Academic journal article MELUS

Du Bois's Horizon: Documenting Movements of the Color Line

Academic journal article MELUS

Du Bois's Horizon: Documenting Movements of the Color Line

Article excerpt

"The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line"

In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois's clarion call opened The Souls of Black Folk. But the color line of which he spoke was a line that had many different configurations throughout his career. In The Horizon: a Journal of the Color Line, a magazine he edited and published from 1907-1910, he interrogated the ways in which alternative perspectives might invest the trope of the color line with more nuanced cartographies.

The horizon represented a shifting line meriting neither the guileless optimism of a sunrise nor the resigned nature of sunset. For Du Bois and his two fellow editors, Freeman H. M. Murray and L.N. Hershaw, a horizon existed only as a phenomenon of witness. As the cover that ran on The Horizon throughout much of 1908 attests, The Horizon was best understood by a consciousness of perspective. On that cover we see the back of a young woman placing her hand to her forehead to block the rays of the sun as it sits on the horizon. How she sees the expanse, how she copes with the angle and the perspective, suggests an acute awareness of how the seemingly fixed horizon was relative always to movement, angle, and point of view.

Grappling with how to see or break through the color line formed the very rationale of The Horizon. Essentially a small journal specializing in issues of the American press as they pertained to people of color, The Horizon was about 25 pages or so in length during the first few years of its incarnation and when in later years money and time became more constrained, it was reduced to approximately 12 pages. Throughout 1907 it was published in Washington D.C., in 1908 the printing was moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and then, from 1909 until its end in 1910, it was again published in Washington. (1) Its peripatetic nature was well reflected in its contents for, despite a tight organizational structure in theory, it featured three sections that were broad-ranging in practice.

Section one, The Over-Look, was edited by Du Bois; section two, The In-Look, was edited by Murray; and section three, The Out-Look, was edited primarily by L. M. Hernshaw. While these three sections each had different organizing principles, their emphasis was always on the relentless shifting of perspective. The In-Look functioned as a "Digest of the Negro-American Press," The Out-Look as a "Digest of the Daily and Periodical Press," and The Over-Look served as a digest of opinions and general catch-all for books, political discussions, literary gossip, or anything else which fed Du Bois's omnivorous appetite for ideas. (2)

Murray, Hernshaw, and Du Bois were relatively young men living in Atlanta when they conceived of The Horizon as a radical response to what they saw as the almost complete monopoly of the black press by people supportive of Booker T. Washington and his concomitant policies of pacifying and accommodating the conservative white status quo. (3) Herbert Apetheker, Du Bois's biographer, aptly characterizes The Horizon as an "organ of the militant Niagara Movement" (vii). This is true, for it did function as a mouthpiece of the movement and regularly published updates, squibs, and manifestos of the Niagara movement. (4) Yet The Horizon is a telling artifact from the turn of the century that both raises questions about the interactions between the radical and the mainstream press in America and offers us further insight into Du Bois's growing fascination with how the concept of "documentation" itself might be redefined for the twentieth century.

The Horizon, which appeared in 1907, needs to be understood as arising out of nineteenth-century figurations of documentation that were particular to the African American tradition. By challenging and analyzing the vicissitudes of the press, The Horizon was not seeking to invalidate the idea of documentation. Instead, The Horizon sought to destabilize documentation and seek authentication instead by the destabilizing process itself. …

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