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Saturday, April 27, 2013

April 27-28, 2013: Roopika Risam's Guest Post

[Roopika Risam is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Emory University. In the fall, she will begin working as an assistant professor of world literature and English education at Salem State University. Her current project, “Oceans of Black, Brown, and Yellow: Literatures of Global Solidarity,” examines W.E.B. Du Bois in the context of postcolonial and African American studies. She also runs the Postcolonial Digital Humanities website with Adeline Koh.]

As a crowd of 250,000 gathered on the National Mall for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, announced that W.E.B. Du Bois had died in Ghana the night before. Briefly eulogizing Du Bois for the crowd, Wilkins said, "Regardless of the fact that in his later years, Dr. Du Bois chose another path, it is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause."

Wilkins’s remarks anticipate a trend in Du Bois scholarship that charts two different paths of Du Bois's life. In this narrative, the Du Bois of the early years appears the consummate race man. His work on African Americans (The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, Black Reconstruction in America) and his activism (the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, The Crisis) firmly credential him as a scholar-activist dedicated to the problem of the color line in the US. The other Du Bois was a version at once embarrassing and dangerous to the African American political establishment. He began embracing black separatism, resigned from the NAACP and The Crisis by 1934, and returned to the NAACP in 1944 only to be dismissed four years later for ideological disagreements - namely his leftists stance on global politics and emphatic support for decolonization movements worldwide. Facing increased scrutiny and surveillance by the US government, Du Bois eventually expatriated to Ghana, where he died in effective exile on the night before the March on Washington. Thus, the general trend in Du Bois scholarship, particularly in the work of David Levering Lewis and Henry Louis Gates, perpetuates the false dichotomy between a younger Du Bois committed to African American freedom struggles and an older Du Bois whose global commitments signify a rejection of his domestic ones.  

The tendency to identify this particular trajectory for Du Bois’s work is a troubling one. In fact, Du Bois's international vision originates at the beginning of his scholarship, with The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in 1896. It continues in The Souls of Black Folk, when Du Bois articulates his now famous statement, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line" and defines the color line as "the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in American and the islands of the sea." It emerges again in The Gift of Black Folk (1924), when Du Bois theorizes the relationship between enslaved African labor and the rise of modernity. These are but a few examples of many that complicate the tendency to position Du Bois's early writings as national while neatly confining Du Bois's international outlook to his waning years.

Two of Du Bois’s novels take up the relationship between struggles of African Americans and those of oppressed people of color around the world: Dark Princess (1928) and Worlds of Color (1961). Discussing Du Bois's literary writing is always a fraught proposition because the general consensus - from Du Bois's contemporaries, current scholars, and even my own students - is that fiction-writing is not one of Du Bois's strengths. Leaving questions of aesthetics for another time, however, these two novels offer insight on the intricacies of Du Bois's global visions.

Dark Princess tells the story of Matthew Towns, an African American medical student who exiles himself to Berlin, where he meets the mysterious and beautiful Princess Kautilya of the fictional Indian state of Bwodpur. As a member of the Council of Darker Races, an Afro-Asian solidarity movement committed to the end of colonialism and promotion of communism, Princess Kautilya recruits the lovestruck Matthew for her cause. Matthew returns to the US, where he works as Pullman Porter, serves prison time for a botched bombing plot against the Ku Klux Klan, becomes a Chicago politician, and engages in manual labor. Matthew and Princess Kautilya unite permanently at the end of the novel to celebrate the birth of their son Madhu, the Maharajah of Bwodpur, who, Du Bois writes, is the “Messenger and Messiah to all the Darker Worlds.”

Worlds of Color, the third novel in the Black Flame trilogy, narrates the travels of Manuel Mansart, protagonist of the trilogy's first two novels: The Ordeal of Mansart (1957) and Mansart Builds a School (1959). Mansart travels to Europe and Asia to learn more about the world, thinking he will discover that skin color is a trivial matter everywhere but the United States. Instead, he learns about the global reach of imperialism and the significant percentage of the human population that is subject to racialized labor. Mansart returns from his trip understanding that a great mass of people of color around the globe are a force waiting to be united and radicalized against the political, economic, and social forces that have oppressed them.

The two novels offer strikingly different iterations of solidarities between African Americans and oppressed people of color. Writing Dark Princess during the 1920s, Du Bois seems immersed in the rhetoric of high imperialism and can only imagine how it might end. As a result, his vision – the Council of Darker Races, the union of Matthew and Princess Kautilya, and the birth of their half-black and half-Indian child – is highly romanticized, hinging on international intrigue, forbidden love, and the act of reproduction. By the time Du Bois writes Worlds of Color, however, he has witnessed decolonization in action and imagines a different solution: a global mass in revolt. Yet, in the competing visions articulated in Dark Princess and Worlds of Color, we find Du Bois deeply invested in the intersections of African American and global struggles for emancipation. As such, Du Bois’s literary writings challenge narratives of Du Bois’s work that speciously suggest he traded his dedication to African Americans for the rest of the world over the course of his life.
[Next series starts Monday,
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