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Du Boisian Critique of American Exceptionalism and Its Limitations: From The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to Dusk of Dawn (1940)*
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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.

American exceptionalism , race , racialized violence , white supremacy , imperialism
  • I.

    In a special commemorative issue celebrating the 150th anniversary of The Atlantic Monthly (2007) 1 entitled “The Future of the American Idea,” the editors asked “an eclectic group of thinkers who have had cause to consider the American idea to describe its future and the greatest challenges to it” (14). Overwhelmingly, the responses, despite their variant take on the term, reiterated and celebrated, in some cases albeit in revisionary forms, American exceptionalism as the most central to defining “the American idea.” Of course, there were some vociferously critical voices, the most vocal being Cornel West’s, who articulated “the American idea” as the “Niggerization” of America. That is, the idea that “America is exceptional that history weighs lightly upon the land and its people; that progress in all its dimensions is linear and infinite; that the power of individuals to shape their destinies has been and remains unparalleled in human experience” (Lewis 17) is quite simply a horrendous fiction that legitimized slavery and “Niggerization” in America.

    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 TAM special edition. Schulman’s timely review also brings into focus some fundamentally crucial issues surrounding the discourse of American exceptionalism that still have not been fully answered, and is worth a brief examination here. At the end of his review of Pease and Hodgson, Schulman raises the questions that motivate his review of these books: “If we are to engender democratic projects now, must this language of exception—and indeed a specifically national frame for politics—be reworked, or contested and relinquished? . . . Is there an alternative to reforming (but replenishing) this exceptionalism?” (71, 81) Schulman asks whether American exceptionalism can be salvaged in the present form, and the implicit answer seems to be a “no.” However, despite his inhibitions and suspicions about the possible dangers involved in invoking this seemingly outdated and reactionary ideology, Schulman leaves the readers with lingering questions, seeking an alternative way to “revive” American exceptionalism in newly imagined ways. This is especially puzzling as Schulman specifically criticizes Pease for using accounts of exclusionary racialized violence that contest American exceptionalism merely as a “sign” that signals a fissure in the ideology. In Pease’s treatment of the Rodney King case, for example, Pease does not introduce any meaningful ways to think about racial conflicts to fundamentally challenge the narrative “fantasy” of American exceptionalism; race merely operates to give rise to a “newly configured state fantasy” (43). Equally problematic is the lack of any mention of black voices that have historically challenged the ideology of American exceptionalism. While Pease’s account alerts the readers to the tenacity of the “state fantasy” that mobilizes aggressive and violent American foreign policy, it nevertheless (un) knowingly appropriates race, and moreover, implicitly suggests that the collective “state fantasy” has not been challenged by those who perhaps never bought into it. As Schulman aptly points out, Pease’s discussion of American exceptionalism as a “state fantasy” forecloses any possibility of thinking outside of that fan-tasy. As much as Pease is critical of this “state fantasy,” at a strange discursive level, Pease sounds almost gleeful in the way in which “state fantasy” is obdurate to any possibility of a fundamental rupture. Pease asserts, “[O]verall American exceptionalism was a political doctrine as well as a regulatory fantasy that enabled US citizens to define, support, and defend the US national identity” (11). But simply put, what of those who have not “support[ed] or defend[ed] the US national identity”?

    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.

    II. Black Souls and “America”

    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 Crisis editorials before and during the War, although in turning Du Bois into an “American exceptionalist” (and thus his betrayal of the “tragic-comic” realities of the “folk” from an elitist standpoint), West not only mischaracterizes Du Bois but also fails to substantiate his claim with evidence from Du Bois’s writings.4 And on this last point, West has in common with other critics who have examined black thought on American exceptionalism, as Du Bois is always “assumed” to be an American exceptionalist from the snippets of quotes from The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and without an in-depth analysis of his other numerous texts.5 However, on a much closer examination, spanning the four decades from TSBF, Darkwater (1920) and to Dusk of Dawn (1940), one would find that Du Bois does not endorse an easily mappable African American exceptionalism or American exceptionalism, and that even in his early writings, Du Bois problematizes the relationship between (white) American civilization and racial history.6

    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 TSBF, Du Bois has often been misinterpreted. I would argue that in vacillating moments, Du Bois gives contradictory assessment of American civilization, but an emerging critique of Western imperialism and the seeds of disavowal of American civilization can be discovered even in the texts written at the turn of the century.

    As Sundquist writes in his introduction of TSBF, “Du Bois clearly hoped that for his white reader there would be the recognition that true genius resides not only in white civilization but also in a transplanted people” (71). And for Du Bois, the contributions that ex-slaves have made in the making of American civilization lie mainly in the spirituals with whose notes Du Bois begins each chapter. In this sense, TSBF is a heartfelt effort on Du Bois’s part to impart to Americans that the souls of black “folk” are an invaluable part of the American nation; as a whole, symbolic of African American exceptionalism. Similar sentiments can be found in a cruder form, even if less poetic, in “The Conservation of Races” (1894) which was first read as an address in front of the American Negro Academy. Addressing a group of future “Talented Tenth” leaders, Du Bois sternly tells them that what gives America its distinct culture and ethos (spirit) is none other than the music of the exslaves; that American civilization achieved its greatness through the cultural contributions of the black folk. Du Bois writes, “We are the people whose subtle sense of song has given America its only American music, its only American fairy tales, its only touch of pathos and humor amid its mad money-getting plutocracy” (44). The future black leaders, thus must recognize this important contribution and take pride and responsibility to advance the black race so that they can lead the other darker races of the world within the parameter of imperial America. Du Bois writes,

    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 TSBF which contradict these views on American colonialism. In fact, a sustained critique of crass materialism and of the brutal and exploitative nature of American colonialism runs throughout TSBF. To briefly go back to the emphasis Du Bois puts on the contributions of black culture in “The Conservation of Races,” it must be noted that Du Bois’s profound concerns about the importance of black leadership and its understanding of black culture as an antidote to American civilization as a whole, spring from his fundamental critique of American civilization as a “mad money-getting plutocracy,” which we see later developing into a biting critique of white civilization in Darkwater and Dusk of Dawn. For now, I would like to briefly examine what is by now an overanalyzed chapter “Of Booker T. Washington,” in which Du Bois spells out his main discontent with Washington; as is well known, Du Bois takes an oppositional position against Washington’s submission to the status quo, especially the economic system, and Washington’s political acquiescence in downplaying the importance of civil rights. What is often overlooked but must be stressed in this expressed opposition to Washington is that Du Bois in fact contradicts his earlier statement about the black leaders in leading the other darker races in American expansion by criticizing American expansion itself as an “uncivilized” “brute force.” Du Bois here argues that any political acquiescence to white domination—whether it be domestic or international—undermines “this programme”—The Tuskegee Machine—of black advancement.

    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).

    III. Rearticulation of American Exceptionalism as Violent Eurocentric Imperialism

    Lesser read than TSBF, Darkwater is now slowly receiving critical attention as a unique modernist text comprising of many different formal elements. Sundquist sums up this text as “a collage of parts in several genres and several styles” and asserts that “[I]n a far more pronounced fashion than TSBF, one must read the book by narrative juxtaposition in which rigorous economic logic and pungent analysis can suddenly give way to an intense lyric moment” (481). Politically, Sundquist reads this text as “a harbinger of later postcolonial ideology” (483) “instigating modern Pan-Africanism and the culture of anticolonialism that has come to play such a prominent role in Western (or anti-Western) literature of the late twentieth century” (481). In agreement with Sundquist that Darkwater is much more politically charged than TSBF in its trenchant critique of Western colonialism and remains “one of Du Bois’s most bitter castigation of white racism” (482), I would in particular like to focus on one specific chapter in Darkwater entitled “The Souls of White Folk,” which was also published under the title “Of the Culture of the White Folk” in 1917 and then later incorporated into Darkwater. What is most striking about this chapter is that as a counterpart to TSBF, it is a selfconscious revision of Du Bois’s earlier thesis in many respects. Most prominently, I would argue that the relationship between black identity and American civilization undergoes a profound change. Despite the fact that Du Bois criticized American colonialism in a lukewarm fashion and the crass materialism of American culture in TSBF, black consciousness was posited as always hovering above white culture, pending its admission. In contrast, “The Souls of White Folk” is a forceful announcement that Du Bois is no longer interested in the black integration into the white society.

    If in TSBF Du Bois plays the role of the representative black man who speaks for the black race, in “The Souls of White Folk,” Du Bois speaks in the voice of a prophet-poet who transcends racial boundaries, and can see through the evils of the white man. Du Bois condemns American civilization as follows.

    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 TSBF. Rather, Du Bois argues that the foundation of the “terrible” mad American soul is rooted in Eurocentric imperialism.

    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 TSBF, Du Bois again goes back to Reconstruction as the pivotal period during which the American government failed to fundamentally provide the promised measures of equality to the ex-slaves. In Darkwater, however, Du Bois goes a step further and deconstructs the exceptionality of America as a morally superior democratic nation, since in Du Bois’s view, “economic” democracy has never been achieved in America, thus changing the terms of the condition for freedom and equality. By envisioning a new “industrial democracy,” he criticizes the inequality, or promises of equality never met in the failure of the American government to provide any economic means for the exslaves.9

    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.

    IV. Reverse Racism? Repudiation of the (Exceptional) White World of America

    Du Boisian critique of American civilization and colonialism in TSBF, and debunking the myth of exceptional democracy with its roots in Eurocentric imperialism in Darkwater culminate in the repudiation of whiteness and a turn towards black self-segregation and Pan-Africanism in Dusk of Dawn, published when Du Bois was 72 years old. While Darkwater is less canonical than TSBF, Dusk of Dawn, “an autobiography of a race concept,” is often dismissed even among Du Bois scholars for various reasons—Du Bois’s turn to Communism, the text’s often sentimental musings on Du Bois’s own life and the relevance of this text in the 1940’s. Du Bois also apologetically makes defensive justifications for his painful break with the NAACP, thus discomfiting many of his excolleagues and the African American community in general. In the chapter “Propaganda and World War” for example, he regrettably reflects back upon his naivetë for supporting the World War I, and writes, “[I]ndeed it was not easily possible for the student of international affairs trained in white institutions and by European ideology to follow the partially concealed and hidden action of international intrigue, which was turning colonial empire into the threat of armed competition for markets, cheap materials and cheap labor. Colonies still meant religious and social uplift in current propaganda” (232). This complete disavowal of his previous philosophy should have been embarrassing enough, but perhaps the biggest reason for the neglect of Dusk of Dawn among Du Bois’s oeuvres may be due to the fact that Du Bois puts forth an argument for a kind of black self-segregation after having criticized Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington during the heyday of his career. In doing so, Du Bois seems to express a reverse form of racism with which many critics are uncomfortable with. However, I would argue that this so-called “racism” is not based on the “exceptionality” nor the superiority of the blacks. In fact, the reverse “racism” in the chapter “The White World” appears in the context of a fictional story of Du Bois’s fictional friend, and must be interpreted in its specific context. In this story, we find that the reverse “racism” is a tentative rebuttal to (white) American exceptionalism based on white supremacy which is arrogantly voiced by his fictional friend Van Dieman.

    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 TSBF, Du Bois now forcefully claims that it is not enough to extend the American ideals to blacks, that the American ideals themselves based on white supremacy must be deconstructed, as they are based on false notions of a violent and blind belief in white supremacy: “No, the “tragedy” of Reconstruction was because here an attempt was initiated to make American democracy and the tenets of the Declaration of Independence apply not only to white men, but to black men” (318-19).


    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).

  • 1. Du Bois. W.E.B. 2000 Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. google
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