Re-reading W.E.B Dubois’s 90-year old essay on race and modern imperialism, Bill Fletcher Jr finds that is still relevant today, in the wake of the US’s November 2010 elections and ‘the victories…by the political Right’.
‘“But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” 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!’
– W.E.B. Dubois, from ‘The Souls of White Folk’
I am not sure what led me back to it. I had read W.E.B. Dubois’s ‘The Souls of White Folk’ (originally published in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil , 1920) years ago. At the time I was moved by this often-ignored essay but simply filed it away in the recesses of my memory.
Yet I returned to it. I had been thinking about right-wing populism and white nationalism in the USA and at some point I found myself Googling this piece. There were three things that immediately struck me: (1) by coincidence, it was published exactly 90 years ago, (2) it read, in many respects, as if it had been written yesterday, and (3) it was both passionate and poetic in its style, but equally biting in its critique of white supremacy and imperialism.
‘The Souls of White Folk’ was an essay written in the aftermath of the First World War and the despicable Versailles Treaty of 1919 which formally ended the war. Mainstream historians often focus on the mean-spirited punishment that the Allied Powers brought upon Germany, thereby laying the foundation for the Second World War. Little attention is given, however, to the hypocritical attitude of the Allied Powers with respect to the colonial world, the ‘darker races,’ to borrow from the title of Vijay Prashad’s excellent book. Representatives of the colonial world (including from Black America) gathered in Versailles to ascertain whether the Allied Powers (USA, Britain, France, Italy) would be true to their commitment to support the right of national self-determination. The future leader of the Vietnamese Revolution, Ho Chi Minh, was one such person who made the trek to Versailles, hoping that Vietnam, and the rest of Indochina, would secure self-determination.
Instead of receiving justice, the coloured peoples of the world were ignored. The former colonies of Germany were either handed over outright to other colonial powers or they were placed into a League of Nations trusteeship, but in neither case were they able to secure independence. Dubois observed this first hand, having attended the Versailles conference. He subsequently helped to convene a Pan African Congress in order to address the fact that the African world had been so overlooked.
‘The Souls of White Folk’ takes as its starting point an analysis of the origins of the First World War. Rather than accepting the established notion that it was a war for democracy and self-determination, Dubois embraces the assessment that it was an imperialist war focused on the objective of gaining greater portions of the colonial world for this or that imperialist power. This was an analysis advanced by Russia’s V.I. Lenin at the start of the First World War and for much of the Left it has subsequently become a basic truism.
‘The Souls of White Folk’ would be a powerful document if it simply stopped there, but Dubois goes further and in doing so makes this document one that cannot be read simply as an historical piece, but one that remains critically important today. Dubois turns to the question of race and, in fact, white privilege, and demonstrates the linkages between race and imperialism. Dubois notes, for example: ‘Behold little Belgium and her pitiable plight, but has the world forgotten Congo?’ For those not up on their First World War history (and no criticism is implied), much was made of the German subjugation of Belgium. Yet Dubois asks about the Congo, and this is not simply a throwaway line. Belgium, through King Leopold, controlled the Congo during which time it put to death 10 to 12 million people. Dubois, of course, could not know what was soon to be facing European Jews and the annihilation of six million of them at the hands of the Nazis (who in 1920 were just getting organised), but that Holocaust received international attention, whereas the holocaust inflicted on the Congolese people was all but ignored at the time that it happened, in the aftermath of the First World War, and, indeed, in the aftermath of the Second World War. For Dubois, imperialism was not racially blind.
Dubois situates the matter of race directly with modern imperialism. He makes the point that the degrading of this or that part of humanity has been with us for thousands of years, but that it is with the rise of modern Europe that we see the rise of what he terms ‘the eternal world-wide mark of meanness,--color!’
Race (or racist oppression) becomes a process of dehumanising the targets of colonial oppression, turning them into something less than men and women and thereby making it easier to overlook their suffering. This is what was powerful in his example of Belgium. It was not that Dubois was ignoring the suffering of the people of Belgium. Rather he was focusing on the fact that the so-called civilised world could so easily ignore the suffering and murder of so many millions of people in the Congo and elsewhere, people who happened to be black, brown, yellow and red.
There is another piece to race that Dubois suggests, i.e. that it also dehumanises so-called whites. Over the years this concept has gained greater scholarly attention, though for the ‘darker races’ of the world it was a piece of common sense. We grew up with our parents suggesting ‘…in order to keep someone in the sewer you have to stay there with them…’ and other such aphorisms.
As part of his critique of imperialism and racism, Dubois holds a mirror to the USA and says, much as Dr. M. L. King would say slightly more than forty years later: ‘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. No nation is less fitted for this role.’ In reading this I found myself thinking about the role of the USA in the talks between the Israeli government and the Palestine National Authority, claiming to be the honest broker while ignoring Israel’s further aggression, most recently in the form of the expansion of the illegal settlements. But it is more fundamental than that: The actions of the Israelis represent a replication of those taken by US settlers as they expanded West, taking lands from the Native Americans and the Mexicans.
‘The Souls of White Folk’ riveted me because of its continued relevance. At a moment, in the aftermath of the November 2010 elections and the victories (albeit complicated) by the political Right, I found myself thinking about the ‘souls’ that inhabit so many white folk in the USA, souls that have been shaped by a perception of their own alleged superiority and infallibility as white Americans in comparison to the entirety of humanity. These souls, however, resemble ghouls rather than angels as they haunt not only the victims of centuries of white supremacist terror, but also haunt the owners themselves, disfiguring them and, as Dubois so poetically puts it, rendering them less than human.
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* This article first appeared in BlackCommentator.com and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
* BlackCommentator.com editorial board member, Bill Fletcher Jr, is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of ‘Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice’ (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organised labour in the USA.
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