Platypus Review 27
Renewing Black Intellectual History
Adolph Reed Jr. & Kenneth W. Warren, eds.
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)
In a 2005 commencement address, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.” At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy — “by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary” — and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.
Zinn’s historical reasoning has a history of its own. Beginning in the early moments of decolonization, insurgent black nationalists attempted to rewrite history in the service of race pride. Think of Cheikh Anta Diop’s demonstration that the ancient Egyptians were really black Africans. Though such appeals proved too essentialist for the post-structuralist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, historians who still hoped to preserve the therapeutic value of history continued to assert the cultural legacy of the black diaspora. This legacy was forged over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of oppression. And black resistance, it was claimed, dates to about the same period. In the absence of any actual politics, historical research became a substitute satisfaction. By revealing the racism implicit in, say, Orson Welles’s 1935 “Voodoo Macbeth,” the historian seems to win a political victory against racism.
In their edited collection, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren mount a challenge to the political pretensions of black studies. Now, bemoaning the excesses of identity politics is not new; in fact, it has paid for many a conservative’s third swimming pool. But Reed and Warren’s critique is meant to come from the Left, to show how the unexamined assumptions of black history mystify the present and block the development of critical politics.
One major assumption is that racism poses a persistent and persisting problem in American history. To make the point, historians, literary critics, and pundits often use W.E.B Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. In a recent article, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond details racial disparities in education, and asks whether America will be ready to “roll up its sleeves to at last solve the problem of the color line.” Reed’s capstone essay “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now” shows how such contemporary appropriations not only misunderstand the context of Du Bois’s remark, but also obscure the recognition of real social problems.
Du Bois’s formulation was not exactly a clarion call for the black revolution; in fact, as Reed demonstrates, it came at the most conservative moment in his career. When Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he was not alone in prophesying the primacy of race in current affairs: In the academy, scientific racism had reached its zenith, and in popular political discourse, the imagination of a racial “Struggle for Existence” shaped foreign and domestic policy. Balking at the notion of innate inferiority, Du Bois had a softer view of racial inheritance than most, but he shared the race-centric view of his moment. An admirer of Bismark, he advocated for social reforms to squelch racial and class tensions, and divert blacks from more radical politics. Du Bois would reevaluate his perspective, of course, over his long lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in the years before his death in 1963, he later questioned his own formulation of the “color line” as the problem of his century. Continue reading