is Du Bois reminding us that the project of emancipation is still incomplete?
Other revisions are even more perplexing. For example, Du Bois makes subtle changes to his account from Dusk of Dawn of his life as a student at Harvard in the late nineteenth century. In Dusk, he writes:
Something of a certain inferiority complex was possibly present: I was desperately afraid of not being wanted; of intruding without invitations; of appearing to desire the company of those who had no desire for me. I should have been pleased if most of my fellow students had desired to associate with me; if I had been popular and envied. But the absence of this made me neither unhappy nor morose. I had my “island within” and it was a fair country.46
In Autobiography, he ever so slightly revises the passage—I have marked the revisions:
Something of a certain inferiority complex was possibly
present: a cause of this. I was desperately afraid of beingintruding where I was not wanted; of intrudingappearing without invitations; of appearing toshowing a desire for the company of those who had no desire for me. I should in fact have been pleased if most of my fellow students had desiredwanted to associate with me; if I had been popular and envied. But the absence of this made me neither unhappy nor morose. I had my “island within” and it was a fair country.47
Why not simply replicate his earlier account? (Du Bois published the second, revised version of the chapter in the Massachusetts Review in 1960—but omitted this specific passage.) Is the revised passage clearer, or more concise or eloquent? I don’t think so. Is Du Bois revising the story of his life to better justify his conversion to communism? I cannot find any evidence to support this claim. The import of the two passages is identical. Indeed, Autobiography (p.40) seems disconnected from Du Bois’s announcement in the interlude—perhaps because most of the book was written decades before the conversion described in the interlude took place.
Autobiography also replicates the plotting of the earlier autobiographies. Du Bois discusses his childhood and education at Fisk, Harvard, and Humboldt Universities; his sociological studies at Atlanta University and the University of Pennsylvania; his disagreement with Booker T. Washington; the Niagara Movement and the Crisis; his Pan-Africanism and Marxism; his disagreements with the NAACP and eventual resignation; his return to Atlanta University and his forced retirement; his return to the NAACP and dismissal; his peace activism; and his trial and acquittal. Following the model of the earlier autobiographies, he does not discuss the composition or reception of his major books—The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction (1935). He rarely mentions his family, his disagreements with Marcus Garvey, or his connection to the Harlem Renaissance. Autobiography adds plot points to Du Bois’s life story—but does not alter the earlier ones.
The only entirely new material in Autobiography is the initial five chapters, the interlude, and chapter 16, “My Character,” which includes a comparatively candid account of Du Bois’s personal life—his finances, his sexuality, and his fifty-three-year marriage to his first wife, Nina Gomer.48 The chapter’s main concern, however, is his consistency. Du Bois describes various threats to his character (lust, greed, envy) and how he survives them (austerity, compunction, generosity). As Keith Byerman notes, “the Du Bois recreated in this chapter does not fundamentally change from childhood to old age.”49 This is surprising, considering Du Bois’s obsession with his own development—and his earlier commitment to process, contingency, and change.
This consistency defines Autobiography as a whole. Arnold Rampersad laments the “sameness” of Du Bois’s late writing.50 Irving Howe claims that parts of the book “read as if they came from the very heart of a mimeograph machine.”51 Mostern describes the book as “theological”: “the socialist political argument in Dusk of Dawn is sociological,” he writes; “the Communist political argument in Autobiography is theological.”52 (Theological arguments, in Mostern’s view, are nonempirical, even anti-empirical arguments.) Du Bois supplies his own metaphor in the book’s title, “soliloquy,” which Jodi Melamed glosses as “nondialogic discourse from the self to the self” and as a performance of “intimate self-revelation.”53 Together, these readings highlight the same fact: Autobiography is not only consistent, it is hermetic.
Indeed, the book is hermetic in two seemingly incompatible ways. First, it omits evidence that would undermine Du Bois’s worldview—he unwaveringly maintains his optimism in communism and the Soviet Union. Second, the book replicates the receptivity of Du Bois’s earlier autobiographies by literally replicating his earlier autobiographies. Autobiography, in this way, excludes differences of opinion and differences of identity—even when Du Bois is disagreeing with himself.
(p.41) Cold War blacklisting, then, is not the only way to explain Autobiography’s initial reception in the United States. Cameron’s rejection of the book is a case in point. In many ways, Cameron was Du Bois’s ideal reader. In 1951, he was blacklisted for his communist sympathies and forced to resign as editor in chief of Little, Brown. In 1958, he chaired Du Bois’s ninetieth birthday celebration, where Du Bois addressed his two-month-old great-grandson. In 1959, Cameron was hired as a senior editor at Knopf. (The event marked the decline of McCarthyism.) When he asked Du Bois (in the letter quoted earlier in this chapter) to “step into the present struggle with complete engagement,” he was asking for more politics, not less. He wanted to promote Du Bois as a model. “[T]he time is at hand,” he writes in the same letter, “when a hip and thigh smiting book which forces everyone to see what you see, know what you know, suspect what you suspect, should be written.” “I believe such a book,” he adds, “could overthrow the convenient isolation so many think they have provided for you and which, in some ways, they have succeeded in doing.”54 For Cameron, Autobiography, as it was written, only reinforced Du Bois’s isolation.
Du Bois was an old man when he began Autobiography in 1958. He was traveling constantly. He had just completed The Black Flame, the most ambitious creative project of his career. Is it any surprise that he recycled his earlier autobiographies and embraced Soviet cant? He must have been exhausted and unable to write a compelling new book.
Yet by most accounts, Du Bois was vibrant and lucid until at least the year before his death.55 David Levering Lewis describes a meeting between the ninety-one-year-old Du Bois and Mao in Beijing in 1959:
[W]hen the Chairman presumed to explain at some length the “diseased psychology” affecting the American Negro, Du Bois interjected to say that Negroes and the working people of his country were not afflicted by a psychological condition but by their lack of income, an observation that led Mao and Du Bois to debate the primacy of economics and psychology among evolving groups.56
Debating economics and psychology with Mao! This is not a sign of decrepitude. A few months after the meeting, according to Lewis, Du Bois vacationed in the Virgin Islands, where he “took high dives from the hotel diving board and swam across the lagoon.”57 From this perspective, The Black Flame does not mark the beginning of Du Bois’s decline. It is evidence of his endurance.
Howe points to one danger of dismissing the elderly Du Bois: “precisely the sort of condescension he had always scorned.”58 In a review of Autobiography, Howe attempts to understand Du Bois’s Stalinism:
(p.42) Du Bois suffered every defeat and humiliation of his people, and he kept changing his views because none seemed able to gain for American Negroes what should simply have been their birthright. Is it not entirely understandable, therefore, that in his ultimate despair he should have turned to the ideology of Stalinism? That he should have ignored its repressions and murders, so long as it seemed to champion the rights of black men? What is surprising is not that Du Bois turned toward a totalitarian outlook but that so few Negroes joined him.59
For Howe, this explanation does not excuse Du Bois’s politics: “After all, there were other Negro leaders, equally militant, who found it possible to fight against Jim Crow in America without becoming apologists for dictatorship in Europe and Asia.”60 “Better to fight it out,” Howe argues, “than ‘make allowances.’” Howe thus approaches Autobiography by reestablishing a debate that Du Bois attempts to transcend. As I mentioned in my earlier survey of Du Bois’s career, Autobiography does not try to persuade skeptics or even provide evidence for its claims.
Melamed adopts a different approach. In her view, the book is an “oppositional practice” that decouples Du Bois’s “life story” from narratives of American exceptionalism:
Rather than reading here a dogmatic pledge of allegiance to the Soviet Union, I contend that if we situate these lines within the geopolitics of blackness as a global symbol during the era of decolonization, then we can read them to be a rhetorically, politically, and theoretically sophisticated attempt by Du Bois to re-fashion his life story as a counter-symbol that might rupture American exceptionalist representations of African American racial formation as a symbol for the probity of US-led global capitalism.61
This link between “representations of African American racial formation” and American power is long-standing. (In the preface to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), for example, William Lloyd Garrison links Douglass’s freedom to the freedom of America’s “Pilgrim fathers” and “revolutionary sires.”)62 According to Melamed, Autobiography refuses to participate in this tradition and, as a result, memorializes what she calls “the negative history of race in the development of capitalism.”63
Kate Baldwin goes further than Melamed. Autobiography, she suggests, is wholly oppositional. Du Bois violates “expectations for originality and newness”; manipulates “sites of overlap, contradiction, and/or emptiness”; and rejects “the authority conventionally appointed the author.”64 The result: a book that “demonstrates how a disarticulation of continuity—that is, a breakdown in signification; a failure—presents a condition of possibility.”65 In this (p.43) reading, Autobiography is an avant-garde provocation—an attempt to alert readers that the status quo is neither acceptable nor inevitable.
Are these approaches convincing? Howe confronts the book’s politics but refuses to respect its hermeticism—its resistance to debate. Melamed and Baldwin, in contrast, respect the book’s hermeticism but refuse to confront its politics.66 For them, Autobiography rejects American liberalism but does not truly endorse Soviet communism.
Is there a way to approach Autobiography that avoids these pitfalls, that recognizes the book’s hermeticism without excusing its politics? One way to avoid these pitfalls might be to ask what Du Bois himself gained by writing the book.67 As Peter Shaw remarks in a review of Autobiography, “what is useful to the author may not coincide with what is useful for the reader.”68 For Du Bois, writing was a way of life—and a way to remain alive. “[T]he novelty of Du Bois’s place in the black tradition,” argues Henry Louis Gates Jr., “is that he wrote himself to … power, rather than spoke himself to power.”69 Perhaps Autobiography represents an attempt to augment and conserve that power?
But there is, I think, a much more specific way to describe the book’s value for Du Bois. Autobiography should be read as an attempt to resolve a contradiction at the heart of his career—a contradiction between two conceptions of freedom and, ultimately, between pragmatism and utopianism. The first conception of freedom, derived from William James, defined Du Bois’s sociological research. “Sociology,” he writes in “The Atlanta Conferences” (1904), “is the science that seeks to measure the limits of chance in human action, or if you will excuse the paradox, it is the science of free will.”70 Freedom, here, is a synonym for chance. “Indeterminate future volitions do mean chance,” James argues in “The Dilemma of Determinism” (1894): “Let us not fear to shout it from the house‐tops if need be; for we now know that the idea of chance is, at bottom, exactly the same thing as the idea of gift.”71
The second conception of freedom, derived from Marx, defined Du Bois’s political activism. “By ‘Freedom’ for Negroes,” he writes in “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” “I meant and still mean, full economic, political and social equality with American citizens.”72 Freedom, here, is a synonym for equality—specifically, equality as imagined in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels write, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”73
At first glance, these two conceptions of freedom seem compatible. Du Bois can be a Jamesian and a historical materialist.74 He can valorize chance and combat the class antagonisms that promote racism. But upon closer examination, the two are mutually exclusive. For orthodox Marxists—or at least a specific tradition of orthodox Marxists—necessity is the guarantor of freedom, not its opposite. As Engels argues in Anti-Dühring (1887), “Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in (p.44) the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”75 Indeed, it is this knowledge that allows Marx and Engels to maintain their utopianism, and to promise readers of the Manifesto that the “fall [of the bourgeoisie] and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”76
In an exchange with Herbert Aptheker in 1956, Du Bois confronts the incompatibility of these two conceptions of freedom. (Aptheker was Du Bois’s literary executor. In 1955, he published History and Reality, a collection of essays defending historical materialism.) When “I finished reading your ‘History and Reality,’” Du Bois writes, “I was not certain of your attitude or how far [historical] materialism agreed with my formulation [of pragmatism]. A second reading reassured me somewhat.”77 Aptheker, in response, demurred: “I do not think, as you appear to say … that the power of mankind to better human conditions is ensconced within the control of chance rather than law.”78 The discussion ends there. Their next exchange focuses on The Black Flame, which Aptheker was editing for an imprint of New Century Publishers.
This is my hypothesis—and, ultimately, my argument: In Autobiography, Du Bois resolves the contradiction by abandoning the first conception of freedom and embracing the second. His aim is not merely to disavow pragmatism—or link pragmatism and liberalism. (Rampersad correctly notes that Du Bois’s later work rejects “the accoutrements of liberal pragmatism.”)79 His aim is to maintain his utopianism by discovering freedom in necessity. This is the real significance of the book’s hermeticism: by rewriting and synthesizing his earlier autobiographies, he learns to freely inhabit the events that determined his life, including his own descriptions of those events. (Hence his rewriting of the passage from Dusk of Dawn about his life as a student at Harvard in the late nineteenth century.) The book’s hermeticism and politics are not distinct—they are a means and an end. Autobiography is an exercise in historical materialism.
Why is this “exercise” necessary? There is a difference between endorsing historical materialism as a theory and living as a historical materialist. The former requires accepting certain propositions: for example, that “the mode of production of a society” determines “its ideas and theories”—to quote Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938).80 The latter, in contrast, requires accepting a counterintuitive account of one’s own agency in the world. In this counterintuitive account, one’s interests are not one’s own—they reflect one’s class position. The future is not open to chance—it obeys specific laws. As Stalin asserts, “the connection and interdependence of the phenomena of social life are laws of the development of society, and not something accidental.”81 To coordinate these third-and first-person perspectives is a challenge—although not an unhappy one: Du Bois must learn to live with the knowledge that world revolution is inevitable, but that he as a particular person (with a rich and complex interior life, and specific desires) is superfluous.
That Napoleon, this particular Corsican, was the military dictator rendered necessary by a French Republic bled white by her own wars, was fortuitous; but that, in the absence of Napoleon, someone else would have taken his place is proved by the fact that the moment someone becomes necessary—Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc.—he invariably turns up. If it was Marx who discovered the materialist view of history, the work of Thierry, Mignett[,] Guizot, and every English historiographer prior to 1850 goes to show that efforts were being made in that direction, while the discovery of the same view by Morgan shows that the time was ripe for it and that it was bound to be discovered.82
To apply this extraordinarily counterintuitive theory to Du Bois’s own life, if a particular man named William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had not been born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868, someone else would have “turned up” to oppose the policies of Booker T. Washington, contribute to the development of sociology as an academic discipline, propose an influential account of double consciousness, establish the NAACP, edit the Crisis, fight for the inclusion of black officers in World War I, write one of the most important revisionist histories of Reconstruction, and so on.83
Does Du Bois’s exercise succeed? I think it does. He commits to a conception of freedom as equality and, in the process, commits to a radically attenuated conception of his own freedom. The book’s hermeticism trains him to accept—even be grateful for—his determination. Or to be more precise, the book’s hermeticism trains him to recognize his determination as freedom—freedom to be on the right side of history, freedom to think structurally, freedom to purge himself of an inflated sense of his own agency.
(I am wary of overpsychologizing, but this conception of freedom must have been consoling to Du Bois at the end of his life. Early in life, one might benefit from an inflated sense of agency: it can be empowering and life-sustaining. There is time to change the world. Late in life, however, one might want to minimize one’s agency and cultivate one’s faith in the inevitable.)
The exercise has ancillary benefits. For example, it offers Du Bois a greater understanding of his own life. In the book’s opening chapter, he writes:
Who and what is this I, which in the last year looked on a torn world and tried to judge it? Prejudiced I certainly am by my twisted life; by the way in which I have been treated by my fellows; by what I myself have thought and done. I have passed through changes by reason of my growth and willing; by my surroundings without; by knowledge and ignorance. What I think of myself, now and in the past, furnishes no certain document proving what I really am.84
(p.46) Autobiography provided that “certain document.” By rewriting and synthesizing his earlier autobiographies, Du Bois was able to reassess the impact of his “growth and willing,” his “surroundings,” and his “knowledge and ignorance.” Chapter 16, “My Character,” which I discussed in section 2 in this chapter, reflects this assessment. Du Bois’s affirmation of his consistency in the chapter is not an affirmation of his freedom from social and historical reality but rather an affirmation of his ability to respond rationally to social and historical reality—to the challenges of a life lived between the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the end of Jim Crow.
The book thus remains faithful to one aspect of Du Bois’s career: the pursuit of self-knowledge. The pursuit predates The Souls of Black Folk and connects all the autobiographies. It even motivates Du Bois’s fiction. In The Black Flame, for example, he reexamines his life by dividing it among three characters—James Burghardt, Jean Du Bignon, and Manuel Mansart. Du Bois then tracks how these characters respond to a series of historical events. If Autobiography is an exercise in historical materialism, The Black Flame is (like much fiction) an experiment in scientific modeling.
Self-knowledge is a way to advance the revolution and abide in advance of the revolution. “Freedom of the will,” argues Engels in Anti-Dühring, “means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject.”85 (Aptheker quotes this exact line in History and Reality.)86 But a few sentences later, Engels notes that “talk of real human freedom” is impossible in a society with “class distinctions” and “anxiety over the means of subsistence.”87 In response to this impasse, Du Bois embraces his freedom to know as he prepares to live in a world that is truly free.
Autobiography has no single precedent. Du Bois draws from various genres to invent his own. Autobiography is relevant, of course—from Rousseau to Adams. (“[T]he original sin of autobiography,” writes Georges Gusdorf, is “logical coherence and rationalization.”)88 African American autobiography is especially relevant—from Douglass to Washington to Du Bois himself. (Paul Gilroy traces how African American autobiography became “an act or process of simultaneous self-creation and self-emancipation.”)89 Finally, socialist realism is relevant. As Katerina Clark writes in The Soviet Novel (1981): “[T]he master plot personalizes the general processes outlined in Marxist-Leninist historiography by encoding them in biographical terms: the positive hero passes in stages from a state of relative ‘spontaneity’ to a higher degree of ‘consciousness,’ which he attains by some individual revolution.”90 Du Bois is that positive hero. His shift from pragmatism to historical materialism is a shift from “spontaneity” (actions not guided by an awareness of historical necessity) to “consciousness” (actions guided by awareness of historical necessity). By joining the Communist Party in 1961, he announces the outcome of his individual revolution.
Although Autobiography’s hermeticism might frustrate readers and fail to adequately justify Du Bois’s conversion to communism, it makes that (p.47) conversion possible. The book allows him to preserve his utopianism, purge himself of pragmatism, and become the person he wants to be.
In 1958, the year Du Bois began to write Autobiography, the writer and activist Truman Nelson published “W.E.B. DuBois: Prophet in Limbo” in the Nation. “DuBois has been rewarded as this country nearly always rewards its prophets,” Nelson declares; “He was arrested—as Thoreau was arrested.”91
The analogy is illuminating. Both Thoreau and Du Bois were arrested for acts of civil disobedience. Both devoted their lives to writing. Both ostracized their readers. Both created utopias of one in response to America’s failure to realize its own utopian ideals.
The analogy points toward a disconcerting conclusion. Utopias of one might not be an alternative to American liberalism or even an escape from it. They might be a symptom. Indeed, utopias of one might correspond to the “privatopias” David Harvey deplores in Spaces of Hope (2000). (Harvey’s examples are Baltimore’s suburban homes and gated communities.)92 An ideal life in an unjust world—this might be what America has to offer. (p.48)
But the analogy also obscures important differences between the two writers—most significantly, the effects of white privilege. For Thoreau, exemplarity is a given: he automatically speaks to and for readers, and for humanity itself. Walden is an attempt to inhibit his exemplarity—and thus his complicity. For Du Bois, in contrast, exemplarity is never a real possibility. (The forced exemplarity of African Americans under Jim Crow is not exemplarity at all: it applies only to African Americans and is damaged by double consciousness.) Complicity is rarely a concern.93 Du Bois’s career is defined by a series of ill-fated attempts to speak to and for readers.94 Autobiography adopts a radically different strategy: the book addresses everyone and no one, but its true audience is Du Bois alone.
This difference between the two writers illuminates another. Thoreau’s utopia of one is nonmimetic, logically inimitable. Du Bois’s utopia is imitable. In principle, we could all become historical materialists. Yet it is worth asking: Does the book actually help us become historical materialists? Does it present a practical model for remaking our lives? My answer to these questions is no. Du Bois’s commitment to the Communist Party might be a commitment to community, but his exercise in historical materialism is singular and specific. As Autobiography fails to create an ideal community devoted to Stalinism, it creates a utopia of one.
In part 2, I examine Du Bois’s Stalinism in a different context: the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 is a reminder that the United States is not the only country that arrests its prophets. In 1934, the Russian poet, Osip Mandel’shtam, was arrested for performing a poem critical of Stalin.
(1.) Roy Wilkins, quoted in Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around, 183. David Levering Lewis and James C. Hall, among others, also discuss the speech. See David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 2; and Hall, Mercy, Mercy Me, 189.
(2.) Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 3. The passage about becoming a “co-worker in the kingdom of culture” is a site for debates about Du Bois’s philosophical and political commitments. Cornel West reads the passage as evidence of Du Bois’s pragmatism—and, more specifically, his Emersonianism (The American Evasion of Philosophy, 142–43). Robert Gooding-Williams challenges West’s reading, linking the passage to Josiah Royce’s reading of Hegel (“Evading Narrative Myth,” 526). Shamoon Zamir claims that the passage “adapts” the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) (Dark Voices, 113–99). Both Gooding-Williams and Ross Posnock challenge Zamir’s claim—albeit from different perspectives. Gooding-Williams argues that Zamir “overstates” Du Bois’s indebtedness to Hegel, while Posnock reasserts Du Bois’s commitment to pragmatism (Gooding-Williams, “Evading Narrative Myth,” 855–56; and Posnock, “Going Astray, Going Forward,” 187–89).
(4.) See Harcourt, Brace, and Company to Du Bois, June 13, 1950, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers; and Du Bois, Russia and America: An Interpretation, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers. For a discussion of the aims of Russia and America: An Interpretation, see Rasberry, Race and the Totalitarian Century, 187–237. In 1953, Du Bois published a eulogy for Stalin in the National Guardian. The eulogy begins: “Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity.” See Du Bois, “On Stalin.”
(6.) Du Bois moved to Ghana to edit the Encyclopedia Africana—a project that was to be funded by the Ghana Academy of Learning, a government organization. For a discussion of the project, see David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 566–70.
(7.) “The writings of DuBois,” writes J. Saunders Redding, “have the lucidity of a series of anatomical drawings showing the progressive stages in the development of an organism” (“Portrait: W. E. Burghardt du Bois,” 94). An important question in Du Bois scholarship is why there are so many competing assessments of Du Bois’s intellectual commitments and development—despite his own constant self-assessments. West, Posnock, and others claim that Du Bois is a pragmatist. Zamir claims that Du Bois is a Hegelian. Horne and Bill V. Mullen claim that Du Bois is a radical Marxist. Adolph L. Reed Jr. claims that Du Bois is a Fabian socialist. Reed argues that the “confusion about locating Du Bois programmatically has two sources.” The first source of confusion has to do with “temporal or contextual (p.153) focus”: “Du Bois lived and acted through several discrete social and political situations that seemed to him to require different strategic responses for the race. Sometimes, especially when sundered from the situations to which they were responses, the strategies that he proposed appear to contradict one another. Analysts, then, have chosen and defended one or another set of strategies or one or another period as authentically Du Boisian.” The second source of confusion, Reed claims, has to do with “conceptual focus”: “If examination is restricted to Du Bois’s various racial strategies, which were usually the central concerns of his writing, analysis will record a mélange of discrete political positions, but will gloss the normative and conceptual logic that organized his worldview.” Reed, of course, believes (and convincingly argues) that “the normative and conceptual logic that organized his worldview” was “essentially Fabian.” I think there is one additional source of confusion. Du Bois’s most canonical writing invites identification: its openness encourages readers to discover their own philosophical and political commitments. It is not a coincidence that West and Posnock identify as pragmatists, Zamir as a Hegelian, and Horne and Mullen as Marxists. Reed is an exception: he criticizes Du Bois’s supposed Fabianism. See Reed, W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, 71, 88.
(8.) For bibliographies of Du Bois’s writing, see Aptheker, Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois; Partington, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Bibliography of His Published Writings; and Andrews, “Checklist of Du Bois’s Autobiographical Writings.” In 1961, Du Bois recorded an autobiography for Folkways Records. See Du Bois, W.E.B. DuBois: A Recorded Autobiography. The recording recounts the same events as the earlier autobiographies but not verbatim. Lewis notes that Du Bois began a new memoir after his move to Ghana. See Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, 567. An eleven-page outline for that memoir, titled “Pan-Africa: The Story of a Dream” is extant; see Du Bois, “Pan-Africa: The Story of a Dream,” Du Bois Papers.
(10.) I use “pragmatism” here in a nontechnical sense—to describe Du Bois’s responsiveness to evidence, and his resistance to “dogma” and “artificiality” (to adopt William James’s terms in Pragmatism, 509). Reed’s account of the “collectivist outlook” that characterized a new generation of intellectuals in late nineteenth-century America would serve as well. According to Reed, these intellectuals shared three characteristics: “(1) a disposition toward puzzle solving as an orientation to purposeful activity; (2) an inclination to think in terms of systems and wholes and parts; and (3) a commitment—at least in principle—to self-correcting, reflexive language which delegitimizes claims to validity based on references to ascriptive authority and grounds validation on a relatively impersonal standard of truth” (W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, 17).
(14.) For an account of Phylon at its founding and its changing aims, see Warren, What Was African American Literature?, 44–56.
(15.) Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 108. Du Bois makes a similar point about the importance of mutual understanding earlier in Souls: “the future of the South,” he writes, “depends on the ability of the representatives of these opposing views to see and appreciate and sympathize with each other’s position,—for the Negro to realize more deeply than he does at present the need of uplifting the masses of his people, for the white people to realize more vividly than they have yet done the deadening and disastrous effect of a color-prejudice that classes Phillis Wheatley and Sam Hose in the same despised class” (89).
(21.) As American liberalism threatens the world, it threatens Du Bois as well. In Autobiography, he describes his treatment after his acquittal in 1951: “All this made my enemies and the Federal government take a determined stand to insure my destruction. The secret police swarmed my neighborhood asking about my visitors; whether I entertained and whom. … My manuscripts and those of Shirley Graham were refused publication by reputable commercial publishers. My mail was tampered with or withheld. … From being a person whom every Negro in the nation knew by name at least and hastened always to entertain or praise, churches and Negro conferences refused to mention my past or present existence. The white world which had never liked me but was forced in the past to respect me, now ignored me or deliberately distorted my work” (271, 255). Notice how Du Bois extricates himself from the “We” in “We threaten the world” and identifies with the “men, women, and children who dare refuse to do what we want done.”
(22.) Ibid., 20. The phrase “sifting of democracy” reflects what Reed describes as “the intrinsic tension between centralized planning—as the expression of macrological, technical interests—and democratic decision making” (W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, 86).
(26.) Shirley Graham Du Bois to the Afro-Asian Writers Bureau, ca. 1968, Du Bois Papers.
(27.) Alfred A. Knopf Inc. to Du Bois, April 13, 1960, Du Bois Papers.
(29.) See Du Bois, Vospominaniia. The chapter divisions and titles in the Russian version are identical to the chapter divisions and titles in the English-language version published in 1968. The Russian version opens with a five-page introduction from the publisher, detailing Du Bois’s conversion to communism. The introduction also includes a note from Gus Hall, general secretary of the National Committee of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), discussing the significance of Du Bois’s membership in the CPUSA. In 1965, Autobiography was published in German by Dietz Verlag in East Berlin.
(34.) Du Bois had plans to publish Autobiography in China and Ghana as well. The Du Bois Papers include receipts for the translation of nine chapters (including the postlude) into Chinese. See Translation receipts, December 17, 1964, and December 26, 1964, Du Bois Papers. For a note about Du Bois’s plans to publish Autobiography in Ghana, see Shirley Graham Du Bois to the Afro-Asian Writers Bureau, ca. 1968, Du Bois Papers. I assume that the Chinese edition was never published because of the Sino-Soviet split.
(35.) See Du Bois, “A soliloquy on viewing my life from the last decade of its first century,” Du Bois Papers. The dedication of this draft of Autobiography was revised in Du Bois’s hand presumably after the death of his only daughter, Yolande, in 1961.
(37.) The address of Du Bois’s work in the 1950s is often obsessively inclusive. For the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk, for example, published in 1953 by (p.155) Blue Heron Press, Du Bois revised eight passages critical of Jews. (“[U]nscrupulous Jews,” for example, became “unscrupulous immigrants.”) The revisions reflect Du Bois’s growing concerns about anti-Semitism—as well as his desire not to offend his Jewish friends, including the book’s publisher, Howard Fast. (Fast, who was blacklisted in 1950, had started Blue Heron Press in 1952 to keep his novel Spartacus  in print.) See Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 81; Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1953), 169. See, also, Aptheker, “The Souls of Black Folk,” 15–17; Bornstein, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Jews,” 64–74.
(54.) Letter from Alfred A. Knopf Inc. to Du Bois, April 13, 1960, Du Bois Papers.
(55.) Some of Du Bois’s political opponents doubted his sanity. Lewis notes, “Du Bois’s opposition to the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Point Four program for the developing world, and the Korean War as instruments of capitalist imperialism were heresies that most of the spokespersons for the race deemed to be evidence of unreality bordering on the certifiable, an opinion Walter White [Wilkins’s predecessor at the NAACP] allowed to be attributed to him over the Voice of America” (W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963, 555, 569–70). In 1962, Du Bois underwent a series of surgeries that seriously compromised his physical health.
(66.) Melamed, for example, writes, “In providing a black witness against US neocolonialism to counter liberal nationalist stories of a black witness for America, Du Bois’s declaration of belief in communism comes across as something other than a dogmatic show of support for the Soviet Union” (“W.E.B. Du Bois’s UnAmerican End,” 543).
(67.) Another way to avoid these pitfalls might be to refer to Theodor W. Adorno’s theory of late style. “[P]sychological interpretation” cannot explain late style, Adorno argues; the (p.156) “thought of death” outstrips the “subjectivity” of the artist. Adorno describes Goethe’s late work: “Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form … Hence the overabundance of material in Faust II and in the Wanderjahre, hence the conventions that are no longer penetrated and mastered by subjectivity, but simply left to stand” (Essays on Music, 566). In an essay on Adorno’s theory, Edward Said suggests that late style involves a “deliberately unproductive productiveness” (On Late Style, 7). “Overabundance of material,” “conventions … left to stand,” “deliberately unproductive productiveness”—these phrases seem to describe Autobiography almost perfectly. But Adorno’s theory of late style also obscures Autobiography’s specificity—its links to anticolonialism, Jim Crow, the Cold War. Autobiography is excessive—but it is also the story of a particular life.
(70.) Du Bois, “The Atlanta Conferences,” 85. Du Bois would repeat this definition throughout his career. See, for example, Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 3; and Du Bois, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom,” 48.
(74.) West argues that “it is possible to be a prophetic pragmatist and belong to different political movements, e.g., feminist, Chicano, black, socialist, left-liberal ones” (The American Evasion of Philosophy, 232).
(78.) Aptheker to Du Bois, January 20, 1956, Du Bois Papers.
(92.) In a discussion of Baltimore’s “geographical disparities in wealth and power,” Harvey writes, “So the wealth moves, either further out to ex-urbs that explicitly exclude the poor, the underprivileged, and the marginalized, or it encloses itself behind high walls, in suburban ‘privatopias’ and urban ‘gated communities’” (Spaces of Hope, 148). Milette Shamir calls Thoreau “the philosopher of the great migration of the middle class to the suburb, a spatiosocial transformation that has the liberal myth of private manhood as its underlying rationale” (Inexpressible Privacy, 18).
(93.) Consider Du Bois’s “I Won’t Vote” (1956), which defends his refusal to vote in the 1956 presidential elections. In the essay, Du Bois does not attempt to absolve his complicity (p.157) in American militarism. Instead, he attempts, yet again, to be exemplary: “Is the refusal to vote in this phony election a counsel of despair?” he asks. “No, it is dogged hope. It is hope that if twenty-five million voters refrain from voting in 1956 because of their own accord and not because of a sly wink from Khrushchev, this might make the American people ask how much longer this dumb farce can proceed without even a whimper of protest” (324–25). Compare this to Thoreau’s anxieties about complicity in “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849): “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (263). Lawrence Rosenwald notes that this passage is at least partially ironic: “As if in half-conscious self-criticism, Thoreau links himself by this phrase to Pontius Pilate, who, refusing to resist the multitude’s call to crucify Jesus, ‘washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it’” (“The Theory, Practice, and Influence of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience,” 175–76).
(94.) In X: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought (2013), Nahum Dimitri Chandler describes one aspect of Du Bois’s commitment to his exemplarity: “Du Bois took the status of the African American subject as an exemplary path by which to trace the theme (or develop the topic) of the problem of racial distinction, and hence, the problem of difference in general” (75). According to Chandler, this is the “guiding question” of Du Bois’s work: “Is it possible for the most particular or ‘subjective’ history to tell the most general of truths, perhaps precisely because such histories do distort, or magnify, and so on in particular sorts of ways?” (77). Posnock suggests that Du Bois resented his exemplarity: “Sacrificing himself to group identity, viscerally enduring Jim Crow’s mania for frozen classification, Du Bois’ lifelong challenge becomes to find a margin of freedom, a way to mitigate, if not evade, the twin sacrifice demanded by the repressions of coerced identity—as race man and as ‘a colored man in a white world’” (“Going Astray, Going Forward,” 179). Posnock’s claim is misleading for at least two reasons. First, Du Bois presents an ambivalent account of his “coerced identity”: in Dusk of Dawn, for example, he writes, “Had it not been for the race problem early thrust upon me and enveloping me, I should have probably been an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the social order and economic development into which I was born” (14). Second, Posnock’s claim obscures Du Bois’s true objection to his “coerced identity”: not that he must represent all African Americans, but that he cannot represent everyone—black and white Americans, humans in general. Du Bois is not a radical individualist. For an additional discussion of Du Bois and exemplarity, see Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction, 71–95.