Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Charles Johnson on W.E.B. DuBois
“One ever feels his twoness---an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks.
For most of the afternoon I've been searching in vain for a copy of my 1993 New York Times book review of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, edited by Gerald Early. This is a heuristic starting point for any discussion of whether DuBois's more than one hundred year old description of black American being still has relevance. In it twenty black American writers and scholars examine DuBois's formula. The contributors include Molefi Kete Asante, Toni Cade Bambara, Stephen L. Carter, Wanda Coleman, Stanley Crouch, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Darlene Clark Hine, Kristin Hunter Lattany, C. Eric Lincoln, Glenn C. Loury, Reginald McKnight, James McPherson, Kenneth R. Manning, Ella Pearson Mitchell, Wilson J. Moses, Itabari Njeri, Alton B. Pollard III, Robert Staples, and Anthony Walton.
A century after Dr. DuBois published his trenchant (for the times) and often quoted definition of black being, I find that today one element most in need of revision is that which speaks of "two unreconciled strivings" insofar as the first black American president is presently campaigning for his second term.
Before Barack Obama's election, the world held its breath at the unprecedented possibility of a black man taking up residency in the White House. On the day of his inauguration, celebrations were held all over this planet. A watershed moment in world history unfolded before our eyes. But just two or three months into his first term a reporter asked him about the nearly magical spell caused when he, his wife and children became the First Family. Obama's reply was telling and important: "That lasted about a day."
One day, I believe, is all that the celebration of the first black president deserved, especially in Obama's case, for this country was struggling (and is still struggling) with its greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. No one much cared by March, 2009 if President Obama listened to Lil Wayne on his I-Pod or if the White House chef put soul food on the menu or if he was reading black authors before going to bed at night. What citizens wanted to know was how the president they elected to serve all the people would save their jobs and save their homes from foreclosure---indeed, how he would salvage the crippled American economy. To borrow a phrase from Herbert Marcuse (and to leave the critique that comes with it off to one side), what is operative here is---not DuBois's 1903 description---but the Performance Principle, and in much the way we judge athletes, i.e., not by how much melanin they possess, but their performance on the playing field.
Today, then, the concern of most Americans who are not bigoted or brain-dead is less with whether you are black, a Muslim, a woman, or gay, as with what you can do. At this moment I'm reminded of the phrase esse est operari, or "To be is to act." That phrase has received much interpretation from theologians and students of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. But at this moment, and in the context of this discussion of Du Bois's century-old definition, as well as the "global, knowledge-based economy" we presently find ourselves within, I will venture to say that at the dawn of the 21st century and a new millennium, what we call "identity" is (or should be) overwhelmingly defined by our individual actions and deeds. As Sartre suggested when he wrote, "Existence precedes essence," we---each and every one of us---are creating our "essence" or being (the meaning of our lives) every day, moment by moment, through what we do and don't do. The meaning of what and who we are is not pre-given. Being a Buddhist, I have no empirical evidence to support a belief in DuBois's "two souls." In terms of a conventional approach to talking about either "identity" or the "self," I feel both are best seen as a process, not a product. A verb, not a noun.
For these reasons, I would happily in 2011 retire DuBois's segregation-era description (along with its sensational imagery of inner warfare ) and replace it with something a bit more dynamic such as esse est operari.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 4:21 AM