In a recent article in The Feminist Wire, political activist Alicia Garza explains the specific political meaning attached to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” She stresses the importance of celebrating the lives of African Americans in particular and understanding their specific histories instead of watering down their experiences so as to create a “sloppy practice of … unity” with other oppressed people, such as migrants, or Latinos, or women. The call to reclaim the humanity of African Americans, Garza claims, goes beyond a narrow nationalism that validates the lives of African Americans above other groups. Rather, it is a call that seeks to recognize the fact that African Americans have borne a disproportionate burden of state-sanctioned violence, and to hope that the black liberation struggle will—as it has in the past—catalyze the liberation of all people.
To many Americans, Garza’s proposal to simultaneously validate the particular experiences of African Americans and to draw upon the universal meanings of their struggles remains a paradox. To them, an “American” identity is malleable, and capable of incorporating multiple identities, but a “black” identity is exclusive, alienating, and reactionary. In Lines of Descent, Kwame Anthony Appiah guides us through the intellectual genealogy of W. E. B. Du Bois to demonstrate how Du Bois conceptualized the contradictory yet interdependent relationship between the particular and universal meanings of blackness. In beautiful prose that is both readable and intellectually rich, Appiah reveals how Du Bois wrestled with many of the questions that trouble Americans today: the difficulty of discussing the connective bonds of race without reifying it, the challenge of rooting the concept of blackness in the history of slavery, and the struggle against racial injustice without reducing it to a narrative of sorrow and suffering.
Appiah introduces us to the intellectual home that Du Bois found in Germany—a place that mattered to him not only because he “became more human” there, but also because it provided the intellectual ground on which he built his scholarship. By revealing the German roots of Du Bois’s ideas, Appiah provides an essential contribution to the growing scholarship on black diaspora.
While expounding Du Bois’s thoughts on the universal implications of blackness, Appiah goes beyond analyzing blackness as a state of “double consciousness”—a self that is torn between an “American” and a “Negro” self. Instead, Appiah introduces us to the intellectual home that Du Bois found in Germany—a place that mattered to him not only because he “became more human” there, but also because it provided the intellectual ground on which he built his scholarship. By revealing the German roots of Du Bois’s ideas, Appiah provides an essential contribution to the growing scholarship on black diaspora. Echoing Paul Gilroy’s call for studies that analyze the formation of blackness as a “rhizomorphic, fractal” process, Appiah states that it is his goal to write Du Bois’s intellectual genealogy as a series of “multiples,” made up of “independent, simultaneous discoveries.” Appiah presents Germany not simply as an accidental “detour” in Du Bois’s search for a “Negro” identity, but a “privileged point of encounter”—an encounter with the essential ideas that would inform his thoughts on race, nationalism, the relationship between the individual self and his group, and the methods guiding a politically-engaged social science. By emphasizing the centrality of German influences on Du Bois’s thoughts, Appiah provides an international perspective in a scholarship that has too often been limited by its narrow, U.S.-centric lens.
By attending the University of Berlin for graduate work in the early 1890s, Du Bois became acquainted with an academic community that was highly politically engaged. He took classes with political economist Adolf Wagner, who had served as a policy advisor to Chancellors Otto von Bismarck and Leo von Caprivi, as well as Rudolph Gneist, who was a member of the Prussian Council of State. Du Bois was particularly drawn to Gustav von Schmoller’s model of using empirical research to drive the public policies of an activist state. Schmoller insisted that a scholar could make close and careful observations of a certain set of data, and that conclusions drawn from such observations could inform government officials invested in using the power of the state to provide justice and social stability to their constituents. Appiah traces Schmoller’s influence on Du Bois’s first sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), in which Du Bois stated that “convictions on all great matters of human interest” would inevitably “enter to some extent into the most cold-blooded of scientific research as a disturbing factor,” but such moral convictions should not be viewed as antithetical with objective research. Du Bois, the empiricist, believed that a methodical exposition of human exploitation and degradation would move all readers to desire a solution to the “Negro problem.” After all, this was a battle that belonged not just to the “Negro,” but also to “humanity and human culture.”
If Schmoller provided the fundamental basis for Du Bois’s faith in empirical research, Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Meineke provided the basic framework for Du Bois’s vision for a nationalist identity that was both particular and cosmopolitan. Many of us have understood Du Bois’s formulation of the “double consciousness” simply within the context of his upbringing in a white-dominant environment in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and his college education at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee. When we read his ruminations on what it feels like to see oneself through a double-consciousness—“an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”—we often imagine Du Bois wrestling with the personal experiences he had in the American South and North. Yet, Appiah tells us that Du Bois’s faith in African Americans’ ability to keep this “twoness” from being “torn asunder” was centrally pinned on his adoption of German romanticism.
It was Johann Gottfried Herder who first introduced Du Bois to the romantic conception of each nation having a distinct spirit, a Volksgeist (a “national soul”). Herder posited that the “soul” of a nation could be found both in its literary geniuses as well as the folk songs and tales of ordinary people. We can see Du Bois’ adoption of Herder’s romantic nationalism in the title of his most famous book—The Souls of Black Folk—and in the prefaces of his book chapters; each chapter of Souls has a literary epigraph and a musical phrase of a Negro spiritual. Herder’s appreciation for the unique soul of each nation was not meant to foster an exclusive form of nationalism. Rather, the love for a nation was meant to expand the individual’s sympathy to circles outside of himself. According to Friedrich Meineke, to “love the little platoon we belong to in society” was the first step toward “the love of mankind.” Of course there were other German nationalists who conceptualized nationalism in more exclusive terms. Adolf Wagner argued that a “healthy national egotism” was preferable to a “disastrous cosmopolitanism” that made no differentiation between “foreign countries” and members of the nation-state. German romantics also included individuals like Heinrich von Treitschke, who plainly stated that “Mulattoes are inferior!” Yet, Du Bois selectively drew upon the intellectual tools provided by Herder and Meineke to conceptualize the black “soul” as both a nationalist and cosmopolitan identity.
Herder’s conceptualization of the Volksgeist fundamentally shaped Du Bois’s proposal to advance the “growth and development of the Negro” in his publication, “Conservation of the Races” (1897). Here, Appiah does not shy away from fully highlighting the contradictions of Du Bois’s thoughts on the meanings of race. Situating him in a world that had not yet found any scientific evidence to reject biological racism, Appiah tells us that Du Bois followed the conventional norm of viewing the “Negro” as one race out of many distinct races, such as the “Slavs of Eastern Europe,” the “Teutons of middle Europe,” and the “Mongolians of Eastern Asia.” Du Bois was not wholly different from the many European and American scholars who wrote inconsistently about race in the early 20th century—he argued that there were eight races in “Conservation of Races” and then seven races in “Strivings of the Negro,” which he published in the same year. Du Bois emphasized that the deeper significance of race rested in “spiritual, psychical differences” more than “physical” differences, yet he did not reject biological racism entirely. He claimed that “physical” differences “play[ed] a great part.” It was not until Mendelian genetics provided a “tectonic shift in scientific thinking about race” that Du Bois unequivocally rejected biological racism. Once it was scientifically proven that psychological properties (such as intelligence) could be inherited independent of physical characteristics (such as dark skin), Du Bois began to articulate a much more robust critique of biological racism.
If the English had created constitutional liberty, and the Germans created science and philosophy, and the Romance nations created literature and art, what had the Negro created for himself and for humanity? In Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940), Du Bois came up with an accurate, yet somber conclusion that “the black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.”
Even as Du Bois rejected a biological concept of race post-Mendelian genetics, however, he was not able to formulate a coherent concept of the “Negro” that could provide the African American equivalent of the German Volksgeist. If the English had created constitutional liberty, and the Germans created science and philosophy, and the Romance nations created literature and art, what had the Negro created for himself and for humanity? In Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1940), Du Bois came up with an accurate, yet somber conclusion that “the black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” Understanding race as a social construction and as a product of social practices was an accurate assessment, but it did not provide Du Bois with an identity that could further his political goals: to mobilize people of African descent in a global struggle against racial injustice. How could he politically mobilize people based on an identity focused primarily on a history of suffering and injustice?
In the last decades of his life, Du Bois returned to American philosophers to guide his final thoughts on the meaning of race. He found himself more drawn to William James’s subjective understandings of sub-consciousness and Josiah Royce’s explorations of human loyalties than Schmoller’s and Max Weber’s empirical analyses of class conflict. He had begun studying the history of Africa since 1915 as a “second front” in his search for a “Negro” identity. He had found little there aside from another narrative of suffering rooted in the history of the African slave trade and colonial conquest. He was haunted by the history of partition, domination and exploitation of Africa. It globalized his earlier conclusion that the “black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” Even as he was embittered by his expanding knowledge of global racial injustice, Du Bois found himself drawn to Africa. He felt a sense of “kinship” with Africans—not so much because Africa was the place where black people originally came from, but because of “its social heritage of slavery, the discrimination and insult.” Given Du Bois’s inability to find a self-affirming identity in Africa, his continual fascination with the continent suggested to him that Jamesian conceptualizations of the sub-conscious might be more useful to him than any sociological understanding of race. He also borrowed from Royce’s formulation of a “community of memory” and a “community of hope” to understand why Africa became so important in his self-conceptualization as a black man. Adopting almost a “quasi-religious” faith in divine providence and human progress, Du Bois concluded that “Africa” and the “Negro” could signify not only a “heritage of suffering,” but also the “salvation of mankind.” If the memory of slavery bonded African Americans through a shared past, the hope of a global victory against racism could unite them through a shared set of expectations about the future.
As Appiah takes us through Du Bois’s life-long journey to understand the significance of the “Negro” identity, one is drawn to admire Du Bois’s tenacity, rigor, and deep passion. Appiah’s exploration of the many contradictions that characterized Du Bois’s thoughts on race draws his readers not to scorn, but to appreciate his capacity to be inconsistent.
To be sure, Appiah does not focus much attention on the ways in which American society and politics influenced Du Bois’s evolving thoughts about race—the reader can only infer, for example, that the Harlem Renaissance bolstered his interest in Africa in the 1920s; or that the extreme level of repression imposed on him by the U.S. government during the Cold War drove him to search for a more global concept of race. But one can appreciate Appiah’s narrow and efficacious intent with this book—this concise intellectual history of Du Bois focuses on the ideas that percolated around him, and it will likely draw readers to read more about him.
The meaning of race remains as vexing today as it was when Du Bois first contemplated it in 1897. Blackness still signifies a constraining identity that one desires to escape as much as it symbolizes a beautiful, deep yearning for human dignity. Any reader who is invested in tapping into the full liberating power of blackness should read this book.