Reference Entry

W. E. B. Du Bois: An Interpretation

Cornel West

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
W. E. B. Du Bois: An Interpretation

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W. E. B. Du Bois is the towering black scholar of the twentieth century. The scope of his interests, the depth of his insights, and the sheer majesty of his prolific writings bespeak a level of genius unequaled among modern black intellectuals. Yet, like all of us, Du Bois was a child of his age. He was shaped by the prevailing presuppositions and prejudices of modern Euro-American civilization. And despite his lifelong struggle—marked by great courage and sacrifice—against white supremacy and for the advancement of Africans around the world, he was, in style and substance, a proud black man of letters primarily influenced by 19th-century Euro-American traditions.For those of us interested in the relation of white supremacy to modernity (African slavery in the New World and European imperial domination of most of the rest of the world) or the consequences of the construct of “race” during the Age of Europe (1492–1945), the scholarly and literary works of Du Bois are indispensable. For those of us obsessed with alleviating black social misery, the political texts of Du Bois are insightful and inspiring. In this sense, Du Bois is the brook of fire through which we all must pass in order to gain access to the intellectual and political weaponry needed to sustain the radical democratic tradition in our time.Yet even this great titan of black emancipation falls short of the mark. This is not to deny the remarkable subtlety of his mind or the undeniable sincerity of his heart. The grand example of Du Bois remains problematic principally owing to his inadequate interpretation of the human condition and his inability to immerse himself fully in the rich cultural currents of black everyday life. His famous notion of the Talented Tenth reveals this philosophic inadequacy and personal inability.What does it mean to claim that Du Bois put forward an inadequate interpretation of the human condition or that he failed to immerse himself fully in the cultural depths of black everyday life? Are these simply rhetorical claims devoid of content—too abstract to yield conclusions and too general to evaluate? Are some interpretations of the human condition and cultural ways of life really better than others? If so, why? These crucial questions sit at the center of my critique of Du Bois because they take us to the heart of black life in the profoundly decadent American civilization at the end of the twentieth century—a ghastly century whose levels of barbarity, bestiality, and brutality are unparalleled in human history.My assessment of Du Bois primarily concerns his response to the problem of evil—to undeserved harm, unjustified suffering, and unmerited pain. Does his evolving worldview, social analysis, and moral vision enable us to understand and endure this “first century of world wars” (Muriel Rukeyser's apt phrase) in which nearly 200 million fellow human beings have been murdered in the name of some pernicious ideology? Does his work contain the necessary intellectual and existential resources enabling us to confront the indescribable agony and unnamable anguish likely to be unleashed in the twenty-first century—the first century involving a systemic gangsterization of everyday life, shot through with revitalized tribalisms—under the aegis of an uncontested, fast-paced global capitalism? As with any great figure, to grapple with Du Bois is to wrestle with who we are, why we are what we are, and what we are to do about it.In an 1897 article, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “One feels his two-ness—an American; a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” CORBISDu Bois was first and foremost a black New England Victorian seduced by the Enlightenment ethos and enchanted with the American Dream. His interpretation of the human condition—that is, in part, his idea of who he was and could be—was based on his experiences and, most important, on his understanding of those experiences through the medium of an Enlightenment worldview that promoted Victorian strategies in order to realize an American optimism; throughout this essay, I shall probe these three basic foundations of his perspective. Like many of the brilliant and ambitious young men of his time, he breathed the intoxicating fumes of “advanced” intellectual and political culture. Yet in the face of entrenched evil and demonic power, Du Bois often found himself either shipwrecked in the depths of his soul or barely afloat with less and less wind in his existential sails.My fundamental problem with Du Bois is his inadequate grasp of the tragicomic sense of life—refusal candidly to confront the sheer absurdity of the human condition. This tragicomic sense—tragicomic rather than simply “tragic,” because even ultimate purpose and objective order are called into question—propels us toward suicide or madness unless we are buffered by ritual, cushioned by community, or sustained by art. Du Bois's inability to immerse himself in black everyday life precluded his access to the distinctive black tragicomic sense and black encounter with the absurd. He certainly saw, analyzed, and empathized with black sadness, sorrow, and suffering. But he didn't feel it in his bones deeply enough, nor was he intellectually open enough to position himself alongside the sorrowful, suffering, yet striving ordinary black folk. Instead, his own personal and intellectual distance lifted him above them even as he addressed their plight in his progressive writings. Du Bois was never alienated by black people—he lived in black communities where he received great respect and admiration. But there seemed to be something in him that alienated ordinary black people. In short, he was reluctant to learn fundamental lessons about life—and about himself—from them. Such lessons would have required that he—at least momentarily—believe that they were or might be as wise, insightful, and “advanced” as he; and this he could not do.Du Bois's Enlightenment worldview—his first foundation—prohibited this kind of understanding. Instead, he adopted a mild elitism that underestimated the capacity of everyday people to “know” about life. In “The Talented Tenth,” he claims, “knowledge of life and its wider meaning, has been the point of the Negro's deepest ignorance.” In his classic book The Souls of Black Folk, there are eighteen references to “black, backward, and ungraceful” folk, including a statement of his intent “to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself.”My aim is not to romanticize those whom Sly Stone calls “everyday people” or to cast them as the sole source of wisdom. The myths of the noble savage and the wise commoner are simply the flip sides of the Enlightenment attempts to degrade and devalue everyday people. Yet Du Bois—owing to his Puritan New England origins and Enlightenment values—found it difficult not to view common black folk as some degraded “other” or “alien” no matter how hard he resisted. His honest response to a church service in the backwoods of Tennessee at a “Southern Negro Revival” bears this out.A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us—a pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word. The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, while round about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion such as I had never conceived before. Those who have not thus witnessed the frenzy of a Negro revival in the untouched backwoods of the South can but dimly realize the religious feeling of the slave; as described, such scenes appear grotesque and funny, but as seen they are awful.Du Bois's intriguing description reminds one of an anthropologist visiting some strange and exotic people whose rituals suggest not only the sublime but also the satanic. The “awfulness” of this black church service, similar to that of my own black Baptist tradition, signifies for him both dread and fear, anxiety and disgust. In short, a black ritualistic explosion of energy frightened this black rationalist. It did so not simply because the folk seem so coarse and uncouth, but also because they are out of control, overpowered by something bigger than themselves. This clearly posed a threat to him.Like a good Enlightenment philosophe, Du Bois pits autonomy against authority, self-mastery against tradition. Autonomy and self-mastery connote self-consciousness and self-criticism; authority and tradition suggest blind deference and subordination. Self-consciousness and self-criticism yield cosmopolitanism and highbrow culture. Authority and tradition reinforce provincialism and lowbrow culture. The educated and chattering class—the Talented Tenth—are the agents of sophistication and mastery, while the uneducated and moaning class—the backward masses—remain locked in tradition; the basic role of the Talented Tenth is to civilize and refine, uplift and elevate the benighted masses.For Du Bois, education was the key. Ignorance was the major obstacle—black ignorance and white ignorance. If the black masses were educated—in order to acquire skills and culture—black America would thrive. If white elites and masses were enlightened, they would not hate and fear black folk. Hence America—black and white—could be true to its democratic ideals.The Negro Problem was in my mind a matter of systematic investigation and intelligent understanding. The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know. The ultimate evil was stupidity. The cure for it was knowledge based on scientific investigation.This Enlightenment naiveté, not only in regard to white supremacy but also with respect to any form of personal and in stitutional evil, was momentarily shaken by a particular case involving that most peculiar American institution—Lynching.At the very time when my studies were most successful, there cut across this plan which I had as a scientist, a red ray which could not be ignored. I remember when it first, as it were, startled me to my feet: a poor Negro in central Georgia, Sam Hose, had killed his landlord's wife. I wrote out a careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts and started down to the Atlanta Constitution office … I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking. I turned back to the university. I began to turn aside from my work …Two considerations thereafter broke in upon my work and eventually disrupted it: first, one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing …Then, in the very next month, Du Bois lost his eighteen-month-old son, Burghardt, to diphtheria. If ever Du Bois was forced to confront the tragedy of life and the absurdity of existence, it was in the aftermath of this loss, which he describes in his most moving piece of writing, “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” in The Souls of Black Folk. In this powerful elegiac essay, Du Bois not only mourns his son but speaks directly to death itself—as Prometheus to Zeus or Jesus to his Heavenly Father.But hearken, O Death! Is not this my life hard enough, is not that dull land that stretches its sneering web about me cold enough,—is not all the world beyond these four little walls pitiless enough, but that thou must needs enter here,—thou, O Death? About my head the thundering storm beat like a heartless voice, and the crazy forest pulsed with the curses of the weak; but what cared I, within my home beside my wife and baby boy? Wast thou so jealous of one little coign of happiness that thou must needs enter there,—thou, O Death?This existential gall to go face-to-face and toe-to-toe with death in order to muster some hope against hope is echoed in his most tragic characterization of the black sojourn in white supremacist America.Within the Veil was he born, said I; and there within shall he live,—a Negro and a Negro's son. Holding in that little head—ah, bitterly!—the unbowed pride of a hunted race, clinging with that tiny dimpled hand—ah, wearily!—to a hope not hopeless but unhopeful, and seeing with those bright wondering eyes that peer into my soul a land whose freedom is to us a mockery and whose liberty a lie.What is most revealing in this most poignant of moments is Du Bois's refusal to linger with the sheer tragedy of his son's death (a natural, not a social, evil)—without casting his son as an emblem of the race or a symbol of a black deliverance to come. Despite the deep sadness in this beautiful piece of writing, Du Bois sidesteps Dostoyevsky's challenge to wrestle in a sustained way with the irrevocable fact of an innocent child's death. Du Bois's rationalism prevents him from wading in such frightening existential waters. Instead, Du Bois rushes to glib theodicy, weak allegory, and superficial symbolism. In other words, his Enlightenment worldview falters in the face of death—the deaths of Sam Hose and Burghardt. The deep despair that lurks around the corner is held at arm's length by rational attempts to boost his flagging spirit.Du Bois's principal intellectual response to the limits of his Enlightenment worldview was to incorporate certain insights of Marx and Freud. Yet Marx's powerful critique of the unequal relations of power between capitalists and the proletariat in the workplace and Freud's penetrating attempt to exercise rational control over the irrational forces at work in self and society only deepened Du Bois's commitment to the Enlightenment ethos. And though particular features of this ethos are essential to any kind of intellectual integrity and democratic vision—features such as self-criticism and self-development, suspicion of illegitimate authority and suffocating tradition—the Enlightenment worldview held by Du Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time. The tragic plight and absurd predicament of Africans here and abroad requires a more profound interpretation of the human condition—one that goes far beyond the false dichotomies of expert knowledge versus mass ignorance, individual autonomy versus dogmatic authority, and self-mastery versus intolerant tradition. Our tragicomic times require more democratic concepts of knowledge and leadership which highlight human fallibility and mutual accountability; notions of individuality and contested authority which stress dynamic traditions; and ideals of self-realization within participatory communities.The second fundamental pillar of Du Bois's intellectual project is his Victorian strategies—namely, the ways in which his Enlightenment worldview can be translated into action. They rest upon three basic assumptions. First, that the self-appointed agents of Enlightenment constitute a sacrificial cultural elite engaged in service on behalf of the impulsive and irrational masses. Second, that this service consists of shaping and molding the values and viewpoints of the masses by managing educational and political bureaucracies (e.g., schools and political parties). Third, that the effective management of these bureaucracies by the educated few for the benefit of the pathetic many promotes material and spiritual progress. These assumptions form the terrain on which the Talented Tenth are to operate.In fact, Du Bois's notion of the Talented Tenth is a descendant of those cultural and political elites conceived by the major Victorian critics during the heyday of the British Empire in its industrial phase. S. T. Coleridge's secular clerisy, Thomas Carlyle's strong heroes, and Matthew Arnold's disinterested aliens all shun the superficial vulgarity of materialism and the cheap thrills of hedonism in order to preserve and promote highbrow culture and to civilize and contain the lowbrow masses. The resounding first and last sentences of Du Bois's essay “The Talented Tenth” not only echo the “truths” of Victorian social criticism, they also bestow upon the educated few a salvific role. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” This bold statement is descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive. It assumes that the exceptional men of other races have saved their “race” (Gladstone in Britain, Menelik in Ethiopia, Bismarck in Germany, Napoleon in France, Peter in Russia?). Here Du Bois claims that exceptional black men ought to save their “race” and asserts that if any “race”—especially black people—is to be saved, exceptional men will do it. The patriarchal sensibilities speak for themselves.Like a good Victorian critic, Du Bois argues on rational grounds for the legitimacy of his cultural elite. They are worthy of leadership because they are educated and trained, refined and civilized, disciplined and determined. Most important, they have “honesty of heart” and “Purity of motive.” Contrast Matthew Arnold's disinterested aliens, “who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection,” in Culture and Anarchy (1869) with Du Bois's Talented Tenth.The men of culture are the true apostles of equality. The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time, who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.Who are today guiding the work of the Negro people? The “exceptions” of course … A saving remnant continually survives and persists, continually aspires, continually shows itself in thrift and ability and character …Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character? Was there ever a nation on God's fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground. This is the history of human progress; and the two historic mistakes which have hindered that progress were the thinking first that no more could ever rise save the few already risen; or second, that it would better the unrisen to pull the risen down.Just as Arnold seeks to carve out discursive space and a political mission for the educated elite in the British Empire somewhere between the arrogance and complacency of the aristocracy and the vulgarity and anarchy of the working classes, Du Bois wants to create a new vocabulary and social vocation for the black educated elite in America somewhere between the hatred and scorn of the white supremacist majority and the crudity and illiteracy of the black agrarian masses. Yet his gallant efforts suffer from intellectual defects and historical misconceptions.Let us begin with the latter. Is it true that in 1903 the educated elite were guiding the work of the Negro people? Yes and no. Certainly the most visible national black leaders tended to be educated black men, such as the ubiquitous Booker T. Washington and, of course, Du Bois himself. Yet the two most effective political forms of organizing and mobilizing among black people were the black women's club movement led by Ida B. Wells and the migration movement guided by Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, A. A. Bradley, and Richard H. Cain. Both movements were based in black civil society—that is, black civic associations like churches, lodges, fraternal orders, and sororities. Their fundamental goals were neither civil rights nor social equality but rather respect and dignity, land and self-determination. How astonishing—and limiting—that Du Bois fails to mention and analyze these movements that will result in the great Mary McLeod Bethune's educational crusade and the inimitable Marcus Garvey's “Back to Africa” movement in a decade or so!Regarding the intellectual defects of Du Bois's noble endeavor: first, he assumes that highbrow culture is inherently humanizing, and that exposure to and immersion in great works produce good people. Yet we have little reason to believe that people who delight in the works of geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven or Goethe and Wordsworth are any more or less humane than those who dance in the barnyards to the banjo plucking of nameless rural folk in Tennessee. Certainly those fervent white supremacists who worship the Greek and Roman classics and revel in the plays of the incomparable Shakespeare weaken his case. Second, Du Bois holds that the educated elite can more easily transcend their individual and class interests and more readily act on behalf of the common good than the uneducated masses. But is this so? Are they not just as prone to corruption and graft, envy and jealousy, self-destructive passion and ruthless ambition as everyone else? Were not Carlyle's great heroes, Cromwell and Napoleon, tyrants? Was it not Arnold's disinterested aliens who promoted and implemented the inhumane policies of the imperial British bureaucracies in India and Africa? Was not Du Bois himself both villain and victim in petty political games as well as in the all-too-familiar social exclusions of the educated elite?Du Bois wisely acknowledges this problem in his 1948 revision of “The Talented Tenth”:When I came out of college into the world of work, I realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the Negro Problem was personal; personal freedom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care, as to what became of the mass of American Negroes, or of the mass of any people.My Talented Tenth, I could see, might result in a sort of interracial free-for-all, with the devil taking the hindmost and the foremost taking anything they could lay hands on.He then notes the influence of Marx on his thinking and adds that the Talented Tenth must not only be talented but have “expert knowledge” of modern economics, be willing to sacrifice and plan effectively to institute socialist measures. Yet there is still no emphatic call for accountability from below, nor any grappling with the evil that lurks in the hearts of all of us. He recognizes human selfishness as a problem without putting forward adequate philosophical responses to it or institutional mechanisms to alleviate it. In the end, he throws up his hands and gives us a grand either/or option. “But we must have honest men or we die. We must have unselfish, far-seeing leadership or we fail.”Victorian social criticism contains elements indispensable to future critical thought about freedom and democracy in the twenty-first century. Most important, it elevates the role of public intellectuals who put forward overarching visions and broad analyses based on a keen sense of history and a subtle grasp of the way the world is going in the present. The rich tradition of Victorian critics—Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, John Morley, William Morris, and, in our own century, L. T. Hobhouse, J. A. Hobson, C. E. G. Masterman, R. H. Tawney, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and others—stands shoulders above the parochial professionalism of much of the academy today. In our era, scholarship is often divorced from public engagement, and shoddy journalism often settles for the sensational and superficial aspects of prevailing crises. As the distinguished European man of letters George Steiner notes in regard to the academy,Specialization has reached moronic vehemence. Learned lives are expended on reiterative minutiae. Academic rewards go to the narrow scholiast, to the blinkered. Men and women in the learned professions proclaim themselves experts on one author, in one brief historical period, in one aesthetic medium. They look with contempt (and dank worry) on the “Generalist.” … It may be that cows have fields. The geography of consciousness should be that of unfenced errance, Montaigne's comely word.Yet the Victorian strategies of Du Bois require not piecemeal revision but wholesale reconstruction. A fuller understanding of the human condition should lead us far beyond any notions of free-floating elites, suspicious of the tainted masses—elites who worship at the altar of highbrow culture while ignoring the barbarity and bestiality in their own ranks. The fundamental role of the public intellectual—distinct from, yet building on, the indispensable work of academics, experts, analysts, and pundits—is to create and sustain high-quality public discourse addressing urgent public problems which enlightens and energizes fellow citizens, prompting them to take public action. This role requires a deep commitment to the life of the mind—a perennial attempt to clear our minds of cant (to use Samuel Johnson's famous formulation)—which serves to shape the public destiny of a people. Intellectual and political leadership is neither elitist nor populist; rather it is democratic, in that each of us stands in public space, without humiliation, to put forward our best visions and views for the sake of the public interest. And these arguments are presented in an atmosphere of mutual respect and civic trust.The last pillar of Du Bois's project is his American optimism. Like most intellectuals of the New World, he was preoccupied with progress. And given his genuine commitment to black advancement, this preoccupation is understandable. Yet, writing as he was in the early stages of the consolidation of the American Empire (some 8 million people of color had been incorporated after the Spanish-American War), when the United States itself was undergoing geographical and economic expansion and millions of “new” Americans were being admitted from eastern Europe, Du Bois tended to assume that United States expansionism was a sign of probable American progress. In this sense, in his early and middle years, he was not only a progressivist but also a kind of American exceptionalist. It must be said, to be sure, that unlike most American exceptionalists of his day, he considered the color line the major litmus test for the country. Yet he remained optimistic about a multiracial democratic America.Du Bois never fully grasped the deeply pessimistic view of American democracy behind the Garvey movement. In fact, he never fully understood or appreciated the strong—though not central—black nationalist strain in the Black Freedom Movement. As much as he hated white supremacy in America, he could never bring himself to identify intimately with the harsh words of the great performing artist Josephine Baker, who noted in response to the East St. Louis riot of July 1917 that left over 200 black people dead and over 6,000 homeless, “The very idea of America makes me shake and tremble and gives me nightmares.” Baker lived most of her life in exile in France. Even when Du Bois left for Africa in 1961—as a member of a moribund Communist Party—his attitude toward America was not that of an Elijah Muhammad or a Malcolm X. He was still, in a significant sense, disappointed with America, and there is no disappointment without some dream deferred. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were not disappointed with America. As bona fide black nationalists, they had no expectations of a white supremacist civilization; they adhered neither to American optimism nor to exceptionalism.Black Nationalism is a complex tradition of thought and action, a tradition best expressed in the numerous insightful texts of black public intellectuals like Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, Marimba Ani, and Molefi Asante. Black nationalists usually call upon black people to close ranks, to distrust most whites (since the reliable whites are few and relatively powerless in the face of white supremacy), and to promote forms of black self-love, self-defense, and self-determination. It views white supremacy as the definitive systemic constraint on black cultural, political, and economic development. More pointedly, black nationalists claim that American democracy is a modern form of tyranny on the part of the white majority over the black minority. For them, black sanity and freedom require that America not serve as the major framework in which to understand the future of black people. Instead, American civilization—like all civilizations—rises and falls, ebbs and flows. And owing to its deep-seated racism, this society does not warrant black allegiance or loyalty. White supremacy dictates the limits of the operation of American democracy—with black folk the indispensable sacrificial lamb vital to its sustenance. Hence black subordination constitutes the necessary condition for the flourishing of American democracy, the tragic prerequisite for America itself. This is, in part, what Richard Wright meant when he noted, “The Negro is America's metaphor.”The most courageous and consistent of twentiethth-century black nationalists—Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad—adamantly rejected any form of American optimism or exceptionalism. Du Bois feared that if they were right, he would be left in a state of paralyzing despair. A kind of despair that results not only when all credible options for black freedom in America are closed, but also when the very framework needed to understand and cope with that despair is shattered. The black nationalist challenge to Du Bois cuts much deeper than the rational and political possibilities for change—it resides at the visceral and existential levels of what to do about “what is” or when “what ought to be done” seems undoable. This frightening sense of foreboding pervades much of black America today—a sense that fans and fuels black nationalism.Du Bois's American optimism screened him from this dark night of the soul. His American exceptionalism guarded him from that gray twilight between “nothing to be done” and “I can't go on like this”—a Beckett-like dilemma in which the wait and search for Godot, or for freedom, seem endless. This militant despair about the black condition is expressed in that most arresting of black nationalist speeches by the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet in 1843:If we must bleed, let it come all at once—rather die freemen than live to be slaves. It is impossible like the children of Israel, to make a grand Exodus from the land of bondage. The pharaoh's on both sides of the blood-red waters!Du Bois's response to such despair is to say “we surely must do something”—for such rebellion is suicidal and the notion of a separate black nation quixotic. So, he seems to say, let us continue to wait and search for Godot in America—even if it seems, with our luck, that all we get is “Pozzo” (new forms of disrespect, disregard, degradation, and defamation). American optimism couched within the ideals of the American experiment contains crucial components for any desirable form of black self-determination or modern nationhood: precious standards of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, individual liberties, and the dignity of common folk. Yet American optimism—in the ugly face of American white supremacist practices—warrants, if not outright rejection, at least vast attenuation. The twenty-first century will almost certainly not be a time in which American exceptionalism will flower in the world or American optimism will flourish among people of African descent.If there are any historical parallels between black Americans during the 21st century and other peoples in earlier times, two candidates loom large: Tolstoy's Russia and Kafka's Prague—soul-starved Russians a generation after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and anxiety-ridden Central European Jews a generation before the European Holocaust in the 1940s. Indeed, my major intellectual disappointment with the great Du Bois lies in the fact that there are hardly any traces in his work of any serious grappling with the profound thinkers and spiritual wrestlers in the modern West from these two groups—major figures obsessed with the problem of evil in their time.We see in Du Bois no engagement with Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Herzen, Lev Shestov, Anton Chekhov, or Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Kurt Tucholsky, Hermann Broch, Hugo Bergmann, or Karl Kraus. These omissions are glaring because the towering figures in both groups were struggling with political and existential issues similar to those facing black people in America. For example, the Russian situation involved the humanity of degraded impoverished peasants, the fragile stability of an identity-seeking empire, and the alienation of superfluous intellectuals; the Central European Jewish circumstance, the humanity of devalued middle-class Jews, the imminent collapse of a decadent empire, and the militant despair of self-hating intellectuals. The intellectual response on the part of the Russian authors was what Hegel would call “world-historical”—they wrote many of the world's greatest novels, short stories, essays, and plays. The writers I cite put forward profound interpretations of the human condition which rejected any Enlightenment worldview, Victorian strategy, or worldly optimism. And although the Central European Jewish authors are often overlooked by contemporary intellectuals—owing to a tendency to focus on Western Europe—their intellectual response was monumental. They composed many of this century's most probing and penetrating novels, short stories, autobiographies, and letters.Both Russian and Central European Jewish writers share deep elective affinities that underlie their distinctive voices: the “wind of the wing of madness” (to use Baudelaire's phrase) beats incessantly on their souls. The fear of impending social doom and dread of inevitable death haunt them, and they search for a precious individuality in the face of a terror-ridden society and a seductive (yet doubtful) nationalist option. In short, fruitful comparisons may be made between the Russian sense of the tragic and the Central European Jewish sense of the absurd and the black intellectual response to the African American predicament. Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869), The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (1886), Chekhov's The Three Sisters (1901)—the greatest novel, short story, brief tale, and play in modern Europe—and Kafka's “The Judgment” (1913), “The Metamorphosis” (1915), “In the Penal Colony” (1919), and “The Burrow”(1923)—some of the grandest fictive portraits of twentieth-century Europe—constitute the highest moments and most ominous murmurings in Europe before it entered the ugly and fiery inferno of totalitarianism. Similarly, the intellectual response of highbrow black artists—most of whom are musicians and often of plebeian origins—probe the depths of a black sense of the tragic and absurd which yields a subversive joy and sublime melancholia unknown to most in the New World. The form and content of Louis Armstrong's “West End Blues,” Duke Ellington's “Mood Indigo,” John Coltrane's “Alabama,” and Sarah Vaughan's “Send in the Clowns” are a few of the peaks of the black cultural iceberg—towering examples of soul-making and spiritual wrestling which crystallize the most powerful interpretations of the human condition in black life. This is why the best of the black musical tradition in the twentieth century is the most profound and poignant body of artistic works in our time.Like their Russian and Central European Jewish counterparts, the black artists grapple with madness and melancholia, doom and death, terror and horror, individuality and identity. Unlike them, the black artists do so against the background of an African heritage that puts a premium on voice and body, sound and silence, and the foreground is occupied by an American tradition that highlights mobility and novelty, individuality and democracy. The explosive products of this multilayered cultural hybridity—with its new diasporic notions of time and space, place and face—take us far beyond Du Bois's enlightened optimism. Instead, the profound black cultural efforts to express the truth of modern tragic existence and build on the ruins of modern absurd experiences at the core of American culture take us to the end of that dreadful century. These black artistic endeavors prefigure and pose the most fundamental and formidable challenges to a twilight civilization—an American Empire adrift on turbulent seas in a dark fog. William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and, above all, the incomparable Herman Melville—the only great Euro-American novelists to be spoken of in the same breath as Tolstoy and Kafka, Armstrong and Coltrane—grasp crucial aspects of this black condition. Just as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and, preeminently, Toni Morrison guide us through the tragedies and absurdities within the Veil (or behind the color curtain) to disclose on the page what is best revealed in black song, speech, sermon, bodily performance, and the eloquence of black silence. Yet despite his shortcomings, the great Du Bois remains the springboard for any examination of black strivings in American civilization.On Black StrivingsBlack strivings are the creative and complex products of the terrifying African encounter with the absurd in America—and the absurd as America. Like any other group of human beings, black people forged ways of life and ways of struggle under circumstances not of their own choosing. They constructed structures of meaning and structures of feeling in the face of the fundamental facts of human existence—death, dread, despair, disease, and disappointment. Yet the specificity of black culture—namely, those features that distinguish black culture from other cultures—lies in both the African and American character of black people's attempts to sustain their mental sanity and spiritual health, social life and political struggle in the midst of a slaveholding, white supremacist civilization that viewed itself as the most enlightened, free, tolerant, and democratic experiment in human history.Any serious examination of black culture should begin with what W E. B. Du Bois dubbed, in Faustian terms, the “spiritual strivings” of black people—the dogged determination to survive and subsist, the tenacious will to persevere, persist, and maybe even prevail. These “strivings” occur within the whirlwind of white supremacy—that is, as responses to the vicious attacks on black beauty, black intelligence, black moral character, black capability, and black possibility. To put it bluntly, every major institution in American society—churches, universities, courts, academies of science, governments, economies, newspapers, magazines, television, film, and others—attempted to exclude black people from the human family in the name of white supremacist ideology. This unrelenting assault on black humanity produced the fundamental condition of black culture—that of black invisibility and namelessness.This basic predicament exists on at least four levels—existential, social, political, and economic. The existential level is the most relevant here because it has to do with what it means to be a person and live a life under the horrifying realities of racist assault. To be a black human being under circumstances in which one's humanity is questioned is not only to face a difficult challenge but also to exercise a demanding discipline.The sheer absurdity of being a black human being whose black body is viewed as an abomination, whose black thoughts and ideas are perceived as debased, and whose black pain and grief are rendered invisible on the human and moral scale is the New World context in which black culture emerged. Black people are first and foremost an African people, in that the cultural baggage they brought with them to the New World was grounded in their earlier responses to African conditions. Yet the rich African traditions—including the kinetic orality, passionate physicality, improvisational intellectuality, and combative spirituality—would undergo creative transformation when brought into contact with European languages and rituals in the context of the New World. For example, there would be no Jazz without New World Africans with European languages and instruments.On the crucial existential level relating to black invisibility and namelessness, the first difficult challenge and demanding discipline is to ward off madness and discredit suicide as a desirable option. A central preoccupation of black culture is that of confronting candidly the ontological wounds, psychic scars, and existential bruises of black people while fending off insanity and self-annihilation. Black culture consists of black modes of being-in-the-world obsessed with black sadness and sorrow, black agony and anguish, black heartache and heartbreak without fully succumbing to the numbing effects of such misery—to never allow such misery to have the last word. This is why the “ur-text” of black culture is neither a word nor a book, not an architectural monument or a legal brief. Instead, it is a guttural cry and a wrenching moan—a cry not so much for help as for home, a moan less out of complaint than for recognition. The most profound black cultural products—John Coltrane's saxophone solos, James Cleveland's gut gospels, Billie Holiday's vocal leaps, Rev. Gardner Taylor's rhapsodic sermons, James Baldwin's poignant essays, Alvin Ailey's graceful dances, Toni Morrison's dissonant novels—transform and transfigure in artistic form this cry and moan. The deep black meaning of this cry and moan goes back to the indescribable cries of Africans on the slave ships during the cruel transatlantic voyages to America and the indecipherable moans of enslaved Afro-Americans on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings near god-forsaken creeks or on wooden benches at prayer meetings in makeshift black churches. This fragile existential arsenal—rooted in silent tears and weary lament—supports black endurance against madness and suicide. The primal black cries and moans lay bare the profoundly tragicomic character of black life. Ironically, they also embody the life-preserving content of black styles—creative ways of fashioning power and strength through the body and language that yield black joy and ecstasy.Du Bois captures one such primal scene of black culture at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in chapter one, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” He starts with thirteen lines from the poem “The Crying of Water” by Arthur Symons, the English symbolist critic and decadent poet who went mad a few years after writing the poem. The hearts of human beings in a heartless slave trade cry out like the sea: “All life long crying without avail, / As the water all night long is crying to me.”This metaphorical association of black hearts, black people, and black culture with water (the sea or a river) runs deep in black artistic expression—as in Langston Hughes's recurring refrain “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Black striving resides primarily in movement and motion, resilience and resistance against the paralysis of madness and the stillness of death. As it is for Jim in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the river—a road that moves—is the means by which black people can flee from a menacing racist society. Du Bois continues with the musical bars of the Negro Spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.” This spiritual is known not simply for its plaintive melody but also for its inexplicable lyrical reversal.Nobody knows the trouble I've seenNobody knows but JesusNobody knows the trouble I've seenGlory hallelujah!This exemplary shift from a mournful brooding to a joyful praising is the product of courageous efforts to look life's abyss in the face and keep “keepin' on.” This struggle is sustained primarily by the integrity of style, song, and spirituality in a beloved community (e.g., Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom). It is rather like Ishmael's tragicomic “free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy” in Moby Dick, but it is intensified by the fiery art of Aretha Franklin's majestic shouts for joy.The first of Du Bois's own words in the text completes the primal scene of black culture:Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make our blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood …This seminal passage spells out the basic components of black invisibility and namelessness: black people as a problem-people rather than people with problems; black people as abstractions and objects rather than individuals and persons; black and white worlds divided by a thick wall (or a “Veil”) that requires role-playing and mask-wearing rather than genuine humane interaction; black rage, anger, and fury concealed in order to assuage white fear and anxiety; and black people rootless and homeless on a perennial journey to discover who they are in a society content to see blacks remain the permanent underdog.To view black people as a problem-people is to view them as an undifferentiated blob, a homogeneous bloc, or a monolithic conglomerate. Each black person is interchangeable, indistinguishable, or substitutable since all black people are believed to have the same views and values, sentiments and sensibilities. Hence one set of negative stereotypes holds for all of them, no matter how high certain blacks may ascend in the white world (e.g., “savages in a suit or suite”). And the mere presence of black bodies in a white context generates white unease and discomfort, even among whites of goodwill.This problematizing of black humanity deprives black people of individuality, diversity, and heterogeneity. It reduces black folk to abstractions and objects born of white fantasies and insecurities—as exotic or transgressive entities, as hypersexual or criminal animals. The celebrated opening passage of Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man (1952) highlights this reduction.I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.This distorted perception—the failure to see the humanity and individuality of black people—has its source in the historic “Veil” (slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation) that separates the black and white worlds. Ironically, this refusal to see a people whose epidermis is most visible exists alongside a need to keep tight surveillance over these people. This Veil not only precludes honest communication between blacks and whites; it also forces blacks to live in two worlds in order to survive. Whites need not understand or live in the black world in order to thrive. But blacks must grapple with the painful “double-consciousness” that may result in “an almost morbid sense of personality and a moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence.” Du Bois notes,The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.Echoing Paul Laurence Dunbar's famous poem “We Wear the Mask,” Du Bois proclaims that “the price of culture is a Lie.” Why? Because black people will not succeed in American society if they are fully and freely themselves. Instead, they must “endure petty insults with a smile, shut [their] eyes to wrong.” They must not be too frank and outspoken and must never fail to flatter and be pleasant in order to lessen white unease and discomfort. Needless to say, this is not the raw stuff for healthy relations between black and white people.Yet this suppression of black rage—the reducing “the boiling to a simmer”—backfires in the end. It reinforces a black obsession with the psychic scars, ontological wounds, and existential bruises that tend to reduce the tragic to the pathetic. Instead of exercising agency or engaging in action against the odds, one may wallow in self-pity, acknowledging the sheer absurdity of it all. After playing the role and wearing the mask in the white world, one may accept the white world's view of one's self. As Du Bois writes,It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.Toni Morrison explores this dilemma of black culture through her moving portrayal of the character of Sweet Home in her profound novel Beloved (1987), similar to Jean Toomer's Karintha and Fern in his marvelous and magical text Cane (1923).For the sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home.This theme of black rootlessness and homelessness is inseparable from black namelessness. When James Baldwin writes about these issues in Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and No Name in the Street (1972), he is trying to explore effective ways to resist the white supremacist imposition of subordinate roles, stations, and identities on blacks. He is attempting to devise some set of existential strategies against the overwhelming onslaught of white dehumanization, devaluation, and degradation. The search for black space (home), black place (roots), and black face (name) is a flight from the visceral effects of white supremacy. Toni Morrison characterizes these efforts as products of a process of “dirtying you.”That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it Up.Toni Morrison's monumental novel holds a privileged place in black culture and modernity precisely because she takes this dilemma to its logical conclusion—that black flight from white supremacy (a chamber of horrors for black people) may lead to the murder of those loved ones who are candidates for the “dirtying” process. The black mother, Sethe, kills her daughter, Beloved, because she loved her so, “to out-hurt the hurter,” as an act of resistance against the “dirtying” process.And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter's private parts, soiled her daughter's thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no … Sethe had refused—and refused still. … [W]hat she had done was right because it came from true love.Is death the only black space (home), place (roots), and face (name) safe from a pervasive white supremacy? Toni Morrison's Sethe echoes Du Bois's own voice upon the painful passing of his first-born. For Sethe, as for Tolstoy's Ivan, Chekhov's Bishop Pyotr, Kafka's Josephine, Hawthorne's Goodman Brown, Hardy's Jude, Bilchner's Woyzeck, Drelser's Hurstwood, and Shakespeare's Lear, death is the great liberator from suffering and evil.But Love sat beside his cradle, and in his ear Wisdom waited to speak. Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep, then, child,—sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet—above the Veil.The most effective and enduring black responses to invisibility and namelessness are those forms of individual and collective black resistance predicated on a deep and abiding black love. These responses take the shape of prophetic thought and action: bold, fearless, courageous attempts to tell the truth about and bear witness to black suffering and to keep faith with a vision of black redemption. Like the “ur-texts” of the guttural cry and wrenching moan—enacted in Charlie Parker's bebop sound, Dinah Washington's cool voice, Richard Pryor's comic performances, and James Brown's inimitable funk—the prophetic utterance that focuses on black suffering and sustains a hope-against-hope for black freedom constitutes the heights of black culture. The spiritual depths (the how and what) of Martin Luther Kingapos;s visionary orations, Nat King Cole's silky soul, August Wilson's probing plays, Martin Puryear's unique sculpture, Harold and Fayard Nicholas's existential acrobatics, Jacob Lawrence's powerful paintings, Marvin Gaye's risky falsettos, Fannie Lou Hamer's fighting songs, and, above all, John Coltrane's “A Love Supreme” exemplify such heights. Two of the greatest moments in black literature also enact such high-quality performances. First, James Baldwin's great self-descriptive visionary passage in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953):Yes, their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored, their very names were nothing more than dust blown disdainfully across the field of time—to fall where, to blossom where, bringing forth what fruit hereafter, where?—their very names were not their own. Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire—a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness! Yet, most strangely, and from deeps not before discovered, his faith looked up; before the wickedness that he saw, the wickedness from which he fled, he yet beheld, like a flaming standard in the middle of the air, that power of redemption to which he must, till death, bear witness; which, though it crush him utterly, he could not deny; though none among the living might ever behold it, he had beheld it, and must keep the faith.For Baldwin, the seemingly impossible flight from white supremacy takes the form of a Chekhovian effort to endure lovingly and compassionately, guided by a vision of freedom and empowered by a tradition of black love and faith. To be a bastard people—wrenched from Africa and in, but never fully of, America—is to be a people of highly limited options, if any at all. To bear witness is to make and remake, invent and reinvent oneself as a person and people by keeping faith with the best of such earlier efforts, yet also to acknowledge that the very new selves and peoples to emerge will never fully find a space, place, or face in American society—or Africa. This perennial process of self-making and self-inventing is propelled by a self-loving and self-trusting made possible by overcoming a colonized mind, body, and soul.This is precisely what Toni Morrison describes in the great litany of black love in Baby Suggs's prayer and sermon of laughter, dance, tears, and silence in “a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place.” On those hot Saturday afternoons, Baby Suggs “offered up to them her great big heart.”She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it. “Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh.In this powerful passage, Toni Morrison depicts in a concrete and graphic way the enactment and expression of black love, black joy, black community, and black faith that bears witness to black suffering and keeps alive a vision of black hope. Black bonds of affection, black networks of support, black ties of empathy, and black harmonies of spiritual camaraderie provide the grounds for the fragile existential weaponry with which to combat black invisibility and namelessness.Yet these forceful strategies in black culture still have not successfully come to terms with the problem. The black collective quest for a name that designates black people in the United States continues—from colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, Abyssinian, Ethiopian, Nubian, Bilalian, American African, American, African to African American. The black individual quest for names goes on, with unique new ones for children—for example, Signithia, Tarsell, Jewayne—designed to set them apart from all others for the purpose of accenting their individuality and offsetting their invisibility. And most important, black rage proliferates—sometimes unabated.Of all the hidden injuries of blackness in American civilization, black rage is the most deadly, the most lethal. Although black culture is in no way reducible to or identical with black rage, it is inseparable from black rage. Du Bois's renowned eulogy for Alexander Crummell, the greatest nineteenth-century black intellectual, is one of the most penetrating analyses of black rage. Du Bois begins his treatment with a virtually generic description of black childhoods—a description that would hold for Arthus Ashe or Ice Cube, Kathleen Battle or Queen Latifah.This is the history of a human heart,—the tale of a black boy who many long years ago began to struggle with life that he might know the world and know himself. Three temptations he met on those dark dunes that lay gray and dismal before the wonder-eyes of the child: the Temptation of Hate, that stood out against the red dawn; the Temptation of Despair, that darkened noonday; and the Temptation of Doubt, that ever steals along with twilight. Above all, you must hear of the vales he crossed,—the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.Black self-hatred and hatred of others parallels that of all human beings, who must gain some sense of themselves and the world. But the tremendous weight of white supremacy makes this human struggle for mature black selfhood even more difficult. As black children come to view themselves more and more as the degraded other, the temptation of hate grows, “gliding stealthily into [their] laughter, fading into [their] play, and seizing [their] dreams by day and night with rough, rude turbulence. So [they ask] of sky and sun and flower the never-answered Why? and love, as [they grow], neither the world nor the world's rough ways.”The two major choices in black culture (or any culture) facing those who succumb to the temptation of hate are a self-hatred that leads to self-destruction or a hatred of others—degraded others—that leads to vengeance of some sort. These options often represent two sides of the same coin. The case of Bigger Thomas, portrayed by Richard Wright in his great novel Native Son (1940), is exemplary in this regard.Bigger's face was metallically black in the strong sunlight. There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him irresistibly on to seek its solution. The silence irked Bigger; he was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem.The riddle Bigger seeks an answer to is the riddle of his black existence in America—and he evades it in part because the pain, fear, silence, and hatred cut so deep. Like the “huge black rat” which appears at the beginning of the novel, Bigger reacts to his circumstances instinctually. Yet his instinct to survive is intertwined with his cognitive perception that white supremacy is out to get him. To make himself and invent himself as a black person in America is to strike out against white supremacy—out of pain, fear, silence, and hatred. The result is psychic terror and physical violence—committed against black Bessie and white Mary.Bigger rose and went to the window. His hands caught the cold steel bars in a hard grip. He knew as he stood there that he could never tell why he had killed. It was not that he did not really want to tell, but the telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life. The actual killing of Mary and Bessie was not what concerned him most; it was knowing and feeling that he could never make anybody know what had driven him to it. His crimes were known, but what he had felt before he committed them would never be known. He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill.The temptation to hate is a double-edged sword. Bigger's own self-hatred not only leads him to hate other blacks but also to deny the humanity of whites. Yet he can overcome this self-hatred only when he views himself as a self-determining agent who is willing to take responsibility for his actions and acknowledge his connection with others. Although Wright has often been criticized for casting Bigger as a pitiful victim, subhuman monster, and isolated individualist—as in James Baldwin's “Everybody's Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” in Notes of a Native Son (1955)—Wright presents brief moments in which Bigger sees the need for transcending his victim status and rapacious individualism. When his family visits him in jail, Bigger responds to their tears and anger.Bigger wanted to comfort them in the presence of the white folks, but did not know how. Desperately, he cast about for something to say. Hate and shame boiled in him against the people behind his back; he tried to think of words that would defy them, words that would let them know that he had a world and life of his own in spite of them.Wright does not disclose the internal dynamics of this black world of Bigger's own, but Bigger does acknowledge that he is part of this world. For example, his actions had dire consequences for his sister, Vera.“Bigger,” his mother sobbed, trying to talk through her tears. “Bigger, honey, she won't go to school no more. She says the other girls look at her and make her 'shamed …”He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to. His family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit. He sat on the cot and his mother knelt at his feet. Her face was lifted to his; her eyes were empty, eyes that looked upward when the last hope of earth had failed.Yet even this family connection fails to undercut the layers of hate Bigger feels for himself and them. It is only when Bigger receives unconditional support and affirmation across racial lines that his self-hatred and hatred of others subsides—for a moment, from white Jan, the boyfriend of the slain Mary.He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face. This white man believed in him, and the moment he felt that belief he felt guilty again; but in a different sense now. Suddenly, this white man had come up to him, flung aside the curtain and walked into the room of his life. Jan had spoken a declaration of friendship that would make other white men hate him: a particle of white rock had detached itself from that looming mountain of white hate and had rolled down the slope, stopping still at his feet. The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan's humanity came in a stab of remorse: he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him. He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan's face.In both instances, Bigger lurches slightly beyond the temptation of hate when he perceives himself as an agent and subject accountable for the consequences of his actions—such as the victimization of his own black sister and a white person. Yet the depths of his self-hatred—his deep-seated colonized mind—permit only a glimpse of self-transformation when the friendship of a white fellow victim is offered to him.Similar to Bigger Thomas, Alexander Crummell was inspired by a white significant other—Beriah Green. This sort of sympathetic connection makes the temptation of hate grow “fainter and less sinister. It did not wholly fade away, but diffused itself and lingered thick at the edges.” Through both Bigger Thomas and Alexander Crummell we see the tremendous pull of the white world and the tragic need for white recognition and affirmation among so many black people.The temptation of despair is the second element of black rage in Du Bois's analysis. This temptation looms large when black folk conclude that “the way of the world is closed to me.” This conclusion yields two options—nihilism and hedonism. Again, two sides of the same coin. This sense of feeling imprisoned, bound, constrained, and circumscribed is a dominant motif in black cultural expressions. Again, Wright captures this predicament well with Bigger Thomas.“Goddammit!”“What's the matter?”“They don't let us do nothing.”“Who?”“The white folks.”“You talk like you just now finding that out,” Gus said.“Naw. But I just can't get used to it,” Bigger said. “I swear to God I can't. I know I oughtn't think about it, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence.The temptation of despair is predicated on a world with no room for black space, place, or face. It feeds on a black futurelessness and black hopelessness—a situation in which visions and dreams of possibility have dried up like raisins in the sun. This nihilism leads to lives of drift, lives in which any pleasure, especially instant gratification, is the primary means of feeling alive. Anger and aggression usually surface in such lives. Bigger says, “I hurt folks 'cause I felt I had to; that's all. They was crowding me too close; they wouldn't give me no room … I thought they was hard and I acted hard … I'll be feeling and thinking that they didn't see me and I didn't see them.”The major black cultural response to the temptation of despair has been the black Christian tradition dominated by music in song, prayer, and sermon. The unique role of this tradition is often noted. Du Bois writes “that the Negro church antedates the Negro home, leads to an explanation of much that is paradoxical in this communistic institution and in the morals of its members. But especially it leads us to regard this institution as peculiarly the expression of the inner ethical life of a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere.”Even Bigger Thomas—the most cynical and secular of rebels in the black literary tradition—is captivated by the power of black church music, the major caressing artistic flow in the black Sittlichkeit (ethical life).The singing from the church vibrated through him, suffusing him with a mood of sensitive sorrow. He tried not to listen, but it seeped into his feelings, whispering of another way of life and death … The singing filled his ears; it was complete, self-contained, and it mocked his fear and loneliness, his deep yearning for a sense of wholeness. Its fullness contrasted so sharply with his hunger, its richness with his emptiness, that he recoiled from it while answering it.The Black Church tradition—along with the rich musical tradition it spawned—generates a sense of movement, motion, and momentum that keeps despair at bay. As with any collective project or performance that puts a premium on change, transformation, conversion, and future possibility, the temptation of despair is not eliminated but attenuated. In this sense, the black church tradition has made ritual art and communal bonds out of black invisibility and namelessness. Ralph Ellison updates and secularizes this endeavor when he writes,Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music … Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music.The temptation of doubt is the most persistent of the three temptations. White supremacy drums deeply into the hearts, minds, and souls of black people, causing them to expect little of one another and themselves. This black insecurity and self-doubt produces a debilitating black jealousy in the face of black “success”—a black jealousy that often takes the form of what Eldridge Cleaver called “nigger rituals”—namely, a vicious trashing of black “success” or a black “battle royal” for white spectators. Understandably, under conditions of invisibility and namelessness, most of those blacks with “visibility” and a “name” in the white world are often the object of black scorn and contempt. Such sad, self-fulfilling prophecies of black cowardice make the temptation of doubt especially seductive—one which fans and fuels the flames of black rage. Du Bois states,Of all the three temptations, this one struck the deepest. Hate? He had outgrown so childish a thing. Despair? He had steeled his right arm against it, and fought it with the vigor of determination. But to doubt the worth of his life-work,—to doubt the destiny and capability of the race his soul loved because it was his; to find listless squalor instead of eager endeavor; to hear his own lips whispering, “They do not care; they cannot know; they are dumb driven cattle,—why cast your pearls before swine?”—this, this seemed more than man could bear; and he closed the door, and sank upon the steps of the chancel, and cast his robe upon the floor and writhed.The two principal options for action after one yields to the temptation of doubt in black culture are authoritarian subordination of the “ignorant” masses or individual escape from these masses into the white mainstream. These two options are not two sides of the same coin—though they often flow from a common source: an elitist vision that shuns democratic accountability. And although this elitist vision—that of the Exceptional Negro or Talented Tenth who is “better than those other blacks”—is found more readily among the black educated and middle class, some of the black working poor and very poor subscribe to it, too. Even Bigger Thomas.As he rode, looking at the black people on the sidewalks, he felt that one way to end fear and shame was to make all those black people act together, rule them, tell them what to do, and make them do it. … But he felt that such would never happen to him and his black people, and he hated them and wanted to wave his hand and blot them out. Yet, he still hoped, vaguely. Of late he had liked to hear tell of men who could rule others, for in actions such as these he felt that there was a way to escape from this tight morass of fear and shame that sapped at the base of his life. He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain. He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape. He felt that some day there would be a black man who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame. He never thought of this in precise mental images; he felt it; he would feel it for a while and then forget. But hope was always waiting somewhere deep down in him.This hope for black unity and action was based on a profound doubt concerning the ability of black people to think for themselves and act on principles they had examined, scrutinized, and deliberately chosen. Ironically, this same elitist logic is at work among those who uncritically enter the white mainstream and accuse black people of lacking discipline and determination. Alexander Crummell overcame the difficult challenge of self-doubt and the doubt of other black folk by moving to Africa and later returning to America to fight for and “among his own, the low, the grasping, and the wicked, and with that unbending righteousness which is the sword of the just.”In the end, for Du Bois, Alexander Crummell triumphed over hate, despair, and doubt owing to “that full power within, that mighty inspiration” within the Veil. He was able to direct his black rage through moral channels sustained primarily by black bonds of affection, black networks of support, and black ties of empathy. Yet few today know his name and work, principally due to the thick Veil of color then and now:His name today, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no incense of memory or emulation. 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.For Du Bois, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” largely because of the relative lack of communication across the Veil of color. For Du Bois, the vicious legacy of white supremacy contributes to the arrested development of democracy. And since communication is the lifeblood of a democracy—the very measure of the vitality of its public life—we either come to terms with race and hang together, or ignore it and hang separately. This is why every examination of black strivings is an important part of understanding the prevailing crisis in American society.Twilight Civilization in Our TimeAt the beginning of the twenty-first century the crisis of race in America is still raging. The problem of black invisibility and namelessness, however, remains marginal to the dominant accounts of our past and present and is relatively absent from our pictures of the future. In this age of globalization, with its impressive scientific and technological innovations in information, communication, and applied biology, a focus on the lingering effects of racism seems outdated and antiquated. The global cultural bazaar of entertainment and enjoyment, the global shopping mall of advertising and marketing, the global workplace of blue-collar and white-collar employment, and the global financial network of computerized transactions and megacorporate mergers appear to render any talk about race irrelevant.Yet with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of Japan, corrupt and top-heavy nation-states are being eclipsed by imperial corporations as public life deteriorates owing to class polarization, racial balkanization, and especially a predatory market culture. With the vast erosion of civic networks that nurture and care for citizens—such as families, neighborhoods, and schools—and with what might be called the gangsterization of everyday life, characterized by the escalating fear of violent attack, vicious assault, or cruel insult, we are witnessing a pervasive cultural decay in American civilization. Even public discourse has degenerated into petty name-calling and finger-pointing—with little room for mutual respect and empathetic exchange. Increasing suicides and homicides, alcoholism and drug addiction, distrust and disloyalty, cold-heartedness and mean-spiritedness, isolation and loneliness, cheap sexual thrills and cowardly patriarchal violence are still other symptoms of this decay. Yet race—in the coded language of welfare reform, immigration policy, criminal punishment, affirmative action, and suburban privatization—remains a central signifier in the political debate.As in late nineteenth-century Russia and early twentieth-century Central Europe, the ruling political right hides and conceals the privilege and wealth of the few (the 1 percent who own 48 percent of the net financial wealth, the top 10 percent who own 86 percent, the top 20 percent who have 94 percent!) and pits the downwardly mobile middlers against the downtrodden poor. This age-old strategy of scapegoating the most vulnerable, frightening the most insecure, and supporting the most comfortable constitutes a kind of iron law signaling the decline of modern civilizations, as in Tolstoy's Russia and Kafka's Central Europe: chaotic and inchoate rebellion from below, withdrawal and retreat from public life from above, and a desperate search for authoritarian law and order, at any cost, from the middle. In America, this suggests not so much a European style of fascism but rather a homespun brand of authoritarian democracy—the systemic stigmatizing, regulating, and policing of the degraded others—women, gays, lesbians, Latinos, Jews, Asians, Indians, and especially black people. As Sinclair Lewis warned over a half-century ago, fascism, American-style, can happen here.Welfare reform means, on the ground, poor people (disproportionately black) with no means of support. Criminal punishment means hundreds of thousands of black men in crowded prisons—many in there forever. And suburban privatization means black urban poor citizens locked into decrepit public schools, dilapidated housing, inadequate health care, and unavailable child care. Furthermore, the lowest priorities on the global corporate agenda of the political right—the low quantity of jobs with a living wage and the low quality of life for children—have the greatest consequences for the survival of any civilization. Instead, we have generational layers of unemployed and underemployed people (often uncounted in our national statistics) and increasing numbers of hedonistic and nihilistic young people (of all classes, races, genders, and regions) with little interest in public life and with little sense of moral purpose.This is the classic portrait of a twilight civilization whose dangerous rumblings—now intermittent in much of America but rampant in most of black urban America—will more than likely explode in the twenty-first century if we stay on the present conservative course. In such a bleak scenario—given the dominant tendencies of our day—Du Bois's heralded Talented Tenth will by and large procure a stronger foothold in the well-paid professional managerial sectors of the global economy and more and more will become intoxicated with the felicities of a parvenu bourgeois existence. The heroic few will attempt to tell unpleasant truths about our plight and bear prophetic witness to our predicament as well as try to organize and mobilize (and be organized and mobilized by) the economically devastated, culturally degraded, and politically marginalized black working poor and very poor. Since a multiracial alliance of progressive meddlers, liberal slices of the corporate elite, and subversive energy from below is the only vehicle by which some form of radical democratic accountability can redistribute resources and wealth and restructure the economy and government so that all benefit, the significant secondary efforts of the black Talented Tenth alone in the twenty-first century will be woefully inadequate and thoroughly frustrating. Yet even progressive social change—though desirable and necessary—may not turn back the deeper and deadly processes of cultural decay in twenty-first-century America.As this Talented Tenth comes to be viewed more and more with disdain and disgust by the black working poor and very poor, not only class envy but class hatred in black America will escalate—in the midst of a more isolated and insulated black America. This will deepen the identity crisis of the black Talented Tenth—a crisis of survivor's guilt and cultural rootlessness. As the glass ceilings (limited promotions) and golden cuffs (big position and good pay with little or no power) remain in place for most, though not all, blacks in corporate America, we will see anguish and hedonism intensify among much of the Talented Tenth. The conservative wing of black elites will climb on the bandwagon of the political right—some for sincere reasons, most for opportunistic ones—as the black working poor and very poor try to cope with the realities of death, disease, and destruction. The progressive wing of the black elite will split into a vociferous (primarily male-led) black nationalist camp that opts for self-help at the lower and middle levels of the entrepreneurial sectors of the global economy and a visionary (disproportionately woman-led) radical democratic camp that works assiduously to keep alive a hope—maybe the last hope—for a twilight civilization that once saw itself as the “last best hope of earth.”After ninety-five years of the most courageous and unflagging devotion to black freedom witnessed in the twentieth century, W E. B. Du Bois not only left America for Africa but concluded, “I just cannot take any more of this country's treatment. We leave for Ghana October 5th and I set no date for return … Chin up, and fight on, but realize that American Negroes can't win.”In the end, Du Bois's Enlightenment worldview, Victorian strategies, and American optimism failed him. He left America in militant despair—the very despair he had avoided earlier—and mistakenly hoped for the rise of a strong postcolonial and united Africa. Echoing Tolstoy's claim that “it's intolerable to live in Russia … I've decided to emigrate to England forever” (though he never followed through) and Kafka's dream to leave Prague and live in Palestine (though he died before he could do so), Du Bois concluded that black strivings in a twilight civilization were unbearable for him yet still imperative for others—even if he could not envision black freedom in America as realizable.For those of us who stand on his broad shoulders, let us begin where he ended—with his militant despair; let us look candidly at the tragicomic and absurd character of black life in America in the spirit of John Coltrane and Toni Morrison; let us continue to strive with genuine compassion, personal integrity, and human decency to fight for radical democracy in the face of the frightening abyss—or terrifying inferno—of the twenty-first century, clinging to “a hope not hopeless but unhopeful.”See also Communist Party, African Americans and the; Black Nationalism in the United States; Nicholas Brothers.

Reference Entry.  14219 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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