On Being Proper: Misreading W.E.B. Du Bois’s Respectability

It’s anyone’s best guess whether some recent attempts to link representative thinkers of African (American) intellectual traditions to political cultures not befitting their oeuvre emanate from noxious political cultures themselves, or whether such moves made largely in the public arena are simply intellectually dishonest or lazy. What is clear about these intellectual projects is that they are contemptible. One such project has been the now en vogue exercise among an emergent intellectual class in African America, that relishes in showing the “conservative” and/or “elitist” nature of thinkers who have preceded them, many of whom are (in)directly responsible for these pundits’ very existence. Less scholars, more self-described cultural critics and “race” writers, these commentators are the contemporary carriers of the strain of thinkers identified and denounced in Adolph Reed’s 1995 broadside, “What Are The Drums Saying, Booker?” Things seemingly have gotten worse. For in recent years, a number of the newer cultural critics have begun to tie the theoretical logic of the “politics of respectability” and its neoconservative trappings unwittingly to intellectual positions in the work of thinkers whose vocation was the utter evisceration of the anti-Black politics responsible for what Jacob Carruthers would say, “this mess that we’re in.”

This is all more than ironic. Why such analyses are not more often shunned may reveal the widespread ignorance regarding the ideological foundation of African thinking traditions in the modern era. More often than not, resistance to the oppressions of African people was the product of self-contained and autonomous spaces for engaging and acting upon ideas, which gave even what respectability theorists would consider “elite” institutions a nationalist[1] and/or radical bent. So it should seem odd to then connect their work to contemporary neoconservative thought… but such exercises are welcomed as “nuanced.” To evoke a recent talk by Gerald Horne, the work of critics of this ilk, are simply put, not serious.[2] In fact, it brings to mind other absurdities like Glenn Beck marshaling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to denounce decidedly moderate political ideas.

These analyses may also reveal that there has not been a clear embrace, among the emergent generation of public intellectuals, of Africana intellectual history. It seems as if the era of sound-bite media has filtered itself into the arena of writing, where one only needs to conceptualize the bits and pieces of particular ideas to employ them in whatever contexts may (or may not) fit. A cogent tradition of intellectual work becomes malleable. Why this is unacceptable should be clear. Yet it fits American media proclivities in the twenty first century. It works. It generates ratings. It generates hits. It’s cool. Ironically, respectability in this field, what some call the chattering class, becomes the ability to translate African ideas and thoughts to white audiences—and in ways that are outwardly defined, as the spaces that existed to support African thought in early times (i.e. the Black press) do not hold the positions of influence they once did.[3] How they emerge, through what institutions they are birthed, are key issues. But regardless of the answer, the imperative is that these thinkers be checked. They must be critiqued seriously, for it is only though a clear conception of intellectual history that ideas are passed down. The clutter must be removed. The passageway must remain clear.

While the new thinking class has its own standards of respectable race talk, it is the misreading of the politics of respectability and African thought that concerns us here. In recent moments, there have been a few instances where representatives of genealogies of African thinkers have been dallied about only to connect them to ideas unfaithful to the spirit out of which the original ones were conceived. An example from this past week comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates, the brilliant and thoughtful “race” writer for The Atlantic. Coates’ work has been deservedly well received, yet it cannot escape the fundamental contradictions inherent in representing “the race” to an American public—a public largely unwilling to understand (at least in the modalities that currently exist) the complicated nature of race, especially from Black voices. A contradiction made clear in the work of Nikhil Pal Singh, Cedric Robinson, and others, where what becomes public discourse about race is merely the permissible and constraining language that reduces people raced in America to their aspiration to achieve normative whiteness—or to look cool while failing (The Shawn Carter way).[4] These are public spaces that rely on the truncation of historical memory, for after all, provocative arguments trump all.

Coates’s “On the Death of Dreams” is another example of the now well-worn citations of President Barack Obama’s persistent personal responsibility diatribes. But in this particular instance, Coates begins by juxtaposing his critique of Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, with an extended quote from W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1896 address, “The Conservation of Races,” delivered at the founding of Alexander Crummell’s American Negro Academy. And if this weren’t awkward enough, he prefaces the quote by giving it the honorific of “the original poundcake speech,” evoking Bill Cosby’s speech delivered at the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education, where he essentially castigates Black culture as the primary issue responsible for the ills of the African community in America.

The quote Coates employs is Point #5 from the American Negro Academy Creed and it reads:

“We believe that the first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races–commonly called the Negro Problem-lies in the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage from slavery. We believe that only earnest and long continued efforts on our own part can cure these social ills.” (14)

Not only does Coates disregard the immediate context that led to Du Bois’s “Conservation” and to this particular point, he largely leaves to the imagination how the larger corpus of his work might in fact be relevant to that particular utterance. Coates’s intent is to connect this component of the text to a construed Du Boisian  attempt to fit the Africana experience into “white sociology”[5] and the idea that winning was linked to countering the ideas (i.e. being twice as better) that these sociologists harbored regarding their inferiority.  The uninitiated is left with the proposition that Du Bois’s politics were indeed the intellectual foundation for a Barack Obama or a Bill Cosby. For the initiated, anyone who has a basic grasp of these figures,[6] this is laughably absurd. Du Bois’s politics are not the politics of Barack Obama; they are certainly not the politics of Bill Cosby. But this is left unsaid in Coates’s article.[7] Indeed the point, following the above quote (Point #6 of the creed), speaks to a position that is largely anathema in the era of market-driven politics, of which Obama is the poster-boy:

“We believe that the second great step toward a better adjustment of the relations between races, should be a more impartial selection of ability in the economic and intellectual world, and a greater respect for personal liberty and worth, regardless of race. We believe that only earnest efforts on the part of the white people of this country will bring much needed reform in these matters.” (14)

Contra the recent conservative tradition in Black intellectual life, the question of personal responsibility and the resolution of the questions of race and racism are actually delinked, one being internal, the other largely external.[8] It is an interesting and unfortunate point we have reached, where links between such dissimilar ideological exemplars can even be made, where W.E.B. Du Bois once the intellectual father of the tradition[9] can be linked to decidedly anti-Black politics, where an evocation of the “Conservation” can be so misapplied, where his name can ring hollow. But what is most troubling is that a reading of “Conservation,” itself, could have been used to impugn the personal responsibility rhetoric of Obama, not only illuminating the issues inherent in that speech, but most importantly with his administration and of the entirety of the global political and economic system in which we find ourselves. For in this essay, Du Bois not only reframes the question of race, he establishes the idea that races are indeed the movers of history and the future relies on the abilities of these human groups to contribute to the world in ways that only they can (“Conservation,” p. 13). That it is not necessarily about the ending of segregation, though this is pressing; the real meaning of race was about the spiritual differences that determine realities. That it was through groups that ideas are generated, and that among these were the idea that led to the ideal of life responsible for segregation, and that it was imperative for each group to have their say to cure it (“Conservation,” 4-8).  For it is through one’s conception of reality that such ideologies emerge, and that it was imperative for the Negro (via The American Negro Academy) to enter the so-called Great Conversation on these terms. Or risk complete annihilation, as E. Franklin Frazier (who would come to deplore the empty rhetoric of race talk in favor of these deeper conversations) would later say. This is the great contribution of Du Bois and others in this tradition.

For Du Bois, respectability was not about ascription to or acceptance into whiteness. This was not his plea to establish Negro finishing schools. On the contrary, borrowing from Anna Julia Cooper[10], Du Bois asserts that social equality, was not necessarily the goal, but social equilibrium, the idea that cultures (races) can have equal footing in terms of the articulation of ideals of life (Point #4 of the Creed). These ideals—linked to the foundational mores of African humanity—were to be the basis for interpreting policy and for human cultural development in the United States. Like other thinkers before him, Du Bois’s ideological position was about the restoration of African ways of being in the world—the ways that slavery had partially obscured. And it was the utilization of these ways to then inform what was to be done. Furthermore, Du Bois links the conservation of races to the larger pan-African community, the idea being that it was beyond the national boundaries of America, that respectability mean a sense of African beingness—that it was about occupying one’s throne (“Conservation,” p. 9). It was being who we were so that we could be who we need to be. It was about the Yoruba would call, iwa pele, or aspiring to good character. And of course, this was a notion that was to be inwardly defined, for respectability was an internal affair, one determined by culture, what Du Bois calls the “Divine faith of our black mothers” (“Conservation,” 11). This was the standard. An idea absent in nearly all of the “conservative” positions.

The faith of the folk was the true passageway to liberation. For Du Bois this was clear. For his modern day readers, this basic fact continues to be misread. For if Du Bois were an elite in the sense that is used today, as a pejorative, it becomes interesting to note that without his intellectual work and those of his coterie, the traditions we now embrace as “radical” would be foreign to us.  What is more likely, is that Du Bois from his “elite” status, discovered and consciously endeavored to be near an more representative, African-based intellectual tradition, one that in Cedric Robinson’s estimation, was linked to the masses, the base from which Du Bois’s work was derivative.[11] What is more likely, is that in using language that has been remixed by “culture of poverty” theorists, Du Bois was actually resolving the question of slavery and cultural memory by evoking and encouraging a standard of behavior that can only be linked to African notions of character, which interestingly was the preserve of both the folk and the elite. This “gift of Black folk” Du Bois recognized, was the same as that which has sustained us. The same as that which has prevented us from cultural annihilation and by such acts of resistance has made it harder and harder to achieve the “utter destruction of color discrimination in American life,”[12] for what is required for the latter continues to be absorption into whiteness (“Conservation,” p. 9).


[1] A term which is limiting, but what we are talking about here is what Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: Morrow, 1967) calls the “rejected strain.” I argue their “rejection” is however rather recent, and that the only reason they have been rejected is because the more expansive tradition has had what Cedric Robinson calls an “economy of expression.” See Cedric Robinson, Black Movements in America (New York: Routledge, 1997), 97.

[2] In a February 2013 talk at Clark Atlanta University, Horne discussed the “Failure of the African American Intellectual” to live up to the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, outlining the inabilities of current thinkers to conceptualize the role of race and class in an international context in the tradition of Du Bois and others.

[3] For an example of this oft-evoked argument, see the above cited seminal article by Adolph Reed and more recently, Pascal Robert, “Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Danger of the Black Cultural Tour Guide.” Black Agenda Report, March 2013, http://blackagendareport.com/content/ta-nehisi-coates-and-danger-black-cultural-tour-guide

[4] See Cedric Robinson, Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2007) and Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[5] As Northwestern sociologist Aldon Morris and others have shown, there was really no clear “white sociology” at the time (c. 1896), though what did exist were notions of inferiority inherent in the biological sciences, which by the time the discipline had been organized, would be the foundations it drew from.

[6] A quick perusal of the comments section, leads one to conclude that this does not characterize many readers of The Atlantic.

[7] We only get the mention of David Levering Lewis’s speculation that Du Bois may have “come to look back on the speech with embarrassment.”  Lewis in his haste to link Du Bois to Western intellectual traditions (i.e. Victorianism) is quoted in full as asserting that: “… Du Bois would later consider his academy paper to be a youthful effusion that was something of an embarrassment as he strode through the new century as slayer of racial doctrines, it would represent one highly significant skein of his complex intellectual makeup until the end of his days. The raw racism that a future generation of Germans and other Europeans would espouse in the perverted names of Fichte, Hegel, Herder, de Gobineau, and Nietzsche was a stupendous irony that awaited not only Du Bois but large numbers of incredulously men and women whose intellectual maturity had come during the ebb tide of Victorianism.” See David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Biography of a Race (New York: Henry Holt, 1993). In these comments, Lewis is asserting (again speculatively) that Du Bois came to rethink his embrace of ideals that races contribute to humanity as groups—ideas that he believes had led to the rise of a German brand of racism—not the ideas that Coates’s are emphasizing.

[8] Cf. Greg Carr in his “Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism, and the African World History Project: The Case of Africana Studies for African Cultural Development,” in African American Consciousness: Past and Present, ed. James Conyers (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012), 21n29 where he states that while conservative thinkers view the project of delinking from white liberal politics for economic power and self-help politics, they largely embrace “the idea of Europe” as the civilizational standard to be embraced. This was arguably never the position of W.E.B. Du Bois.

[9] See John Henrik Clarke, et al. Black Titan: W.E.B. Du Bois (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) for a sense of this relationship.

[10] See Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 109-110.

[11] See Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2000), 184.

[12] W.E.B. Du Bois, “Whither Now and Why,” in The Education of Black Folk: Ten Critiques, ed. Herbert Aptheker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 195.

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