June 25, 2014 John Drabinski

Spivak on Du Bois and Black Reconstruction

Here is a snippet from an interview with Gayatri Spivak. The interview as a whole is very interesting, touching on issues of solidarity, community, language, translation, and the like. In this passage, she has a few words about Du Bois, capitalism, and racial capitalism in the frame of the success, then downfall, of Reconstruction. Very suggestive. And can’t wait for Spivak’s Du Bois book to come out.

From King’s Review, an interview with Ryan Rafaty.


RR: I wonder what you would think about what Cornel West told us here in Cambridge in an interview last May. Speaking about a more general expansion of a sometimes narrow literary canon in universities, he said W.E.B. Du Bois ought to be integral to the curriculum, that it ought to be impossible to graduate from college without reading Du Bois – on one’s own, or assigned. He said it isn’t just about being “sensitive to black folks”, but because Du Bois, just like other writers, is “struggling with what it means to be human”. I assume you must agree with Dr. West here. You have a forthcoming book, Du Bois and the General Strike. You’ve said that one can find the existence of the subaltern in Du Bois’s texts. Can you elaborate on that?

du bois pic

GCS: I think of Du Bois as really the major historian-sociologist of the 20thcentury. I don’t think one has to say “African-American”, because I don’t think we’re listening to a kind of disenfranchised voice when we’re acknowledging Du Bois. If we are not outraged by the niche-marketing of Du Bois, we’re acknowledging a kind of low-grade racism that makes the world go round. It’s a slightly different kind of agenda. Du Bois himself realized this. Du Bois’s entry into the Who’s Who is the only entry that provides the detail: of negro extraction. Jackie Robinson? No. Martin Luther King? No. They were quite rightly not concerned about this detail. Du Bois’s own personal library collection was full of biographies of greatly thoughtful Negro intellectuals [I use the word Negro because that’s his word. It belongs to his time]. He understood that they’re not acknowledged because they happen to be what they are and so put in that little bit of description when he was acknowledged.


So those are not disenfranchised voices; Du Bois is not a subaltern. When Du Bois thinks of the subaltern, he’s writing about the emancipated slaves, the folks who became part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first social welfare project undertaken by the government of the U.S., which came to nothing because of the entrenched forces of racism andcapitalism. This analysis is in his huge book, Black Reconstruction, which some folks dismiss – not Cornel West – from within the African-American establishment because it brings out again and again racism as an ideological production used unwittingly to describe, accept, propagate, and even to redress or ameliorate what was basically the workings of capital. The entire purpose of the establishment of capitalist democracy was at the expense of the failure of black reconstruction. You see how quickly and stunningly the black population – I don’t like the world “community” – responded to the challenges of black reconstruction in terms of working within the dictates of parliamentary democracy. It’s a fantastic story. Du Bois’s work with black reconstruction is a new kind of historiography. His book The Philadelphia Negro is a new kind of sociology, not just because it relates to African-Americans.

du bois quote

A passage from Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America

It’s funny that Cornel should bring this up in Cambridge. I was giving a seminar two years ago at Columbia on the general strike, “Imagining the General Strike”, and of course Du Bois was an important part of this. One of the students, a graduate of Cambridge, said in class – without much regret or anything but just as a descriptive – “Du Bois is not much read in Cambridge”. (laughs) I just thought: I’m not going to require everybody to read him. I think I would expect academics to have enough of a sense about how to be correct about historiography and sociology in the 20thcentury. I have no desire to make anything compulsory or required reading. I really believe in developing people who will want to do this rather than people who are obliged to, if you know what I mean. That may be the main difference here between Cornel and me.

RR: So what specific aspects of Du Bois’s thought will you focus on in your book? Will it be mostly about Black Reconstruction?

GCS: I’m on my way to Ghana where, as you know, Du Bois became a citizen, and was buried. I’ve been plowing through his personal collection of books to get a sense of the man that is different from this “double consciousness” which he talked about, looking at the marginalia in his books – not the books he wrote but the books he possessed. And so at this point I’m letting the project move me, rather than deciding what I’m doing ahead of time. I already gave the Du Bois Lectures at Harvard in 2009. So five years ago I had a question: “Why did someone as learned as Du Bois deliberately call the exodus of the slaves during the civil war and their joining the Union army a ‘general strike’?”  Because it was pretty clear that it didn’t match the accepted model of a general strike. So rather than to “correct” Du Bois, I asked the question, why. So that’s what the Harvard lectures were about, and there I was referring mainly to Black Reconstruction, since that’s the book in which Du Bois provided this particular description.

spivak photo

I think I may change the title of the book to something like Du Bois and the World, or something similar, because I’m very focused on efforts at Pan-Africanism, moving away from just individual predicaments. Pan-Africanism is not black reconstruction. Black reconstruction belongs to the situation in the American South after the Civil War. And Pan-Africanism begins at the start of the 20th century, mostly at the instigation of Du Bois. And so I’m just allowing myself to be buffeted in trying to imagine this great intellect.


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