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Understanding changing conceptions of race with Du Bois’ ‘The Concept of Race’

“Perhaps it is wrong to speak of it as ‘a concept’ rather than as a group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies.’

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Concept of Race, 1940: 67

I think this year has got off to a good start on Understanding Race, the Masters course I have been teaching since 2018 at Western Sydney University. This year, we have quite large group with a diverse range of experiences. Thanks to everyone for coming along, especially the very early risers!

One of the texts I think is most helpful for making sense of race as necessarily changeable, adaptive and unstable – both conceptually and as a set of practices – is Chapter 5 of W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1940 book, Dusk of Dawn. The subtitle of the book is instructive in itself: ‘An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.’ So, while this is on one level an autobiography of Du Bois (he also wrote Darkwater: Voices with in the well in 1920, another autobiography), it is a telling of the meandering history of race as a concept through the story of Du Bois’s life.

One of the abiding features of this chapter is Du Bois’s expression of love for Black people, for whom ultimately he wants to parse the changing conceptualisation of race. In previous discussions of the chapter in classes past, there was annoyance at what looks like Du Bois’s adoption of dehumanising language about African people. However, it is very clear, and this came through our discussion, that he is subverting this language and turning common racist colonial stereotypes (“primitive man…”) on their head by throwing it back to Europe and the west, effectively asking why are you not more like Africa? The dysfunction is in you, not us!

This recounting is particularly useful because it allows us to track Du Bois’s political development, his growing radicalism, and his understanding of race as fundamentally a mechanism to accrue wealth for the white nations within an imperial system. You witness his growing internationalism, as he leaves his US home and travels. He writes,

I think it was in Africa that I came more clearly to see the close connection between race and wealth. The fact that even in the minds of the most dogmatic supporters of race theories and believers in the inferiority of colored folk to white, there was a conscious or unconscious determination to increase their incomes by taking full advantage of this belief. And then gradually this thought was metamorphosed into a realization that the income-bearing value of race preju­dice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particu­larly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms.

The Concept of Race, 1940 (p. 65)

Below, please find slides and the notes accompanying the class.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah

W.E.B. Du Bois, born 1868 (Great Barrington Massachusetts), died 1963 (Accra, Ghana).

Dusk of Dawn traces his evolving thinking through the story of his life, a long time during which there were many changes to the understanding of race. What Du Bois’s life history shows is that, these changing understandings come from an approach to race as an object of struggle, something that cannot be abstracted as an area of study.

In his early career, Du Bois tried to use the methodology of racial science against itself to ‘prove’ the untenability of the idea of race. However, by the turn of the century, he could see race as fundamentally a political problem. This was further consolidated after he began travelling to Africa when he came to see race as fundamentally a problem of wealth vs/ poverty on a global scale.

At this time, Du Bois was growing in radical commitment, becoming aligned with the Communist party, a commitment that led him to seek exile in decolonised Ghana where he died in 1963 (aged 95).

By 1900, Du Bois had thoroughly developed his influential proclamation, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” in two papers, the first before the American Negro Academy in “The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind” and the second at the first Pan-African Conference in “Address to the Nations of the World.”

The concept of the color line explicated European domination of persons originating from Africa, Asia, and the Americas and described the relation of the “darker to the lighter races of men” as the foundational antagonism of the century.’

Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne. 2019. W.E.B. Du Bois: A life in American history. ABC-CLIO: 28-29.

Visit the W.E.B. Du Bois papers for a treasure trove of his writings.

The Crisis was the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Du Bois was its editor from 1910-1934. By the early 1930s, he began to move away from the NAACP as he developed more radicalised political ideals which conflicted with the association’s more liberal and reformist approaches.

In Aldon Morris’s biography of Du Bois, The Scholar Denied, he focuses on Du Bois’s exclusion from the academy. Many have now reclaimed him as the ‘father of sociology’ and solid arguments made for his inclusion in the sociological canon. You can read my blogpost on Morris’ work and a wider discussion of the problems raised by the exclusion of scholars from the ‘canon’ of western thought.

But in Of Black Study, Joshua Myers is resistant to the recuperation of Du Bois as a social scientist (or as a member of any discipline). He makes the case for Black study being necessarily undisciplined (beyond the disciplines / resistant to being disciplined).

The recuperation of Du Bois should be understood against this background: ‘Du Bois’s thought is now academically safe in a world where global Communism no longer poses an existential threat to the American project, a project imagined and conspired into existence in tandem with the university.’ (Myers 2022: 17).

Turning to the chapter, ‘The Concept of Race’ itself, in the quote below, Du Bois gets to the heart of what race does.

It is worth revisiting this post, in which I discuss Du Bois’s understanding in the above quotation.

Lastly, here is a list of discussion questions that align with various sections of the reading. If you are using the reading in class, please avail of this version which I have divided into 7 thematic sections.

Alana Lentin