The Heart of the World
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
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 ‘
Ali Farka Toure, “Talking
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. 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. 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). 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. 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.”
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. 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. 
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.” 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. 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
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. 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.” Similar objectives had shaped Du Bois’s work
on the Encyclopedia Africana, which
began when the European “Scramble for
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
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
“You have a fax machine?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yes, of course,” he responded calmly. “Our entire village does.”
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
the time Du Bois was writing The Negro
Lastly, both authors seem to
share a sensibility derived from their location as scholars living in the
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
Gates meanwhile is clearly
part of an academic mainstream, a former
Thus, while we have noted
some similarities between Gates and Du Bois in their location and sensibility
with regard to
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
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. 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
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
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
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.” 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
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
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)
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
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) 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. 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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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. 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. 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.
perhaps still more noteworthy is the underdevelopment thesis, later associated
with Walter Rodney. What Du Bois sees undermining the continent
In these states and in later years in
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
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
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.
 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Wonders of the African World (NY: Knopf, 1999), p. ix.
 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.
 For the influence of The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997 ), 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 ), 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 ) 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.
 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1993), p. 462.
 The comment from Du Bois
 His solidarity with
 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
 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.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992).
 Appiah and Gates, Encyclopedia Africana (NY: Basic Civitas Books, 1999). See the cover material, the introduction and the frontispiece portrait of Du Bois.
 Ibid., p. xvi.
 See Encyclopedia of 194…
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 82.
 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 302-4.
 Du Bois made this argument on several occasions in the pages of The Crisis.
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 5.
 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
 “The Propaganda of History,” was the concluding chapter of Black Reconstruction in America, pp. 713-26; see Gregg, “Giant Steps,” pp.
 Du Bois undertook the Atlanta University Studies between 1897 and 1912; see, Shepperson, “Introduction,” pp. xx-xxi.
 Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, pp. 145.
 For a discussion of these political divisions, see Reed, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Political Tradition.
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 107, though his commentary in the PBS documentary was more explicit about this.
 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.
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, pp. 189 & 196
 George Shepperson refers to Vincent Harding’s reading of The Negro, which highlighted the book’s messianic quality; “Introduction,” p. xxi.
 Du Bois, Dark Princess (Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1974 ).
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 12.
 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).
 Gates, Wonders of the African World, p. 16.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, uses
the term provincializing to interrogate the lens through which South Asian
history has been observed. Gates’ work
 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.
 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
 Du Bois, “The Conservation
. Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House:
. 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.
 Spiller inter –racial problems p.35.
 Appiah, In My Father’s House, p. 45; Paul
Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political
Culture Beyond the Color Line (
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964 ); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (NY: Norton, 1975).
 Walter Rodney, How
 See Gokhale’s address at the Congress, which, while not directly mentioning the drain theory is influenced by it.