Spoiling the Egyptians: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Uses of Racist ScholarshipRoundup
tags: historiography, racism, African history, WEB DuBois
L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities (History of Ideas) from the University of Texas at Dallas (2015). She is a Professor of History at Collin College. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. You can email Lora at LBurnett@collin.edu
In the Foreword to his 1947 book, The World and Africa, W.E.B. Du Bois outlined the purpose of his project and the problem of his sources. He beautifully laid out his book’s purpose in the first paragraph of the foreword, a paragraph that stands as a fine model of how to announce a bold, clear, simply-stated, high-stakes intervention to challenge a scholarly discourse. Du Bois wrote:
Since the rise of the sugar empire and the resultant cotton kingdom, there has been consistent effort to rationalize Negro slavery by omitting Africa from world history, so that today it is almost universally assumed that history can be truly written without reference to Negroid peoples. I believe this to be scientifically unsound and also dangerous for logical social conclusions. Therefore I am seeking in this book to remind readers in this crisis of civilization, of how critical a part Africa has played in human history, past and present, and how impossible it is to forget this and rightly explain the present plight of mankind.
There is his purpose: to properly situate Africa and the African diaspora within world history in order to offer a more sound and complete account of the human past and current human struggles, an account whose very soundness will render more difficult the purposeful misrepresentation of Africa’s legacy that served to further the exploitation and oppression of people of African descent.
His project was bold, because he was working against the “consistent effort…of omitting Africa from world history.” So his problem was big: how could he write an authoritative history if the recognized authorities within historical and ethnological studies had not given sufficient place to Du Bois’s subject. He laid out this problem a few paragraphs later in the Foreword:
I feel now as though I were approaching a crowd of friends and enemies, who ask a bit breathlessly, whose and whence is the testimony on which I rely for something that even resembles Authority? To which I return two answers: I am challenging Authority—even Maspero, Sayce, Resiner, Breasted, and hundreds of other men of highest respectability, who did not attack but studiously ignored the Negro on the Nile and in the world and talked as though black folk were nonexistent or unimportant. They are part of the herd of writers of modern history who never heard of Africa…
Okay, that’s the first part of the answer: I’m challenging Authority, not reinscribing it.
But where’s the rest of the answer? Du Bois’s paragraph ended without spelling out how he would establish the authority of his account.
There was one more kind of source, though, that Du Bois necessarily encountered in his research for this book: the kind of source that did not ignore the history of African peoples, but rather distorted and demeaned it. Would Du Bois make use of those sources too?
Yes he would; yes he did. He did so because, again, he was trying to carve out a new space in the discourse for broadened view of Africa and Africans in world history. When you don’t have many scholarly antecedents for the line of argument that you are pursuing, you have to use the scholarship you can, even when much of it is profoundly objectionable.
That was Du Bois’s insight, anyhow. He implied as much in a single sentence assessing some of the sources he used to understand the history of the civilizations of the Nile: “The works of Sir Ernest Budge, George A. Resiner, A.H. Sayce, and F.L. Griffith have naturally been of use when they were not indulging their opinions about Negroes.”
Let us sit with that sentence for a minute.
Here is W.E.B. Du Bois, arguably the greatest American public intellectual of the 20th century, laying out for the reader the sources from which he has drawn to present a historical narrative unhampered and undistorted by the historical and pervasive racism of Euro-American scholars towards people of African descent. He is looking for useful and reliable information wherever he can find it. And he is looking at “authoritative” information as well – the highly regarded accounts, the standard scholarly works, even though those works were shot through with racist ideas about Black men and women. Thus his use of the word “naturally” – sure, he is saying, of course I found much in these well-known authorities to inform my own argument. But to do so I had to move through and move past their contemptuous pronouncements about people who are Black like me.
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