W.E.B. DU BOIS AND
DEDICATION TO THE DEAD
The temptation among us is to split hope and history. As a result,
we hold to a religious hope that is detached from the realities of the
historical process. Or we participate in a history which ends in de-
spair because the process itself delivers no lasting victories for the
participant. The problem is that, even though hope yields victories,
history precludes enduring triumphs.
WALTER BRUEGGEMAN, Hope within History1
If the condemned of the earth do not understand their pasts and
know the responsibilities that lie upon them in the future, all on
earth will be condemned. That is the kind of world we live in.
C.L.R. JAMES, “On the Origins”2
What might it mean to understand the past? Certainly the cliché about not repeating mistakes has relevance, although as a comprehensive ethic or political strategy in the face of entrenched racism it may be dangerously trite. More compelling may be the assertion that through the past one achieves, often at some significant cost, a kind of moral illumination. In this context, the present has meaning (or perhaps has meaning imposed upon it) through the recognition of past suffering, the creation of a kind of ancestral solidarity. Yet this too may melt into thin air. Such a confidence may be shown to be mostly narcissistic projection, indeed even neurosis. If both the instrumental and mythic pursuits of the past prove faulty, if not ephemeral, why does C.L.R. James's assertion remain so compelling, and seem to direct so much sixties—and more recent—AfricanAmerican cultural practice? A central argument of this book has been that a striking component of post–World War II African-American intellectual and cultural life has been the increasing, if not obsessive, attention to this problem of the cultural significance of historical memory. Black anxiousness about the promise of modernity has been articulated most forcefully through an extended evaluation of the possibilities of “past-ness.” A further