The Second Sight of W.E.B. Du Bois
Chris Hedges gave this talk Friday at the Left Forum in New York City.
W.E.B. Du Bois, more than any intellectual this nation produced in the first half of the 20th century, explained America to itself. He did this not only through what he called the “color line” but by exposing the intertwining of empire, capitalism and white supremacy. He deftly fused academic disciplines. He possessed unwavering integrity, a deep commitment to the truth, and the courage to speak it. That he was brilliant and a radical was bad enough. That he was brilliant, radical and black terrified the ruling elites. He was swiftly blacklisted, denied the professorships and public platforms that went to those who were more obsequious and compliant. Du Bois had very few intellectual rivals—John Dewey perhaps being one, but Dewey failed, like nearly all white intellectuals, to grasp the innate violence and savagery of the American character and how it was given its natural expression in empire.
Regeneration and purification through violence is the credo of the American empire. D.H. Lawrence, like Du Bois, saw it, and said, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” The pillars of American capitalism are genocide and slavery. America was not blessed by God. It was blessed, if that is the right word, by producing the most efficient killing machines and trained killers on the planet. It unleashed industrial violence on its enemies abroad and empowered armed white vigilante groups and gun thugs—the slave patrols, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues (the armed wing of the Democratic Party), the Baldwin Felts and Pinkertons—to perpetrate a domestic reign of terror against blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers. The ideological descendants of these killers have mutated into white hate groups and militarized law enforcement that terrorize immigrants and undocumented workers, Muslims and people of color trapped in our internal colonies. This bloody visage is the true face of America.
“Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is,” Du Bois wrote. “We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot.”
Du Bois warned that in times of widespread unrest, this indiscriminate violence, familiar to poor people of color and those we subjugate abroad today in the Middle East, becomes the primary mechanism for internal social control. As the empire disintegrates under unfettered corporate capitalism, futile and costly military adventurism, political stagnation and despotism, we will learn the truth Du Bois elucidated.
Du Bois, early in his career and already recognized as one of the foremost sociologists in the country, attacked Booker T. Washington’s odious accommodation with the white segregationists in the South and industrial elites in the North. He derided Washington’s advocacy of vocational training for blacks at the expense of intellectual pursuits. The white capitalist Molochs, who funded and promoted Washington and his collaborationist scheme to train blacks to take their spots on the lowest rung of industrial society, turned on Du Bois with a vengeance. The underclass, then and now, was to be taught what to think, not how to think. They would be endowed with just enough numerical literacy to serve as serfs in the capitalist system. The capitalists were determined to maintain what Du Bois called “enforced ignorance,” an enforced ignorance now being visited on a dispossessed working class with the degrading of public education, funding of vocational charter schools, and withering away of the humanities.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States,” he warned, an eerie forecast of the age of Trump.
He would always remain a double outsider. And this status as an outsider, coupled with his prodigious intellectual gifts and uncompromising honesty, allowed him to expose the hypocrisy of the country’s most revered institutions and beliefs.
“The history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races,” he wrote, “and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.”
Du Bois was amazingly prolific. He authored 16 seminal texts of sociology, history, politics and race relations including “The Philadelphia Negro,” his revolutionary study that established the field of urban sociology; “Souls of Black Folk” that laid the foundations for modern African-American literature and history; and his 1935 classic, “Reconstruction,” that portrayed American democracy through the eyes of disenfranchised Southern blacks. He was the editor from 1910 to 1934 of Crisis, one of the country’s leading intellectual and civil rights journal. Cornel West calls him the “American Gibbon,” after the British historian Edward Gibbon, who chronicled the fall of the Roman Empire and used it as a warning to all empires.
But I want to begin today by looking at one of his often overlooked essays, “The Souls of White Folk,” from his book “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil.” He wrote this essay in 1920. White Europeans and Americans were struggling to cope with the suicidal slaughter and barbarity of World War I. Yet, as Du Bois pointed out, none of this savagery was a surprise to blacks in the United States or the victims of colonialism—10 to 12 million blacks died under the brutal colonial rule of the Belgian King Leopold in the Congo.
It was Belgium, not the Congo, however, that was held up as the victim of horrible atrocities due to German occupation after the war. “Behold little Belgium and her pitiable plight, but has the world forgotten Congo?” Du Bois asked. Racism, he saw, was not only endemic to capitalism and imperialism but deformed historical narratives, the stories that got told and those that did not. In the United States, the year before the essay was published, 66 black men and women, mostly in the rural South, were lynched. Another 250 died in urban riots, usually instigated by white vigilante mobs, in the North and in the Arkansas Delta. They could have told you, if they were asked, what America was.
“As we saw the dead dimly through the rifts of battle smoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture,” Du Bois wrote in the essay.
Du Bois attended the Versailles Conference that imposed punitive reparations on Germany, crippling its economy and setting the stage for fascism. But to Du Bois the decision by the victorious European powers to blithely carve up Africa, Indochina and the Middle East in open disregard for those who lived there was far more criminal. Self-determination, he saw, was only for white Europeans and Euro-Americans. He would help convene a Pan-African Congress to protest the renewed subjugation of people of color. The war, Du Bois argued, had nothing to do with democracy and freedom. It was a struggle between imperial powers for the ability to plunder the “dark world’s wealth and toil,” which is also, of course, what our wars in the Middle East are about.
Du Bois knew, like Karl Marx, whom he greatly admired, that the market economy was designed to make the weak weaker and the strong stronger. The idea that a class of black capitalists and entrepreneurs, or black politicians such as Barack Obama, would somehow rectify social and racial inequality within capitalism was absurd. These tokens would serve the capitalist and imperialist system, which, he said, had to be overthrown and replaced with socialism.
Outcasts are gifted, Du Bois wrote, with a “second-sight” or what he called a “double-consciousness.” It was, he wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk,” the sensation “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” This gives to outcasts, as it did to many Jewish intellectuals in Nazi Germany, the ability to see behind what Du Bois called the veil. This sight is imperative not only for the outcasts, but for the nation. Those blinded by privilege and the myth of whiteness cannot fathom reality, or understand themselves, without these outcasts. The more the voices of these outcasts are shut out, the more collective insanity grips the country. By silencing the voices of the oppressed, we ensure our own oppression.
“I have been in the world,” Du Bois said, “but not of it. I have seen the human drama from a veiled corner, where all the outer tragedy and comedy have reproduced themselves in microcosm within. From this inner torment of souls the human scene without has interpreted itself to me in unusual and even illuminating ways.”
The endemic violence that plagues the country stuns many white elites, but this violence is a daily reality to Iraqis, Afghans, Yemenis and, of course, poor Americans of color.
“But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Du Bois asked. “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
“It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time,” he wrote. “No nation is less fitted for this role. For two or more centuries America has marched proudly in the van of human hatred—making bonfires of human flesh and laughing at them hideously, and making the insulting of millions more than a matter of dislike—rather a great religion, a world-war cry: Up white, down black; to your tents, O white folk, and world war with black and parti-colored mongrel beasts.”
Du Bois saw redemption, certainly at the end of his life, not within the bowels of the empire but in liberation movements outside the empire struggling for freedom. He was arrested for “subversive” activities in 1951 and had his passport revoked for years. His books were removed from library shelves and eliminated from course curriculums. He remained steadfastly defiant. On Dec. 1, 1961, he formally joined the Communist Party. Soon after he left the United States to spend the rest of his life in Ghana.
Du Bois had a particular characteristic I especially admire. He was rooted in the reality of those he wrote about. He listened. He methodically interviewed poor blacks, whether in “The Souls of Black Folk” or “The Philadelphia Negro,” where historian Herbert Aptheker has estimated that Du Bois spent some 835 hours interviewing some 2,500 households. This gave his work a reportorial authenticity and freshness that eluded most other sociologists and philosophers who pondered the great questions ensconced in their academic enclaves.
There comes a time, Du Bois wrote, when the oppressed erupt in paroxysms of rage, much like jihadists in the Middle East. Those who never took the time to investigate the long, slow drip of collective humiliation and suffering are shocked. The rage, because it appears to have no context or rationality, is seen as incomprehensible, the product of racial or religious mutations. We see this with the Israeli reaction to the nonviolent protests in Gaza. The press, little more than courtiers to the elites, dutifully certifies the rage as incomprehensible. Because it is incomprehensible it must be violently crushed. Du Bois writes:
It is difficult to let others see the full psychological meaning of caste segregation. It is as though one, looking out from a dark cave in a side of an impending mountain, sees the world passing and speaks to it; speaks courteously and persuasively, showing them how these entombed souls are hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development. … It gradually penetrates the minds of the prisoners that the people passing do not hear; that some thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass is between them and the world. They get excited; they talk louder; they gesticulate. … They may scream and hurl themselves against the barriers, hardly realizing in their bewilderment that they are screaming in a vacuum unheard and that their antics may actually seem funny to those outside looking in. They may even, here and there, break through in blood and disfigurement, and find themselves faced by a horrified, implacable, and quite overwhelming mob of people frightened for their own very existence.
Du Bois would hardly fare better today. His radical critique of empire and capitalism would make him even more of a pariah in the academy and on the airwaves. The corporate state, assured they can keep us entranced with their electronic hallucinations and spectacles, along with the inane trivia and gossip masquerading as news, do not see him or other radical theorists as a threat. They orchestrated the post-literate society, the “enforced ignorance,” that perpetuates their power. We have his books. Read them while you still can.