This paper examines Du Boisian critique of American exceptionalism through a close textual analysis of his writings from early essays to later works. As an attempt to respond to the persistent grip American exceptionalism has on both the academia and the intellectual world at large, this paper tries to fill in the gaps within the discourse of American exceptionalism by exploring the works of one of the most towering American intellectual figures, and suggests that the discourse of American exceptionalism has remained within the purview of white scholars. Although at times inconsistent and contradictory, Du Bois’s trenchant critique of American civilization and Western imperialism deconstructs the original ideals of America, creating more than a fissure in the ideology/hegemony/state fantasy of American exceptionalism. I argue that Du Boisian critique of American exceptionalism shows its violent marginalization and racialization based on white supremacy. Du Boisian critique should be a cautionary tale for those scholars who talk of “reform” or “replenishment” or even who occlude the possibility that American exceptionalism has not always functioned as a “state fantasy” by assuming its absolute blinding powers.
In a special commemorative issue celebrating the 150th anniversary of
This predominant consensus—whether cautiously celebratory or critical— that American exceptionalism is still, even into the 21st century, the most influential “American idea” is reaffirmed in George Schulman’s recent review of the latest scholarly works published on American exceptionalism by Donald Pease and Godfrey Hodgson. Schulman notes that despite the fact that in the academia, “the newer American studies makes the US not an exception to the world system but one “nodal point” in it, and American exceptionalism seems to be fading into the horizon as the fundamental ideology of American Studies, the idea of, and the conversations surrounding American exceptionalism still has strong hold on the academia” (71, 74). To rephrase this last point that Schulman makes, it seems relatively accurate to say that despite the academic consensus that American exceptionalism no longer functions as the structural or the framing theoretical backbone of American Studies, nevertheless, the ideology of American exceptionalism still continues to fascinate and shape the discourse underpinning both American Studies and the intellectual world in general as can be seen in the
One could certainly problematize Pease’s assumptions about what constitutes “US citizens,” but even without going into complicated theoretical and historical discussions about the assumed nature of US citizenship, another more obvious question arises. How did racialized people feel about or think about American exceptionalism? Rather than objectifying “racialized” people to argue that racial inequality and disturbances reated a fissure in the state fantasy of American exceptionalism, why have not scholars of American exceptionalism taken into account the voices of those who have historically challenged the ideology of American exceptionalism? What would the discourse on American exceptionalism look like if we start thinking about how the racial category changes the way in which American exceptionalism is articulated? My issue with both Pease and Schulman is that like many scholars of American exceptionalism who seem attuned to race as a contestatory category of changing the terms of the discussions on American exceptionalism, they do not sufficiently take into account the writings of those who have challenged them. Another obvious problem has to do with the probing of “exceptionalism” in the context of US racial history. To be sure, Schulman points out that “exceptionality requires disavowing the racial state of exception it depends on and sustains”(74) and also that “white supremacy at home” is connected to “the exercise of imperial power on new frontiers” (73). However, he does not go further to answer the question that his review raises: why it is that despite the violent racial and imperial history “connected” to American exceptionalism, might we still imagine a possible “reform,” or a “relinquishment” of American exceptionalism? Here, we must pause and insist on the importance of pushing these questions further, for if “the racial state of exception” invalidates the “exceptionality,” might not a hopeful replenishment be a contradictory impulse? Why, despite the fact that exceptionality has historically played a role in the violent imperial ventures and racial violence at home, must we consider a possible “reform” or “replenishment” at all? Schulman unfortunately suggests that American exceptionalism is an ideology that can be revived or replenished for a “better” democracy in the future, despite his misgivings about “exceptionality” having played a role in the rise of US empire both in and outside the territorial boundaries.
This line of thought is implicitly shared by critics who have already examined African Americans’ perspectives on American exceptionalism in the few existing articles that deal with the relationship between black thought and American exceptionalism. Sacvan Bercovitch, Deborah Madsen and Thomas Byers, although critical of the ideological function of American exceptionalism, all seem to believe in the strong ideological hold that prevents black thinkers to effectively criticize American exceptionalism.2 Moreover, these critics quite flatly assert that representative black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., in a wholesale measure, have been imbibed with the ideology of American exceptionalism without exception. All three critics seem to share a deterministic view of American exceptionalism as an unchanging ideological apparatus which engulfs all black thought, and has in common with Pease that American exceptionalism is an all-encompassing hegemonic apparatus that resists any possibility of subversion.3
In this respect, David Levering Lewis’s assessment of Du Bois and King Jr. stands out as a rare investigation into the relationship between critical black thought and American exceptionalism. By tracing the outlines of their respective biographical trajectories, Lewis concludes that although both “remained convinced for a considerable time that profound social changes could be accomplished by appealing to presumptively unique American values” (3), both in the end repudiated American exceptionalism. Building on Lewis’s pioneering work on Du Boisian cri-tique of American xceptionalism, this paper attempts to primarily analyze writings by Du Bois, especially those that focus on the relationship between black identity, and American civilization and the “white man.” For, if we are to take Schulman’s problematic seriously, it is more than pertinent to be attentive to the voices of those who were marginalized or who did not buy into the collective fantasy or the ideology of American exceptionalism. By addressing Du Boisian critique of American exceptionalism, I hope to emphasize the necessity of starting a conversation between African American writing and American Studies “proper.” To risk an overstatement, I contend that (white) scholars of American exceptionalism have not familiarized themselves with the writings of black intellectuals, nor have attempted to think about how the issue of race implicates American exceptionalism in a myriad ways. I have chosen to focus on Du Bois because although he is a towering American intellectual of the twentieth century, “Du Bois has been pretty much neglected by (white) intellectual historians—as opposed to literary historians” (King 135). By productively incorporating Du Bois’s thoughts into the discourse on American exceptionalism, I hope to challenge some of the existing assumptions that American exceptionalism has not been effectively subverted by the marginalized voices, and also ask questions about what it means to continuously talk about hopes for the “replenishment” of American exceptionalism in face of racial history that fundamentally destabilizes the myth of American exceptionalism.
1Hereafter cited as TAM. 2See Sacvan Bercovitch, Thomas Byers and Deborah Madsen. 3Schulman defines Pease’s use of the term “state fantasy” as follows: “Claims to American exceptionalism signal, not consensual identity, ideology in a Marxian sense, or even hegemony in a Gramscian sense, but fantasy in a Lacanian sense” (75). Bercovitch sees the myth of American exceptionalism as an “ideology” and Madsen and Byers seem to agree with Bercovitch in the way theideology of American exceptionalism functions. I would argue that regardless of whether American exceptionalism is defined as an ideology/hegemony/fantasy, all of these scholars presume that American exceptionalism precludes in an absolute sense any subversion, since subversion is always subsumed into the said ideology/hegemony/fantasy.
Du Bois may have been defined as an American exceptionalist by the (white) scholars of American exceptionalism such as Bercovitch, Madsen and Myers, but has gotten an especially scathingly “bad rap” from Cornel West who has taken on the mission of moving the mantle of (black) leadership from Du Bois’s shoulders onto himself in “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization.”
Here, and in several other passages, West claims that Du Bois’s “optimism” in American progress is an acknowledgement of US expansionism and the exceptionality of the US as a morally superior nation state destined to expand, thus legitimizing US imperial ventures abroad. West is vaguely referencing Du Bois’s endorsement of World War I in many of the
Even when one grants that Du Bois partly subscribes to African American exceptionalism in putting forth his argument that the black race has made a special contribution to a distinctive “American”-ness, it is extremely difficult to draw the conclusion that Du Bois embraces the exceptionality of American civilization or the exceptionality of American blacks. I would suggest that these partial acknowledgements of “exceptionality” are always qualified and contradicted by a larger context of Pan-African consciousness and the history of Western imperialism. Thus, drawing on biographical evidence such as Lewis’s work is extremely helpful, but any analysis of Du Bois’s views on American exceptionalism must start with a close textual analysis of Du Bois’ sometimes contradictory and inconsistent views on the relationship between America and African Americans, the West and Africa, and capitalism and socialism. Because much critical attention has been given to the most canonical text
As Sundquist writes in his introduction of
That Du Bois’s views on American expansion here may provoke vehement critique from someone like West is not difficult to fathom. More disturbingly, Du Bois celebrates the annexation of foreign territories as “the greatest event since the Civil War,” calling it “the protection of the American flag.” Alarmingly analogous to John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” in which Winthrop warns the Puritans that the world is watching the enterprise taken on by the Puritans, Du Bois yokes the destiny of the other “darker” races to the success or the failure of the black leaders, “our own.” He thereby puts the burden of the advancement and the “success and efficiency” of the ex-slave population on the shoulders of the future black leaders. Du Bois acknowledges the civilizing power of American colonialism, exhorting the black leaders to be on the vanguard of imperialism so that they may be fit to lead along with the white leaders.
However, this outwardly unproblematic and even obsequious acceptance of the greatness of American civilization must be gauged against several chapters in
By comparing the “fate” of the black folk to the territories colonized or annexed by the US, Du Bois suggests that diligently learning to be part of the American industrial order will not bring true liberty, and that liberty might be at bay if blacks continue to acquiesce to the white ruling class with their belief in the moral superiority of the US. What can be safely surmised is that, even when Du Bois seems to invoke American exceptionality (as he ends this chapter on the most common form of invoking American exceptionalism)7 Du Bois is nonetheless at the same time debunking and deconstructing the founding ideals by always arguing that racial brutality has historically accompanied the rhetoric of American exceptionality. In another separate essay, “The Parting of the Ways” (1904) in which Du Bois explains in more detail his philosophical and political differences with Washington, Du Bois is much more upfront about his views on the true values that drive America. Du Bois rather bluntly asks,
The previously painted picture of “benevolent” America protecting the less “civilized” territories is replaced by the revelation of its greedy and brutal force, “swagger[ing]” and “looking for helpless peoples.” Du Bois is warning the “awakening race” not to be “misled”by the true face of the bully blinded by “money.” To Du Bois, America is merely an exceptionally greedy nation.
4I agree with Lucius Outlaw’s assessment of Cornel West’s analysis of Du Bois. Outlaw explains, despite his own admiration for “Corn,” he nonetheless “remain[s] unconvinced by [his] characterization of Du Bois” (273). 5This is not surprising, since it is only very recent that Du Bois’s writings have received close analytical attention. Richard King writes, “only since the late 1990s has a place been made for Du Bois and the black philosopher Alain Locke in the intellectual culture of pragmatism, primarily in connection with the idea of cultural pluralism” (135). 6The Souls of Black Folk will be hereafter cited as TSBF. 7“By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Sundquist 131).
Lesser read than
In this passage, the prophet-poet calls for nothing less than a fundamental “reconceptualization” of “this nation,” as he, like the Old Testament God, re-”conceives” “this nation” in its true light. To the newly awakened prophet-poet, the brutality of the US equals that of the “enemy” countries; he undermines the justification for its war “for democracy.” Moreover, citing a long list of former “great” civilizations, Du Bois derides the “modern white man”’s claim to its uniqueness in the history of mankind and denounces its “exceptionality” for its exceptional belief in its “perfectness.” No other past great civilizations, Du Bois notes, “took himself and his own perfectness with such disconcerting seriousness as the modern white man.” Furthermore, Du Bois argues that this “aggrandizement” depended on the black Other’s “shame, humiliation and deep insult.” Du Bois illuminates the raciality of American exceptionality, as the US’s belief in its own exceptionality is confirmed and reconfirmed through the shame, humiliation and the insult of the racialized Other. For Du Bois, the invention of the belief in its unique and special historical status is not possible without its violent marginalization of the black man. In fact, without the racialized Other, the white man reveals his true nature: “weak, pitiable and cruel.”
This new vision is gained by the prophet-poet through the revision of his former thesis on “double-consciousness.”8 In place of the Veil and the ambivalent “double-vision,” the prophet-poet becomes “singularly clairvoyant.”
No longer hidden by the Veil, this prophet-poet instead is able to see all of the inner most thoughts of the white man in transparency. Of course, one can argue that the “I” is claiming its nativity, differentiating the “I” from the “foreign,” and claiming the birthright of what is rightfully the “I”’s that is denied by the white man. However, the claim for nativity is emphasized in regard to the white man, not the “foreign.” Moreover, in an explicit re-visioning of his former “double-consciousness,” the consciousness of the “I” no longer insinuates a longing for the conjoining of split identities—“black” and “American.” Rather, the “I” distances itself from “people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered and made miserable for such a cause, for such a phantasy!” (500) This “fantasy” reminds us of the “state fantasy” that Pease claims to be the regulatory function of the national myth. But according to the “clairvoyant” seer, the “phantasy” itself is unveiled, revealing the true shape of the white man.
Du Bois’s indictment of the “white man” goes further by tracing back the roots of the white man’s culture to Eurocentric imperialism. Du Bois writes,
Tracing the roots of American culture to European culture, Du Bois does not celebrate American civilization as the apogee of the modern world, as he ambivalently admitted in
In continuum with European colonialism, Du Bois sees America as taking on the mantle of the previous European colonizers, just as Kipling once sung about in “The White Man’s Burden.”
Denouncing America’s self-identification as an exemplary nation “standing as a great example of the success of democracy,” Du Bois mourns the “failure of democracy,” not from the vantage point of America not living up to its ideals, but rather questioning its original ideals built on the exploitation of the darker races. It is curious to see echoes of Cornel West’s own critique of American exceptionalism in this passage. Even as early as 1917, Du Bois’ assessment of American civilization precedes West’s condemnation of America and American exceptionalism as the “Niggerization” of America, “a slaveholding, white supremacist civilization that viewed itself as the most enlightened, free, tolerant, and democratic experiment in human history” (West 79).
In another chapter “Of the Ruling of Man,” Du Bois redefines democracy on his own terms. As in
Indirectly criticizing the monopoly of resources by the industrial leaders, Du Bois argues that democracy must not only mean giving full political and civil rights to the ex-slaves, but also making sure that “the fina distribution of goods” be considered an “ethical” problem, not just “mechanical” in the workings of capitalism. This pressure on the “morality” of the economy, rather than belief in the “morality” of the uniqueness of the US calls for a fundamental revision of what has been deemed “exceptional” “American” values.
8Here is perhaps the most quoted passage in African American literature: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true selfconsciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Sundquist 102). 9Du Bois’s profound shift towards emphasis on industrial democracy began long before his affiliation with the Communist Party.
Du Boisian critique of American civilization and colonialism in
Roger Van Dieman’s “thesis is simple: the world is composed of Race superimposed on Race; classes superimposed on classes; beneath the whole thing is “Our Family” in capitals; under that is God. God seems to be a cousin, or at least a blood relative, of the Van Dieman’s” (140). Against the expressed sentiments of his friend, the narrator notes, “I sit here and maintain that black folk are much superior to white” (141). In Du Bois’s fictional narrative, feelings of racial superiority are expressed to resist the terms of his white friend who firmly believes in white supremacy. Van Dieman, in fact, symbolizes the American elite with its belief that it is the white man’s mission to make America into a great nation.
By presenting a case from his fictional friend’s point of view, Du Bois argues that the “propaganda” for making America into a great, exceptional nation, is rooted in the ideology of white supremacy, marginalizing the “inferiors.” In this context, what seems like reverse racism cannot be interpreted as the reverse form of the same kind of white racism of Van Dieman puts forth. Du Bois writes,
If there is a certain “exceptionality” of the “colored world” invoked here, it is not based on cosmic importance and moral superiority of this group, but a historical consciousness that can be brought forth based on shared historical suffering. Thus the “new heaven and a new earth” that Du Bois calls for is not an invocation of a New Jerusalem that replaces the New Eden purported by American exceptionalism, but a new world where blacks and whites can coexist as equals. Turning sharply against the hopes and expectations for the American government during the Reconstruction period as narrated in
A close analysis of Du Bois’s writings centering on American civilization, “the white soul” and the “white world” shows an emerging critique of white imperialism and American exceptionalism even from his early writings. Du Bois, even if with inconsistency, argues that as the pinnacle of Eurocentric imperialism, belief in the exceptionality of America’s own existence has brought about the marginalization of blacks since the Atlantic Slave Trade, into the Reconstruction and into the 20th century. Du Bois’s writings reveal a critique of the violent marginalization of blacks in the history of US that consolidated the ideology of American exceptionalism, and Du Bois undermines the original ideals of America, arguing that the ideals themselves have always been yoked to the brutal oppression of its un-exceptional black race. Moreover, Du Bois’s views on American exceptionalism show that those who never bought into the “state fantasy” or “phantasy” (in Du Bois’s words) have vocally hallenged American exceptionalism since early 20th century. This leads us to seriously reconsider the implications of the discussions of the “replenishment” of American exceptionalism or the implacable American exceptionalism as “state fantasy” “ideology” or “hegemony.” The marginalization of the racialized people’s contestatory views on American excep-tionalism must be incorporated into the scholarly discussions of American exceptionalism, and the history of marginalization of blacks in the consolidation of American exceptionalism must not replicate itself on the terrain of scholarly work. It might be time for all of us to consider the “abandonment” of American exceptionalism if as Schulman puts it, “if we are to engender democratic projects now” (71).