Just got the first finished copies of an exciting book from our Fall list. With In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America, Robert Gooding-Williams describes the contours of a distinctly Afro-modern tradition in American political thought and examines Du Bois’s own orientation to that tradition, one to which, as both theorist and practitioner, Du Bois considered himself rightful heir. In this, the first book-length philosophical treatment of Du Bois’s thought, Gooding-Williams, Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, takes Du Bois’s landmark work, The Souls of Black Folk, and subjects it to the same sort of rigorous analysis we often reserve for Locke, Kant, and Rousseau—the “classic” theorists of the social contract tradition. But Souls, in Gooding-Williams’s opinion, constitutes a contribution to American political philosophy that’s as important as the work of those better-known thinkers, all the more so since we find it rooted in and framed explicitly as a response to the distinctly American system of racial apartheid that went under the name Jim Crow.
Gooding-Williams places Du Bois in a long line of contributors to what he calls the “Afro-modern” strain in American political thought, a line that includes Equiano, Delany, Crummell, James, Fanon, and Rodney. But most crucially, it includes Frederick Douglass, whom Du Bois considered his intellectual forefather and who stood as one of the progenitors of the tradition of “assimilation through self-assertion” to which Du Bois considered himself heir. In setting himself up thusly, Du Bois was able to enlist Douglass’s ideas against what he considered to be inferior responses to segregation and white supremacy, such as the “assimilation through submission” ethos that he decried in his now-famous attack on Booker T. Washington, the outlines of which reverberate to this day.
Indeed, in subjecting Du Bois’s thought to the critical analysis it deserves, Gooding-Williams is able to reveal the degree to which modern discourse on race in America takes the shape that Du Bois gave it, and, further, to question the usefulness of some of the more problematic aspects of Du Bois’s philosophy in the debates on race that continue to occur. As the principal theoretical defense of the “politics of uplift” that animated the ideas of African American elites throughout much of the twentieth century, Souls is as much with us today as it ever was. By utilizing Du Bois’s work as an interpretive lens through which to view Afro-modern political thought, and the competing strains within it, as part of a distinct and distinctly American philosophical tradition, Gooding-Williams shows us how we have, perhaps unwittingly, been doing the same thing all along.