W. E. B. Du Bois vs. "The Sons of the Fathers" [1]: A Reading of the Souls of Black Folk in the Context of American Nationalism

Article excerpt

In his discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois's essay "On Alexander Crummell," the twelfth chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, Eric Sundquist implicates Du Bois in a patrilineal descent of African American political thought:

One of Crummell's early addresses in Monrovia, devoted to the creation of a generation of leaders of a republican Liberia, had been entitled "The Responsibility of the First Fathers of a Country for Its Future Life and Character" (1863). For Du Bois, Crummell functioned symbolically as such a father, although one can deduce that his purpose was in fact one of psychological transference in which Crummell became the mechanism for Du Bois's own ascendancy to the position of founding father of modern African American thought, thus eliding the alternative challengers Douglass and Washington. (Sundquist 517)

Du Bois's chapter on Crummell is indeed replete with paternal and filial references, and so is the whole collection of essays. Not all of these references, however, fit into Sundquist's pointedly Afrocentric reading of The Souls of Black Folk. In the ranks of the "good folk" credited with helping out Crummell, for instance, Du Bois includes the "gently" urging "young John Jay, that daring father's daring son" (358). The "daring father" in this case is politician John Jay (1745-1829), who, among his other services to the young American Republic, negotiated, alongside Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the peace treaty between the newly independent American Colonies and Britain in 1783 and collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on The Federalist Papers. Du Bois's reference to Jay is thus nothing less than an invocation of one of the "Founding Fathers"--the eighteenth-century politicians who still hold their place of repute in the mythological pantheon of American nationalism. In defining Du Bois' s project as an attempt to ascend to "the position of founding father," Sundquist places Du Bois within a framework reminiscent of and parallel to the American nationalist mythos, especially in light of the fact that the documents created by the actual Founding Fathers of the American Republic were some of the earliest harbingers of the discourse of the nation-state. This is a curious gesture on Sundquist's part, since his own agenda in tracing the musical epigraphs to each of the chapters in The Souls of Black Folk back to their African origins is to find the roots of African American culture outside the American context and to emphasize Du Bois's Pan-Africanism; that is, to break away from the circuit of American nationalism. [2]

A reading of The Souls of Black Folk in terms of its place as a link in the chain of the American national narrative does not necessarily imply a refutation of Sundquist's Afrocentric reading. In its richness and ambiguity, Du Bois's work obviously spans continents, as did Du Bois himself in his lifetime. Born in Massachusetts, educated at Fisk, Harvard, and the University of Berlin in Germany, Du Bois at the end of his life became a citizen of Ghana, where he died in 1963. Yet Du Bois did not sympathize with Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa Movement, and at least at the time of writing The Souls of Black Folk, he advocated the acceptance of African Americans by the largely inimical American political, legal, and social institutions. His solution to the problem of double-consciousness was "to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face" (215). As a citizen of the United States working within the parameters of American democracy, Du Bois repeatedly took to task the "sons" of the Founding Fathers for disregarding the originary documents of the Republic. In doing so, he was involved, as were others before and after him, in the paradox of upholding the Enlightened universalism of the Declaration of Independence and the humanist abstraction of the United States Constitution--the two documents whose aura of universality was made possible precisely by the elision of race, yet which in their claim to a democratic universality seem to fulfill the role of the "empty signifiers" without "any necessary body, any necessary content" that make democracy possible, according to Laclau (90). …