#27, December 19, 2003


The Heart of the World



This essay is an early draft of the “Afterword” that I was asked to write for W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Negro, which the University of Pennsylvania Press wanted to reprint.  My draft endeavored to make comparisons between Du Bois’s work on Africa and that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., emphasizing a clear preference for the former over the latter.  Such an approach was not deemed judicious by my editor and I was asked to change it.  The results of doing this led to certain improvements in the final text that would be published in 2001, and refinements of ideas not explored in the draft.  So it was probably salutary advice.  However, I still believe that the comparison I was making was a useful one and excising it from the paper represented a loss of sorts.  The publisher also neglected to use my title, which was a little aggravating.  For these reasons I decided to return to the original and reproduce a version of it below.




It is a curious commentary on modern prejudice that most of this splendid history of civilization and uplift is unknown to-day, and men confidently assert that Negroes have no history.

                          W.E.B. Du Bois, The Negro, p. 61.


For some people, when you say ‘Timbuktu’ it is like the end of the world, but that is not true.  I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world.

            – Ali Farka Toure, “Talking Timbuktu


On the cusp of a new century the preeminent African American intellectual of his day set about reassessing Africa and the relationship of African Americans’ with the continent of their ancestors.  Undertaking a ten-month trip through Africa followed by the arduous task of “distill[ing] into a general discourse the extensive scholarship of hundreds of excellent historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists,” he endeavored to open the eyes of black and white America to the complexity and richness of African history and the continent’s many civilizations.[1]  What Henry Louis Gates, Jr. undertook in his 1999 PBS series, Wonders of the African World, in many ways resembled the earlier efforts of W.E.B. Du Bois who published his Home University Library of Modern Knowledge edition of The Negro in 1915.  Lifting the veil from African history, a veil that had enabled Europeans to exploit African resources and deny that Africans had a meaningful history comparable to their own, Du Bois had synthesized the most recent historical and anthropological scholarship in the most thorough and accessible account of Africa and the African Diaspora till then written


Drawing out the similarities and differences between Gates’s and Du Bois’s projects can help reacquaint us with the latter’s formidable contribution in The Negro, something that has become necessary recently.  While the significance of Du Bois’s text was readily apparent at the time it was published, especially among African and African American intellectuals, and remained so during the 1970s, when newly-independent African states had not yet begun to falter and Du Bois’s work was still fresh in the minds of many scholars, the book is remembered less well today.[2]  Now, scholars and students are more likely to be familiar with other writings by Du Bois, like The Philadelphia Negro (which is considered a foundational text in sociology), The Souls of Black Folk (which cemented Du Bois’s reputation in opposition to Booker T. Washington and provided a way of reevaluating black culture), and, to a lesser extent, Black Reconstruction in America (which has inspired leading historians of American Reconstruction).[3]  In his acclaimed biography of Du Bois, David Levering Lewis does describe The Negro as a “pioneering synthesis of the latest scholarship brilliantly beamed through a revisionist lens,” but overall he is somewhat dismissive of the work.[4]  Devoting no more than a couple of paragraphs to an examination of the text, Lewis notes Du Bois’s conformity to some of the racial and elitist assumptions of his period.  He writes:


In what was the first general history yet written in English on the subject, Du Bois casually informed readers that “in disposition the Negro is among the most lovable of men,” that there could be “no doubt of the Negro’s deep and delicate sense of beauty in form, color, and sound,” or that “Haiti’s peasantry is “the happiest and most contented peasantry in the world.”[5]


For Lewis, Du Bois was here clearly endorsing racial stereotypes and romanticizing the condition of peasants in Haiti, though, given Du Bois’s extensive study of the conditions of the South’s peasants it is hard to imagine that he really intended to suggest that Haitian peasants were living in a paradise.[6]  Lewis does note somewhat cryptically but (one presumes) positively:


Greatly indebted to Boas, von Luschan, Alexander F. Chamberlain, Robert H. Lowie, Jacques Loeb, and other social and physical scientists (all extensively quoted), the pages of The Negro were littered with fallacious concepts exploded by Du Bois – estimates of black African technological backwardness in the Neolithic Age, Aryan and Hamatic foundations of ancient civilizations, color-based presumptions of inferiority prior to the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe, absence of high culture and complex political structures in precolonial Africa, and so on. [7]


In sum, for Lewis the book’s influence is seen in the flourishing of Afrocentric scholarship: “The Negro was a large building block in an Afrocentric historiography,” which, he writes, “achieved its credibility through the writings of scholars such as Basil Davidson, Martin Bernal, and Cheikh Anta Diop.”[8]  As just noted, however, its “credibility” had been established long before these scholars’ contributions.  Moreover, to label the work Afrocentric in this way leaves the misleading impression that it uncritically enshrines a category of race, or conforms to a perspective that Kwame Anthony Appiah mocks as “Egyptianist”, when the impetus of the book was, in my view, precisely in the opposite direction.[9]  It is it is time, once again therefore, to take a closer look at The Negro.  But to get a better sense of this path-breaking study’s importance, the degree to which it was ahead of its time and its enduring significance, let us return to our comparison with the most recent attempt to popularize African history in the United States.


The similarities between Wonders of the African World and The Negro arise in part from the fact that Gates has set himself the task of fulfilling Du Bois’s project.  Nowhere perhaps is this clearer than in the publication of Africana, which the two editors, Appiah and Gates, proclaim as the fruition of Du Bois’s life-long dream.[10]  Appiah and Gates strive in this volume to provide “a sense of the wide diversity of peoples, cultures, and traditions that we know about Africa in historical times, a feel for the environment in which that history was lived, and a broad outline of the contributions of people of African descent, especially in the Americas, but, more generally, around the world.”[11]  Similar objectives had shaped Du Bois’s work on the Encyclopedia Africana, which began when the European “Scramble for Africa” was still at its height and terminated in the wake of successful movements for African independence with the Du Bois’s death on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963.[12]


Both Wonders of the African World and The Negro surfaced at times that can be considered turning points in African history.  In the aftermath of the fall of Berlin Wall and the end of Cold War animosities, which frequently became hot in Africa, considerable change has occurred throughout the continent. The end of the Cold War further generated the assumption that a new global economy had emerged, with Africa as one of the newer sites in the process of globalization.  This is epitomized in Wonders by a conversation Gates has with some young boys who were guiding him up to the Tissisat falls.  They spoke splendid English, Gates notes:


I asked one of them if he had ever had malaria.  “No,” he replied, “but my brother did.  My older brother now lives abroad in Australia.  He faxed s a list of all the different medicines that my younger brother could take to cure it.”…

                        “You have a fax machine?” I asked, incredulous.

                        “Yes, of course,” he responded calmly. “Our entire village does.”[13]


Although one aspect of this transformation has been political instability arising from changing regimes, it has also been a time of possibility and opportunity all across Africa, beginning with Nelson Mandela’s triumph in South Africa, through recent attempts to end corruption in places like Nigeria (which Gates rightly refused to visit in protest against the military dictatorship of Soni Abacha).  Such possibilities are accompanied by moral imperatives to engage with African nations to ensure that the kinds of horrors like those witnessed in Somalia and Rwanda, which often have their roots in poverty, do not occur again.  Gates’s intellectual journey, therefore, provides a fitting accompaniment to the visits of President Clinton to several African countries, the first such trips by a sitting American President to the continent.


At the time Du Bois was writing The Negro change in Africa also seemed to be dawning.  The “Scramble” had ended and the process of beginning to transform the colonial regimes that had emerged was underway.  Reforms following revelations about the barbarity of the colonial regime in the Congo (which, as Adam Hochschild has made clear, provide the backdrop to events in Mobutu’s Zaire[14]) seemed to suggest that widespread abhorrence to injustice and cruelty might lead to change, not just in regimes like the Belgian Congo, but in colonies where rulers did not want to be tainted by association with the atrocities inflicted on the Congolese peoples.  While Du Bois’s optimism was not yet anti-colonial in nature (he did not predict the rise of nationalist movements in this book), it was nonetheless moving towards a Pan-Africanism shaped by a belief that changes were going to occur in Africa (especially given that the colonial rulers had extended themselves too far in the World War and were becoming increasingly dependent on assistance from their colonial subjects).[15]


Lastly, both authors seem to share a sensibility derived from their location as scholars living in the United States, a sensibility that in Du Bois’s day would have been labeled Progressive.  Both Du Bois and Gates believe in the benefits of western civilization and both write at a time when a belief in progress prevails.  For Gates there is a sense that the world is becoming smaller, so much so that it has now become necessary for him to provide an answer to his daughter’s question (asked when he made an earlier visit to Africa) about what it was that she and the people they observed outside the train car in which they traveled might possibly have in common.[16]  And, while it is important to remember the “tragedy” alongside the “romance” of Africa (to borrow from the opening lines of The Negro), the overall feeling left by Wonders is that the new constructive engagement brought about by globalization will eventually elevate Africa to a status alongside other civilizations.  For Du Bois, the horrors of globalization (the slave trade and imperialism) still scarred Africa, but some progress for “the Negro” had occurred nonetheless and a process of uplift would likely follow. 


The differences between the two texts, however, may be more significant than their similarities.  Indeed, while The Negro was intended to lay the foundation for an Encyclopedia Africana, it was also very much an opening salvo against the American academy for its neglect of Africa and African Americans, one that would be followed by other assaults on the ivory tower.[17] Later work on Africa would endeavor to flesh out Du Bois’s critique, strengthened by his Marxian analysis of what he called the “propaganda of history,” and culminating in the transfer of the encyclopedia project from New York to Ghana at the end of the scholar’s life.[18]  And, while Du Bois had reached the same academic heights as Gates, he would mostly work outside the academy.  He would hold only a temporary position at the University of Pennsylvania, when he was hired to undertake research that would result in the publication of The Philadelphia Negro, and would be offered a long-term one only at Atlanta University, which enabled him to produce the widely respected Atlanta University sociological studies.[19]  But none of the major universities of the country would offer Du Bois a position commensurate to the Harvard Ph.D. that he had earned and his Berlin graduate training which, but for limited financial support, he would have completed.[20]  He remained an outsider, forced to launch his assault on the academy from his position as editor of The Crisis. 


Gates meanwhile is clearly part of an academic mainstream, a former Cambridge University postgraduate student, embraced by Yale and Duke, before establishing at Harvard University the most influential African American Studies Program in the country.  Indeed, Gates’s location highlights both how much the academy has become more inclusive since Du Bois’s day (in part owing to the recognition of the earlier scholar-activist’s achievements) and the growing political divisions that now exist within the black community.  A television series recording a trip to Africa by the Afrocentrist Asante, for example, would have been a very different enterprise from Gates’s, with a different sensibility and altogether different funding sources.[21]  When Gates meets Louis Farrakhan in Ethiopia, the fractured nature of African American politics is made abundantly clear.[22]  One might argue, it is true, that had The Negro been written by Marcus Garvey it too would be a different text.  But Du Bois was writing this before Garvey had arrived in the United States (in some ways making the point about the degree of uniformity among African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century).  In addition, the work was written in a way likely to smooth over potential political conflicts about Africa.  Any African American politician or intellectual at the time, from Alexander Crummell to Booker T. Washington and Carter G. Woodson, would have endorsed Du Bois’s text.


Thus, while we have noted some similarities between Gates and Du Bois in their location and sensibility with regard to Africa and Africans, there are differences here also.  Du Bois retained an academic distance throughout The Negro.  For better or worse, he endeavored to read the archive of materials already assembled on the subject to represent African history anew.  Dealing with and emerging out of an academic and political culture that valued highly the notion of objectivity and which believed in paying homage to the recognized authorities, he needed to challenge mainstream beliefs using an archive that was already firmly in place.  Though Du Bois had previously shown (in The Souls of Black Folk) the value of speaking as a representative of a people, highlighting the problem of race through his own personal experience, in The Negro he eschewed such an approach (while clearly identifying emotionally with the project).  Here he seemed to suggest that this study could have been written by anyone acquainted with the evidence who aspired to objectivity – in other words, who was not blinded by color prejudice.[23]


Gates, by contrast, perhaps owing in part to the medium of television helping to shape his project, puts together a latter-day Souls of Black Folk.  He is there in person marching through the terrain and history of Africa.  It is his reaction, now as an American, now as an African American, that is the story.  He looks askance at a world with which he is unfamiliar, looking for a heritage that he can call his own, even, somewhat ironically, almost scolding the descendents of people involved in the slave trade for their ancestors’ moral transgressions.[24]  While Du Bois sees the scars of the slave trade visited on the Africans, Gates seems to wear his scars and wants his own victim-hood to be acknowledged.  Dressed in a Harvard University tee-shirt while addressing people living in relative poverty, his attempt to acknowledge his own location in the story distances him from any complicity, either as himself a potential descendent of a slave trader, or as a citizen of a country that has spent years subordinating a continent to the needs of a global power struggle with the Soviet Union.  Further, while Du Bois’s distanced manner leads to an expansive perspective of Africa, seen through diasporas, trade, and imperialism, which necessarily pulls him into the fray, Gates’ engagement leaves his own world at some distance, uninterrogated, giving himself the status of tourist, and his viewing public that of sympathetic (if at times bewildered) onlookers. Du Bois, then, pulls the reader into the vortex of world history that is Africa writ large; Gates shrinks Africa down to a place that “we” need to appreciate more fully if we are to integrate it into our new global economy.  That the new economy is an extension of slavery and the slave trade is acknowledged in Du Bois’s work; in Gates these human tragedies or holocausts must be remembered lest we become overly absorbed in the scramble once again for African commodities.  Gates’s fear is that history may be forgotten; Du Bois’s hope is that history may yet be understood.


Arising out of his particular sensibility, then, we see Du Bois in The Negro attempt to fashion a vision of an alternative world out of his study of Africa, something that is not evident in Gates’s enterprise.[25]  In The Negro Du Bois combines the romanticism that had been evident in The Souls of Black Folk, with a rejuvenated faith in science gained from his attendance at the Universal Races Congress held in London in 1911. He had suggested in Souls that Africans had something to bring to the conversation of cultures – alongside Shakespeare there would be the Sorrow Song.  Added to this, Du Bois derived a great deal of optimism from reading the work of the very people that he cited so liberally throughout The Negro, attendees at the Congress like Franz Boas, [Ratzel] and Spiller.  Although Du Bois’s feelings towards the scientific method found in sociology had soured considerably, his feelings about history and anthropology, both of which would be the pillars of his encyclopedic work, remained positive.  And with the fact that the civilization of Shakespeare and Goethe had now erupted in a “European civil war,” he could hope that the special “gift of black folk” might receive a fairer hearing.  It is in this context that Du Bois’s comments that “in disposition the Negro is among the most lovable of men,” and that there could be “no doubt of the Negro’s deep and delicate sense of beauty in form, color, and sound” need to be read.  As the war among Europeans was hardening into a bloodbath in Flanders, Du Bois’s “casual declarations” of this sort may have seemed self-evident.  Hence the world might be redeemed in a different world order, as Du Bois proclaimed in The Negro’s final passage:


In a conscious sense of unity among colored races there is to-day only a growing interest.  There is slowly arising not only a curiously strong brotherhood of Negro blood throughout the world, but the common cause of the darker races against the intolerable assumptions and insults of Europeans has already found expression.  Most men in this world are colored.  A belief in humanity means a belief in colored men.  The future will, in all reasonable probability, be what colored men make it.  In order for this colored world to come into its heritage, must the earth again be drenched in the blood of fighting, snarling human beasts, or will Reason and Good Will prevail?  That such may be true, the character of the Negro race is the best and greatest hope; for in its normal condition it is at once the strongest and gentlest of the races of men: “Semper novi quid ex Africa.”[242]


This Latin phrase (literally “Always something new from Africa”) is in direct contrast to the contemporary beliefs that Africa was a stagnating dark continent; it is Africa, the land of migration and newness, that provides Du Bois with his beacon of light for the future.  Such a hope for “unity among colored peoples” animated his endeavors at the Pan-African Conference in Paris in 1919 and remained with Du Bois throughout the 1920s (as is evident in his 1927 novel, The Dark Princess).[26] 


That said, the war which was at one level bringing to the fore the contradictions of a European civilization founded on slavery, colonialism and their creation, the color line, was in many ways blurring the vision that he had glimpsed at the end of this work, and was beginning the process of cutting African Americans off from their international alliances.  The kind of alienation from Africa among African Americans that Gates describes at the outset of Wonders, and which is most noticeable in the work of Richard Wright, was in many ways a product of the post-World War One period.[27]  There were a few African Americans, like Du Bois and Paul Robeson, who managed to forge a “black Atlantic” milieu that encompassed Africa; and there were times, like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, that would mobilize African Americans to embrace African concerns.[28]  Nevertheless, African American sentiments towards Africa were becoming increasingly conflicted, as the United States became first increasingly isolationist and then the dominant world power. 


Lastly, a key difference between The Negro and Wonders of the African World derives from what their authors’ chose for their subjects.  Both authors, as noted, wanted to increase awareness of Africa’s history, and this meant trying to discover, as Gates writes, “who, indeed, ‘the African people’ were and what, in fact they had contributed to civilization.”[29]  But, as their titles suggest, one chose examining the people themselves as the best way to achieve this goal, while the other chose places or sites.  It may be that this is merely a matter of convenience in Gates’s case.  The African world is immense, many times larger than the United States, and he believes he needs some way of breaking it down for the reader.  It turned out that “the items” on Gates’s list of “wonders” “conveniently, mercifully, clustered,” so that he “could encompass most of them in six journeys.”[30] But, while both the television series and the published volume attest to the splendid results that might follow from this undertaking, the kind of history that usually emerges from such an approach is problematic.  It is one that will tend to be static, converting places of struggle and sites of contestation, into “wonders” and cultural artifacts, semper antiqui quid.  Getting from such a past to the present, reigniting the sense of relevance of this history for the American, except via the Middle Passage, will be made more not less difficult by this approach.  Such a work will either tend to reduce the history of Africa to the significance of that Middle Passage (in the same way that the history of slavery can be reduced erroneously to the story of the Amistad), or it will make it a celebration of the glorious civilizations of the past.  In either case, the process of silencing (as Michel-Rolph Trouillot would describe it) of large chunks of African history will not go uncontested.[31]  Certainly the standard European historical trope about Africa, that it is merely the victim of world historical forces provided by Europe, would provincialize the continent once again.[32]  In addition, the very absence of these lost civilizations will severely test their power to pass muster against more recent ones.  Perhaps, if we have seen the Soviet empire disappear, then we can understand, with Gibbon, that these things rise and fall.  But, for many Americans, the collapse of that other empire only seems to have validated their own.


Looking directly at the wonder that is The Negro may make this point clearer still.  Du Bois’s work is a social history of sorts, perhaps an early ethno-history.  He is casting his gaze on people in Africa.  He certainly notes all the empires that wax and wane, but he is most interested in the people as they move around the continent, migrants all.  Indeed, while commentators have overlooked this, migration is of prime importance to this volume, defining the different peoples in all the various sections of Africa. We learn of the wandering herdsmen on the Senegal River in early times who then “changed to a Negro or dark mulatto people and lived scattered in small communities between the Atlantic and Darfur.”(p. 60)  We find out that in coastal West Africa, “Movement and migration is evident along this coast in ancient and modern times.”  Du Bois continues:


The Yoruba-Benin-Dahomey peoples were among the earliest arrivals, with their remarkable art and industry, which places them in some lines of technique abreast with the modern world.  Behind them came the Mossi from the north, and many other peoples in recent days have filtered through, like the Limba and Temni of Sierra Leone and the Agni-Ashanti, who moved from Borgu some two thousand years ago to the Gold and Ivory Coasts. 

            We have already noted in the main the history of black men along the wonderful Niger and seen how, pushing up from the Gulf of Guinea, a powerful wedge of ancient culture held back Islam for a thousand years, now victorious, now stubbornly disputing every inch of retreat….(p. 63)


Meanwhile in the Great Lakes region there was “endless movement and migration both in ancient and modern days,” which makes the region “very difficult to understand.”(p. 80)  Also we learn that “the first clearly defined movement of modern times,” the migration of the Bantu from central to southern Africa, began “at least a thousand years before Christ.”(p. 80)  And it is not just people who move.  Trade routes circulate ideas, customs, and commodities around the continent and beyond its boundaries.  It is this focus on migration (a major preoccupation of 1990s ethnic studies programs) that gives Du Bois’s book its current feel, and which also enables it to speak to so many areas of historical scholarship about Africa and the world that have developed since. The current rage to internationalize American History, for example, clearly has long roots, and one could hardly do better than take The Negro as a guide for such an enterprise.[33] 


This perspective has important implications.  First, it helps to explain Du Bois’s belief that “the character of the Negro race is the best and greatest hope,” and his sense that the race has an important role to play in the emergence of a world order that is based on humanitarian principles.  Africa has been connected to such transformations in the past, in the shaping of Egyptian and Greek civilizations, as a font of world religions, and providing the labor that would make possible the emergence industrial capitalism.  Its people had spread across the globe, and in all sections of it still felt the sting arising from racial prejudice, the kind of alienation that Marx saw as the basis of a revolutionary consciousness.[34]


Second, notions of race to which Du Bois had subscribed earlier in his career were clearly brought into question by his discussion of migration.  If people are migrating they are also becoming “mongrelized” (to borrow from Ann Douglas[35]) and we have to question a classificatory system that defines them as if they were immobile.  In his earlier writings on race, like “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois had tended to romanticize the category of race.[36]  According to Appiah, Du Bois attempted to assail racism by developing an alternative category of race in which racial characteristics were not seen as being related to biological or intrinsic moral differences, but were socio-historical in nature – in other words, they were socially constructed.  Yet, having taken form they developed histories and cultures and these gave races meaning.  Thus Du Bois had written, ‘the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races.’[37]  In this history, according to Appiah ‘races have a “message” for humanity,’ and each one differed.  One was not better than another; it was merely different.  In short, Du Bois had wanted to take a concept of race that was constructed along a vertical, hierarchical axis (one race is better than another) and give it a horizontal reading.[38]


In The Negro, however, Du Bois seemed to rely more heavily on the idea of race as a social construction, and, through his attention to migration, he came pretty close to throwing out a racial classification system altogether.  For example, he quotes Ratzel: “There is only one species of man.  The variations are numerous, but do not go deep. “  He then continues:


To this we may add the word of the Secretary of the First Races Congress [Spiller]: “We are, then, under the necessity of concluding that an impartial investigator would be inclined to look upon the various important peoples of the world as to all intents and purposes essentially equal in intellect, enterprise, morality and physique.[39] 


Then, after extolling the virtues of African culture, Du Bois informs his reader:


All this does not mean that the African Negro is not human with the all-too-well-known foibles of humanity.  Primitive life among them is, after all, as bare and cruel as among primitive Germans or Chinese, but it is not more so, and the more we study the Negro the more we realize that we are dealing with a normal human stock which under reasonable conditions has developed and will develop in the same lines as other men.(p. 138)


Such cultural relativism obviously reflects the views then gaining currency in the work of Spiller and Boas, among others.  But it also is not far removed from Appiah’s own view that race cannot stand up to philosophical scrutiny, and that of a scholar like Paul Gilroy, who founds hopes for a new humanism, global and cosmopolitan, on the renunciation of race.[40]


But Du Bois’s analysis takes a different turn in the ensuing passages.  He asks why it is, if the African Negro shares this common humanity with others, that “misinformation and contempt is widespread concerning Africa and its people.”  One reason for this, he says, lies in the connotation of the term “Negro” and its changing definition in different contexts.  There is the North American definition, with which Du Bois is all too familiar, that “a Negro may be seven-eighths white, since the term refers to any person of Negro descent.”  While this has led to widespread discrimination, it has, according to Du Bois, at least allowed for “the Negroes” to be recognized for being “among the leaders of civilization in every age of the world’s history.”  “In sharp contrast to this usage,” Du Bois continues “the term ‘Negro’ in Africa has been more and more restricted until some scientists, late in the last century, declared that the great mass of the black and brown people of Africa were not Negroes at all, and that the ‘real’ Negro dwells in a small space between the Niger and Senegal.”(pp. 138-9).  In this way the achievements of people, who in America would be classified “Negro,” are attributed to other people.  And then Du Bois comments wryly, in a fashion that might bring a gleam into the eye of the contemporary postcolonial critic: “In this restricted sense the Negro has no history, culture or ability, for the simple fact that such human beings as have history and evidence culture and ability are not Negroes!”(p. 139) 


Many things can be said about this comment, beyond the simplistic and erroneous reading that frequently accompanies it – that Du Bois here conforms to a belief that the real Negroes contribute nothing unless they have received some infusion from without.  Bearing in mind all the migration that Du Bois describes in this volume, he is suggesting that the American classification is the one that he would want used for Africa.  In the process he ties African Americans more closely to their African heritage, not because they can be traced through direct lineage to a particular people or area in Africa, but because they, like Africans, are products of different peoples coming together through historical processes.  The narrow definition is inappropriate, not just because scholars motivated by prejudice have deployed it, but also because it is simply ahistorical.  As such, there is an air of the subaltern to Du Bois’s Negro.  The category of Negro becomes quite unstable (in both positive and negative ways), taking on a dual function of representing both the contributor to great civilizations, and one who has no history.[41]  And here Du Bois stumbled once again upon the need for the political activism to accompany his work as scholar.  For it is not enough to highlight contributions that a people have made to history, when those can be denied, or silenced, merely by altering the system of classification.[42] 


With the category of race problematized and Africa, the continent of migration, established as the font of newness (and so also modernity), Du Bois is in a position to develop other theories that will either be picked up and developed by later scholars, or will lie dormant (like one of Gates’s wonders) waiting to be unearthed and seen anew.[43]  Take for example Du Bois’s comment, that in order to locate the origin of modern color prejudice it is necessary to look not to “physical or cultural causes, but to historic facts.”  And the historic facts that will need to be examined are “modern Negro slavery and the slave trade.” Such a comment presages Eric Williams’s profound contribution to the study of slavery scholarship in Capitalism and Slavery, as well as that of Edmund Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom.[44]  Echoes of The Negro are found elsewhere in historical scholarship.  Du Bois’s view of slavery, described in his chapter on the American Negro prefigures both paternalistic perspectives and the materialist view that the system was part of the capitalist mode of production.  On black contributions to the Civil War and to emancipation historians have yet to acknowledge all that Du Bois delineated.  In his discussion of Reconstruction Du Bois preempts much later historiography, including his own Black Reconstruction in America. His identification of segregation as an issue of class rather than race was almost forty years ahead of C. Vann Woodward‘s similar thesis.


But, perhaps still more noteworthy is the underdevelopment thesis, later associated with Walter Rodney.[45]  What Du Bois sees undermining the continent of Africa’s ability to generate its own newness is the intervention of the slave trade.  As such, Du Bois describes a continent that is moving from developed to underdeveloped, not vice versa.  For example, he writes:


In these states and in later years in Benin the whole character of west-coast culture seems to change.  In place of the Yoruban culture, with its city democracy, its elevated religious ideas, its finely organized industry, and its noble art, came Ashanti and Dahomey.  What was it that changed the character of the west coast from this to the orgies of war and blood sacrifice which we read of later in these lands?

There can be but one answer: the slave trade.  Not simply the sale of men, but an organized traffic of such proportions and widely organized ramifications as to turn the attention and energies of men from nearly all other industries, encourage war, and all the cruelest passions of war, and concentrate this traffic in precisely that part of Africa farthest from the ancient Mediterranean lines of trade.(pp. 67-8)


“It was the slave trade,” he continues, “that turned the balance and set these lands backwards.”  And, from the middle of the 15th century until it was terminated in the last half of the 19th, “the American slave trade centered in Guinea and devastated the coast morally, socially, and physically.”(p. 68)  While it would be rash not to attribute this idea directly to Du Bois’s own contemplation, it is interesting to speculate whether he was influenced in this direction by his interaction with scholars of India and the British Empire at the Universal Races Congress, who were very much conversant in the ideas associated with drain theory, the idea that the coming of the British Empire, and especially the growth of the Manchester cotton industry (built on the product of African slave labor), had led to the deindustrialization of the Indian subcontinent.[46]


The Negro, then, is compelling on many levels, as history, anthropology, social commentary, as an elegy on the condition of migrancy.  But maybe it is Du Bois’s appreciation of the process of globalization that will make people look again at this text, and see it as if for the first time.  Intellectually and historically prescient, Du Bois assumed globalization as a matter of course, so that his definition of the color line in The Negro linked all colonized peoples, not just people of African descent.  With the resolution of the Cold War and the ascendancy of the global market, bringing new and old color lines into sharp relief, Du Bois’s sweeping vision of Africans and the diaspora seems more relevant now than at any time in the past hundred years.



[1] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wonders of the African World (NY: Knopf, 1999), p. ix.

[2] George Shepperson (NY: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. vii-xxv, and Herbert Aptheker (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1975), pp. 5-23, discussed the contemporary reaction to this work.  See especially the influence of The Negro on Professor William Hansberry in Shepperson, p. xxi.  Their introductions and the influence they attributed to The Negro, highlight the work’s enduring appeal at least into the 1970s.

[3] For the influence of The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997 [1899]), see Michael B. Katz and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds., W.E.B. Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and its Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).  The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam, 1989 [1903]), with its concept of the double consciousness, is perhaps the most cited of Du Bois’s works.  See Adolph Reed, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Political Tradition (NY: ) for a discussion of this concept and its pervasiveness in African American political discourse.  The influence of Black Reconstruction in America (NY: Atheneum, 1979 [1935]) is most evident in the work of Eric Foner; see Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), pp.5-6.  For further discussion of these, see Robert Gregg, “Giant Steps,” in Katz and Sugrue, W.E.B. Du Bois, Race and the City, pp. 77-99.

[4] David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1993), p. 462.

[5] The comment from Du Bois about Haiti is found on p. 178.

[6] His solidarity with Haiti would be notable later in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson invaded the island.  This occurred in spite of the fact that, to Du Bois’s eye at least, conditions for Haitian peasants were better than those suffered by African Americans in the South.  Haiti, Du Bois noted, “is more civilized than Texas;” “Hayti,” The Crisis, 10 (Oct. 1915), p. 291.

[7] Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, p. 462. He relies heavily here on the introduction written by Herbert Aptheker, who recorded these influences in his introduction to The Negro.  This introduction, one of many Aptheker wrote for the series of Du Bois’s works published by Kraus-Thomson, notes the contemporary opinions about the book and is very positive overall, but does not really examine in great detail the contribution that the work had made.  Perhaps, since it was published within five years after the Oxford edition (which included George Shepperson’s thorough and compelling overview of the book’s importance), Aptheker did not feel the need to fully delineate all the work’s contributions.  Had Lewis examined Shepperson’s commentary more closely, I believe he would have devoted more space to The Negro.  Note especially the biographical point Shepperson makes on p. xxii: “Students of Pan-Africanism have sometimes felt there is a gap, a loss of interest by Du Bois in Pan-Africanism, between his participation as Secretary of the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 and his calling of the 1919 Pan-African Congress in Paris which is often credited with setting in motion the modern movement for Pan-Africanism.  In The Negro, however, is to be seen the development of Du Bois’s attitudes towards the thought of Pan-Africanism in the period between 1900 and 1919.”

[8] Ibid.  The works cited by Lewis include: Basil Davidson, Black Mother; Africa (London: Victor Gollancz, 1961); Martin Bernal, Black Athena The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987, 1991), two volumes; and, Cheka Anta Diop, Civilization and Barbarism (NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 1986).  There are ways of fleshing out this influence on Afrocentric scholarship that might cast it in a more favorable light. Shepperson does this in his intriguing discussion of the connections between Du Bois and Melville J. Herskovits.  The latter seems to have gained his ideas in The Myth of the Negro Past () from works by Du Bois besides The Negro, however, so the influence of this book on that scholarship is indirect.  Du Bois’s later works, which Herskovits used liberally, were all built around the ideas first fully developed in The Negro.  See Shepperson, “Introduction,” p. xix.

[9] Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[10] Appiah and Gates, Encyclopedia Africana (NY: Basic Civitas Books, 1999).  See the cover material, the introduction and the frontispiece portrait of Du Bois.

[11] Ibid., p. xvi.

[12] See Encyclopedia of 194…

[13] Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 82.

[14] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 302-4.

[15] Du Bois made this argument on several occasions in the pages of The Crisis.

[16] Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 5.

[17] At the time that he was publishing The Negro he was also in the process of writing “The African Roots of the War” at Atlantic Monthly, which as its title suggests attributed the causes of World War One to European imperialism; Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, p. 504.  The Negro needs to be seen in the larger context of Du Bois’s response to this war, something that Lewis fails to do, in spite of the fact that the last words of The Negro, “Semper novi quid ex Africa,” are used as the text for ‘The African Roots.”

[18] “The Propaganda of History,” was the concluding chapter of Black Reconstruction in America, pp. 713-26; see Gregg, “Giant Steps,” pp.

[19] Du Bois undertook the Atlanta University Studies between 1897 and 1912; see, Shepperson, “Introduction,” pp. xx-xxi.

[20] Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, pp. 145.

[21] For a discussion of these political divisions, see Reed, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Political Tradition. 

[22] Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 107, though his commentary in the PBS documentary was more explicit about this.

[23] In this regard, The Negro bears more resemblance to his earlier studies, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (NY: Schocken Books, 1969 []) and The Philadelphia Negro, than either The Souls of Black Folk or John Brown ().  See Gregg, “Giant Steps,” pp.

[24] Gates, Wonders of the African World, pp. 189 & 196

[25] George Shepperson refers to Vincent Harding’s reading of The Negro, which highlighted the book’s messianic quality; “Introduction,” p. xxi.

[26] Du Bois, Dark Princess (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1974 [1928]).

[27] Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 12.

[28] See Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism (London: Zed Press, 1983); and also Robin D. G. Kelley, “Introduction,” to C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1995).

[29] Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 16.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[32] Dipesh Chakrabarty, uses the term provincializing to interrogate the lens through which South Asian history has been observed.  Gates’ work maintains Africa as the province, while Du Bois’s work in many ways succeeds in provincializing Euro-America.  Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[33] See Shepperson, “Introduction,” pp. xv-xvi; Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993).  See the special issues of the Journal of American History devoted to “Internationalizing American History” 1999.

[34] A close parallel to Du Bois’s “Negro” as migrant (explained further below) is Randolph Bourne’s notion of a “Trans-National America;” see, War and the Intellectuals (NY: Harper & Row, 1964).  Also writing during World War I, Bourne saw the possibility for a humanitarian and peaceful society lying in the fulfillment of the United States as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.

[35] Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel New York

[36] Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races,” American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, no. 2 (1897).

[37]. Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 28. See Robert Gregg, Inside Out, Outside In: Essays in Comparative History (London: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 88-95.

[38]. So, Appiah notes, while the attempt to highlight certain ‘race abilities’ might lead to a more equitable estimation of the different contributions of the races, ‘it might just as easily,’ according to Appiah, ‘lead to chauvinism or total incomprehension;’ ibid., p. 94.

[39] Spiller inter –racial problems p.35.

[40] Appiah, In My Father’s House, p. 45; Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: Belknap, 2000).

[41] Gyan Prakash, “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism,” in American Historical Review (December 1994), pp. 1475-90; see also Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge Press, 1994), pp. 254-6.

[42] It is not clear, however, the degree to which Du Bois here appreciated that some of his own concepts, like “the talented tenth,” might have contributed in the past to the process of excluding those who did not fit within his system, thereby attributing to them the narrow definition of “Negro,” or people without history.  See Trouillot, Silencing the Past.

[43] Aptheker’s “Introduction,” p. 17, highlights a number of the theories relating to American slavery that he himself would develop, along with those of Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery.  Shepperson’s introduction is more expansive in this regard.

[44] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964 [1944]); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (NY: Norton, 1975).

[45] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington: Howard University Press, 1974).

[46] See Gokhale’s address at the Congress, which, while not directly mentioning the drain theory is influenced by it.