Today we are proud to present this excerpt from Joseph R. Winters’ recent book Hope Draped in Black. In Hope Draped in Black the author responds to the belief that America follows a constant trajectory of racial progress, using African American literature and film to construct an idea of hope that embraces melancholy in order to acknowledge and mourn America’s traumatic history. This is an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Unhopeful but Not Hopeless”.
THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF SORROW AND LITERATURE
Why should we still read and engage The Souls of Black Folk? What is Du Bois’s relevance for thinking about the current relationship between race, gender, class, and politics? How does Souls invite the reader to reimagine the relationship between lit er a ture, aesthetics, and politics? Why should we pay as much attention to themes of loss, sorrow, death, and alienation in his thought as we do to motifs of progress, uplift, recognition, and the training of the black masses? While scholars disagree about how to interpret and understand Du Bois’s legacy, there seems to be consensus that engaging his thought continues to be productive and useful (even if only to trace and examine the limitations and gaps that Du Bois passed down to future generations). Commentators like Robert Gooding-Williams, for instance, argue that Souls is a major contribution to modern political thought because it attempts to delineate the appropriate political response to white supremacy, particularly as it operates in the Jim Crow era. Yet for Gooding- Williams, there are severe blind spots in Du Bois’s vision. For one, Du Bois adopts an expressive, romantic understanding of black peoplehood. He is seduced by a notion of the folk that assumes a coherent, pregiven racial identity, a seduction that I discussed and criticized in chapter 1. In addition to this limitation, Gooding- Williams argues that Du Bois’s political imagination is defined by a simple notion of recognition. The goal of black people’s strivings, according to the author of Souls, should be assimilation into, without a transformation of, the social- political order. As Gooding- Williams puts it, “Thus the raison d’etre of [black] leadership was to incorporate the excluded Negro masses into the group life of American society. To be exact, it was to assimilate them to the cultural standards, or norms, constituting American, and more generally Euro-American modernity.” 52 In opposition to this simple model of assimilation, Gooding- Williams turns to Frederick Douglass, who offers a pragmatic, nonessentialized understanding of race and politics in which the elimination of white supremacy requires the transformation of the social order.53
This interpretation underscores the more optimistic side of Du Bois’s thought, the part of Souls that argues for the resolution of black doubleconsciousness through assimilation into the nation-state and Euro-American modern life. This is a Du Bois who is relatively sanguine about the ideals, norms, and practices of American democracy and Western civilization more broadly. The basic arrangements are good; the problem is that certain groups are excluded from these essentially good arrangements. Yet as I have argued in this chapter, Du Bois often undermines and troubles his own optimism. Throughout the text and his corpus, he acknowledges that these arrangements rely on ongoing exclusions and erasures, imperial violence, and cultural amnesia. In addition, while Du Bois might endorse assimilation, the incorporation of black bodies and black cultural forms (especially the sorrow songs) into the nation- state disrupts and unsettles prevalent ways of narrating and imagining American history, modern life, and human existence. By placing racial trauma at the heart of American history, this heart becomes a broken one; experiences of racial loss and disappointment, experiences that constitute America’s brief history, challenge deeply entrenched fantasies of American exceptionalism and human triumph. Finally, Du Bois suggests that while the language of recognition, freedom, and rights are indispensable for political struggles, these struggles also need to be inspired by memories of loss, memories of disappointed longings and strivings, and a heightened sensitivity to those bodies, practices, communities, and desires that reside on the opaque sides of our multiple social Veils, those that elude current forms of recognition and protection. The sphere of recognition, in other words, never exists without shadows, losses, and specters. Progress always both involves and excludes a Josie, someone for whom progress is “necessarily ugly.”