Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois

Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois

Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois

Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois

Synopsis

In Democracy's Reconstruction, the latest addition to Cathy Cohen and Fredrick Harris's Transgressing Boundaries series, noted political theorist Lawrie Balfour challenges a longstanding tendency in political theory: the disciplinary division that separates political theory proper from the study of black politics. Political theory rarely engages with black political thinkers, despite the fact that the problem of racial inequality is central to the entire enterprise of American political theory. To address this lacuna, she focuses on the political thought of W.E.B. Du Bois, particularly his longstanding concern with the relationship between slavery's legacy and the prospects for democracy in the era he lived in. Balfour utilizes Du Bois as an intellectual resource, applying his method of addressing contemporary problems via the historical prism of slavery to address some of the fundamental racial divides and inequalities in contemporary America. By establishing his theoretical method to study these historical connections, she positions Du Bois's work in the political theory canon--similar to the status it already has in history, sociology, philosophy, and literature.

Excerpt

When the moment came for Martin Luther King, Jr., to memorialize W. E. B. Du Bois at a ceremony at Carnegie Hall in February 1968, he sketched a portrait of a scholar, organizer, and radical advocate of black power who embraced “humanity in all its hues.” Recalling the events and causes that gave shape to Du Bois’s life, King likened U.S. support for a repressive regime in Vietnam to the compromise that ended the “monumental achievement” of Reconstruction in 1876; he railed against the pernicious effects of an anticommunist campaign that distorted Du Bois’s memory and perverted American politics; and he reminded white Americans of the depth of their debt to a man who committed himself to undoing their ignorance of their own history. Together with King’s ambitious outline for a march on Washington that he would not live to see, these observations reflect a pivotal and perilous moment in the civil rights leader’s biography and reveal as much about King in his final weeks as they do about the man he came to honor.

Yet King’s words also reach beyond that context in two interrelated ways. First, he insisted that Du Bois be remembered as a teacher: “He would have wanted his life to teach us something about our tasks of emancipation.” Chief among these lessons, King observed, was that “the keystone in the arch of oppression was the myth of inferiority.” Contending against degraded popular images of African Americans and a historical profession that represented slavery as a benign institution and black citizenship as a mistake, Du Bois pursued the truth about black women and men as a lifelong vocation. Second, King concluded his remarks by announcing that Du Bois’s “greatest virtue was his committed empathy with all the oppressed and his divine . . .

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