Of Color and Culture: Du Bois's Evolving Perspectives on Race
WITH REGARD TO HOW RACIAL IDENTITY SHOULD be defined, Charles Chesnutt's certainty surpassed that of his younger, formally educated friend, W. E. B. Du Bois. I partly question Chesnutt's certainty, while I remain struck by Du Bois's evolving perspectives on race. Throughout his life, Du Bois affirms—through dozens of articles, essays, and several books—particular constructions of race, only to subvert them later. This process of affirming and subverting racial designations constitutes another essential component in rethinking racialized voice. In other words, an alternative paradigm of racialized voice must be open to the flexibility represented in Du Bois's shifting takes on racial designations.
Additionally, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that Du Bois recognized but came short of adopting the word civilization as a more fitting descriptor of group identity than race. Given Appiah's contention and my own interest in black folk culture, I must also explore how Du Bois's understanding of American culture generally and African American culture specifically correlates with his evolving racial ideologies. Therefore, I will examine selected writings by Du Bois from two vistas: what they say about race and what they say about culture in relation to race.
An artist, historian, and sociologist, Du Bois was conversant in myriad approaches to analyzing the race question. Arnold Rampersad observes that Du Bois's personal complexity befits the complexities of this question: