What Happens to a Dream Deferred? W.E.B. Du Bois and the Radical Black Enlightenment/Endarkenment

Carlton D.
Floyd & Thomas E. Reifer

White ignorance...It’s a big subject. How much time do you have? It’s not enough. Ignorance is usually thought of as a passive obverse to knowledge, the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment. But... Imagine an ignorance that resists. Imagine an ignorance that fights back.

Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, that refuses to go quietly--not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest levels of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge.

Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” Race & the Epistemologies of Ignorance

Throughout the twentieth century…socialist…forces have wittingly or unwittingly identified themselves ever more closely with one variant or another of developmentalism. As Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out, this identification constitutes a major departure from the ideals of human solidarity and equality that constitute the essence of the socialist creed…developmental ideology is merely the global version of R.H. Tawney’s Tadpole Philosophy. Wallerstein goes on to say[s] that ‘[for] those who do not wish to “scramble to shore”, the alternative is to seek to transform the system as a whole rather than profit from it. This I take to be the defining feature of a socialist movement…In an age of rampant greed and of collapse of the socialist projects of the past, the endeavour naturally looks hopeless. Yet, take another fifteen-year step forward—this time into the future…the costs of systemic chaos for the peoples of the West will also be much higher. Protection costs in particular—broadly understood to include not just investments in means of violence and armed forces, but also bribes and other payments to clients and friendly forces in the disintegrating East and South, as well as costly or irreparable damages to the human psyche—will have escalated to the point where the pursuit of oligarchic wealth will begin to appear to many as what it has always been: a highly destructive endeavour that shifts the costs of the prosperity and security of a minority (no more, and probably less, than one-sixth of the human race) onto the majority and onto the future generations of the minority itself.

Giovanni Arrighi, “World Income Inequalities & the Future of Socialism”


In 1900, at the first Pan-African Congress in London, Du Bois uttered his most famous words, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of color line” (quoted in Schneer, 1999: 203). This prescient remark, drawing from Frederick Douglass’s 1881 “The Color Line,” seems just as true today. Today, of course, as in the past, the question of the color line intersects with the trajectory of humanity as a whole, the specter of 21st century neofascisms and related drifts towards apocalypse that Black feminist science fiction writer Octavia Butler (2000a) so expertly chronicled in her Parable of the Sower, set in 2024.

In this article we examine both the promise and the limits of this tradition, and Du Bois’s increasing commitment to a kind of Black Marxism and socialism as he understood it, and his related European universalist beliefs in progress, social uplift and the American Dream, in which his Encyclopedia Africana project played a central guiding role. We then move to consider the possibilities of rethinking Du Bois from the vantage point of California, which has emerged as a site of resistance to Trump’s white supremacist visions of America and the American Dream. Here, we touch upon two aspects of the radical enlightenment, socialist, and Marxist traditions which seems in desperate need of reexamination. Most especially, we take up the question of Enlightenment rationality, and its gaps in terms of understanding human emotion and personality. As argued here, the lack of attention to these gaps, including in the work of Du Bois, limits our ability to confront the intersection of formal types of rationality and irrationalities increasingly manifest in the 21st century. At the same time, going back to Du Bois’s roots in the humanities and the social sciences much like the work of Reiland Rabaka’s Against Epistemic Apartheid: W. E. B. Du Bois & the Disciplinary Decadence of Sociology (2010), offers an inter- or multidisciplinary approach which may allow us to move forward towards political projects that can pave a way for alternative futures, and for the very possibility of a future.

Du Bois, & the Radical Black Enlightenment/Endarkenment

The early 21st century saw a renewal of interest in the Enlightenment with the publication of Jonathan Israel’s (2001) multivolume work, starting with his Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy & the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. As Israel (2017: 15-16) notes,

Until its successive defeats in the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, after it was largely displaced by socialism, the Radical Enlightenment fought to improve human existence generally and emancipate oppressed sections of society by changing the way men [sic] think…[including] a rejection of religious authority in politics, law and education coupled with a democratizing republicanism.

For the moment we put aside the question of the relationship between socialism and the Radical Enlightenment. Instead, emphasized here is that there are arguably great elective affinities between Du Bois’s lifelong project to overcome racism and the color line, and the Radical Enlightenment project of democratizing republicanism. Most especially, it is interesting to note in the context of the focus on the Radical Enlightenment, how little comment has been made about its affinities with Du Bois’s Encyclopedia Africana project, conceived as early as 1909. Africana was completed posthumously under the editorial leadership of Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates. The editors note Du Bois’s inspiration from Diderot’s Encyclopedie and subsequent compilations of knowledge. As Appiah and Gates (2004: 17-18) write:

These publications, which consolidated the scholarly knowledge accumulated by academics and intellectuals in the Age of Reason, served both as a tangible sign of the enlightened skepticism that characterized that era of scholarship, and as a basis upon which further scholarship could be constructed. These encyclopedias became monuments to “scientific” inquiry, bulwarks against superstition, myth, and what their authors viewed as the false solace of religious faith. An encyclopedia of the African diaspora in Du Bois’s view would achieve things for persons of African descent.

But a black encyclopedia would have an additional function. Its publication would, at least symbolically, unite the fragmented world of the African diaspora, a diaspora created by the European slave trade and the turn-of-the-century “scramble for Africa.” Moreover, for Du Bois, marshalling the tools of “scientific knowledge,” as he would put it in his landmark essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia of the Negro” (1945a) could also serve as a weapon in the war against racism.

Du Bois’s American Dreams and Dreams Deferred

In his Africana essay, “W. E. B. Du Bois, An Interpretation,” one of the most powerful essays ever written on Du Bois, Cornel West (2014) pays homage to his towering intellectual achievements while simultaneously noticing significant gaps. To a large extent, West sees these gaps as part of Du Bois’s European Universalist and Victorian worldview, imbued with a powerful rationalism and discomfort with expressions of the popular classes. West argues too that as part of this Eurocentric worldview, Du Bois had a powerful belief and investment in the American Dream and related notions of rational progress, which prevented him from fully comprehending, until perhaps the end of his life, the profound pessimism about America expressed in coexistent social projects like the Garvey movement. Du Bois was for some time a fervent believer in the American Dream; for without the dream, as West argues, there is no dream deferred. Moreover, West relates his argument to a criticism of Du Bois, specifically his failure to engage more centrally with the question and nature of evil in his own time. Here West cites the work of Dostoevsky and Chekhov in Russia, and the Jewish literature of Eastern and Central Europe, notably Franz Kafka. In these works, West sees a parallel with the tragicomic absurdity of racism facing African Americans. In the U.S., this parallel finds its most powerful expression in the music and literature of African America, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, John Coltrane and a host of other artists who express the range of human emotion and pain and suffering that confronts humanity. A key aspect of West’s critique has to do with the irrationality of humanity, in the grip of ideologies such as racism, despite the instrumentally rational aspects of this ideology, namely the construction of a color line in the interest of profits and power the world over.

Turning to this color line, in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois asserted, as previously noted, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” but the remainder of this sentence, a part quoted far less than its preceding counterpart is “--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” It seems typical to consider this first phrase, and to gloss over or subsume the second, a more complexly textured (darker and lighter races) relationship within a more structurally rigid (Black and white) dialectic. Indeed, much of Du Bois’s work sets the scope for this analytical focus. While he points to this greater complexity, his work tends to focus attention on Black and white rather than dark and light. Such attention has been and is still sorely needed given the continuing utterly frustrating state of Black and white relations. Even so, the shift from Black and white to dark and light broadens the range and reach of any analysis of race; lighter and darker races cover Black and white races, but Black and white races do not cover lighter and darker races. Here also America exists within a larger Asian, African, and island archipelago; one part of a larger whole that cannot, conversely, subsume that whole.

If we take on the larger forms of these configurations, one racial, the other geographical, the problem of the color line grows exponentially. What indeed are the relations evident herein? Here, the Black and white relational paradigm provides a potential legend (explanation or method) for reading the darker and lighter ones, particularly since the polarities it expresses highlight the binaries upon which race within and between darker and lighter races depend. The Souls of Black Folk opens with an expression, a metaphor really, that defines blackness as a problem:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

In “The Souls of White Folk,” Du Bois asserts:

The discovery of personal whiteness among the world's peoples is a very modern thing, —a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. … Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful! … "But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?" …. Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!

In this comment Du Bois interlinks whiteness with acquisition, or accumulation, geography, temporality, and inequality, through the metaphors “Whiteness as ownership of the earth,” and “Whiteness as wonderful,” with the qualifying ubiquitous conclusion, benediction really, “forever and ever, Amen!” In this configuration, one is less of a problem the whiter, lighter, more affluent, or enlightened they are or are considered to be, and one is less than wonderful, as in more problematic in a white-identified world, the more Black, dark, impoverished, or endarkened they are or are considered to be.

In this exceptional example of Du Bois’s linguistic reach and range, we see a demonstrable application of what has come to be called intersectionality in the intentional arrangement of interrelated aspects of social existence in a way that facilitates relational forms of analysis. The term, intersectionality, which we first encountered in the scholarship of Kimberlé Crenshaw, is rearticulated by Susan Gillman and Alys Eve Weinbaum (2007) in their “Introduction: W. E. B Du Bois and the Politics of Juxtaposition,” for their co-edited volume Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois (2007). Here, too, Gillman and Weinbaum engage a reading of Du Bois that recognizes a reach toward a kind of intersectional analysis that, while it does not entirely materialize in his work, is nevertheless evident enough to warrant our attention to it. As Gillman and Weinbaum assert, “it is necessary to deepen our investigation to explore how Du Bois bequeathed to readers important, if often inchoate, traces of and speculations about the possibilities and difficulties of thinking gender, sexuality, and race side by side, as juxtaposed, if not fully interwoven or articulated.” Perhaps our work here might be understood as fleshing out other juxtapositions evident in Du Bois’s work, all of which remain relevant to our current understanding of his work, and our world. Here, we again turn to race to re-envision what Du Bois offered us concerning it; we focus first on the metaphors used to articulate it.

For Du Bois, in “The Souls of White Folk” whiteness as a kind of deified, eternal ownership of the earth places lighter racial formations closer to economic self-determination, and, conversely, darker racial formations closer, to a kind of racial-social-economic subjugation. Indeed, for Du Bois, the world moves on a racially inflected economically centralized trajectory. As he asserts, “The world today is trade. The world has turned shopkeeper; history is economic history; living is earning a living” and earning a living pertains primarily to a white or light or enlightened world whose earnings are made through the exploitation of Black or dark or endarkened subjects and objects within it. It is in this vein that he further remarks:

As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battlesmoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived,—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted.

And yet this recognition gives way to a glorification of the edification (the Encyclopedia, the civilizing uplift of Enlightenment) he presumed this white as wonderful racial-social-economic system to provide; that is, Du Bois succumbed to a belief in the ability of this system to choose rightness rather than whiteness, to find another, truer, path that acknowledges the histories of those darker cultures and peoples upon which it has built. But this path would inevitably darken whiteness, and shift the relationships therein from mono- (white only), or even biracial (an asymmetric white/black dialectic), to a multiracial, reasonably equal or equitable one, both in terms of treatment and perception. In other words, Du Bois steps back into the frame of a kind of humanism, where education, here a more inclusive sense of history, will lead to an endarkened Radical Enlightenment. In fascinating ways, this in a sense presages powerful aspects of the work of Ralph Ellison. As Du Bois continues:

Why, then, is Europe great? Because of the foundations which the mighty past have furnished her to build upon: the iron trade of ancient, black Africa, the religion and empire-building of yellow Asia, the art and science of the "dago" Mediterranean shore, east, south, and west, as well as north. And where she has builded securely upon this great past and learned from it she has gone forward to greater and more splendid human triumph; but where she has ignored this past and forgotten and sneered at it, she has shown the cloven hoof of poor, crucified humanity,—she has played, like other empires gone, the world fool!

Here, Du Bois expresses a belief in the power of a contextualized, historicized understanding of Europe, one in which the darker cultures upon which it is based come to light. In this understanding of Europe (and, by extension, America), enlightenment is grounded on a full recognition of the ways in which their peon to the rightness of false premises (whiteness as wonderful; Blackness as a problem) leads them astray. Conversely, a white or light Europe (and America) grounded “securely” in its Black or dark roots has produced “greater and more splendid human triumph.” In sum, Du Bois assumes that an endarkened Radical Enlightenment offers the best way forward for the Western world. Sadly, ultimately, in his view, and ours, Du Bois’s faith in the power of humanism and rationalism to rightly direct humanity appears to overshadow his clear knowledge of the power of our metaphoric, economic, and racially asymmetric world system to misdirect us. His European and American Dream, fairytale or fantasy, overrides, until it cannot, his exceptionally profound understanding of reality. Arguably, and we are clear that many would and should debate the following claim, neither our nor Du Bois’s past or present substantiate any reason to think that the first choice offered, an endarkened Enlightenment, would be preferred or chosen over a white-washed reality, beyond a will-to-believe in some kind of impossible dream (referencing the song so titled - “The Impossible Dream”), and of that dream’s deferment. Such a view leads Du Bois to make assertions in “The Souls of White Folk,” like the following:

It is plain to modern white civilization that the subjection of the white working classes cannot much longer be maintained. Education, political power, and increased knowledge of the technique and meaning of the industrial process are destined to make a more and more equitable distribution of wealth in the near future. The day of the very rich is drawing to a close, so far as individual white nations are concerned.

It seems clear that such subjugation has been maintained, at least in the United States, and we daresay beyond, until this present day, and that neither education, politics, nor advancements in industry have made, or appear destined to make, “a more and more equitable distribution of wealth.” And the day of the very rich has not only not drawn to a close but has grown exponentially. The “loophole” to this trajectory, however, as Du Bois sees it in “The Souls of White Folk,” evident in some detail below, has indeed been a viable one:

There is a chance for exploitation on an immense scale for inordinate profit, not simply to the very rich, but to the middle class and to the laborers. This chance lies in the exploitation of darker peoples. It is here that the golden hand beckons. .... In these dark lands "industrial development" may repeat in exaggerated form every horror of the industrial history of Europe, from slavery and rape to disease and maiming, with only one test of success,—dividends!

Thus the world market most wildly and desperately sought today is the market where labor is cheapest and most helpless and profit is most abundant. This labor is kept cheap and helpless because the white world despises “darkies.”

In “The Souls of White Folk” Du Bois continues by noting the precise trajectory whiteness as wonderful has taken us in America, the wrong trajectory, by his estimation, even as he holds out hope for its endarkened, Enlightened redemption:

Instead of standing as a great example of the success of democracy and the possibility of human brotherhood America has taken her place as an awful example of its pitfalls and failures, so far as black and brown and yellow peoples are concerned. And this, too, in spite of the fact that there has been no actual failure; the Indian is not dying out, the Japanese and Chinese have not menaced the land, and the experiment of Negro suffrage has resulted in the uplift of twelve million people at a rate probably unparalleled in history. But what of this? America, Land of Democracy, wanted to believe in the failure of democracy so far as darker peoples were concerned.

But of course there have been actual failures, noted here albeit with some syntactical dissonance: “America, Land of Democracy,” is undemocratic in its understanding of and actions towards “the darker races.” The phrase “wanted to believe in the failure of democracy” for darker peoples is telling in that it suggests a deep desire for an undemocratic democracy; put another way, it depicts a desire to see and be seen as a democracy despite its failure to act democratically. Attempts to demonize and decimate various darker people have indeed also failed, although the darker people dealt with in so destructive a fashion have not failed to survive, have not proven a menace to society, and have not shown themselves to be devoid, when given the means, of upward social mobility.

Again, here, at least in terms of his thoughts concerning African Americans, Du Bois lauds the so-called civilizing mission, assigning it a place as a leading cause of Black life improvement, a tenet connected yet again to his deification, (or something close to it) of humanism and Enlightenment rationalism. What transpires then is a kind of dialectically opposed, and utterly contradictory dualism. On the one hand there is a clear sense of a white-inflected, global economic system designed for and skilled at mass exploitation; on the other hand, there is a clear desire to see the possibilities for a more “civilized” and equitable multiracial world led by the more “civilized,” as in educated citizens (perhaps akin to Du Bois’s the talented tenth). Ironically, the dialectic visible here channels the untenable oppositions evident in a democracy that is undemocratic in its treatment of its darker or darkened members, and in the juxtaposition of often seemingly irreconcilable structures of democracy and capitalism. And yet Du Bois holds on to his vision, dreams the impossible dream, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Du Bois has faith in the American Dream, holds dear “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” to cite James Baldwin’s use of this biblical passage in his essay that takes the latter part of this phrase as its title, directing its analytical eye to similar contradictions of American life that seems exceptionally relevant in this context.

To cite an additional example of the aforementioned incompatibilities, note that early on Du Bois wrote in a sophisticated way about the link between the Nazi atrocities and white European expansion. In The World in Africa, Du Bois (1947: 15) wrote that:

There was no Nazi atrocity—concentration camps, wholescale maiming and murder, defilement of women or ghastly blasphemy of childhood—which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Super Race born to rule to world (quoted in Rothberg, 2009: 124).

And yet, there seems to have been a blindness of the hubris of civilization that continued thereafter, this despite Du Bois’s growing awareness. For reflecting on his travel to Warsaw in 1949, at a “Tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters,” sponsored by, and subsequently published in Jewish Life in 1952, Du Bois expressed very different sentiments:

I have seen something of human upheaval in this world: the screams and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation; but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. I would have said before seeing it that it was impossible for a civilized nation with deep religious convictions and outstanding religious institutions; with literature and art; to treat fellow human beings as Warsaw had been treated. There had been complete, planned and utter destruction. Some streets had been so obliterated that only by using photographs of the past could they tell where the street was. And no one mentioned the total of the dead, the sum of destruction, the story of crippled and insane, the widows and orphans (quoted in Rothberg, 2009: 122).

In this essay, moreover, Du Bois (1952) noted that during his student days in Berlin, when it seemed that the U.S. race problem was the only one, and the greatest social problem in the world, a friend of his indicated he knew nothing about the matter, going on to describe those of Europe. Later, as Du Bois (1952) became aware of the Jewish experience he reports being “astonished”:

It has never occurred to me until then that... race prejudice could be anything but color prejudice...the problem of slavery, emancipation...was not even solely a matter of color and physical and racial characteristics, which was a particularly hard thing for me to learn...No, the race problem in which I was interested cut across lines of color...and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men. So that the ghetto of Warsaw helped me to emerge from a certain social provincialism….

Indeed, Du Bois was so moved by his experience that as he prepared The Souls of Black Folk for its 50th anniversary edition, he decided, after long grappling with the question, to change over a half a dozen passages of his literary classic due to their anti-Semitic overtones: “even unconscious repetition of current folklore such as the concept of Jews as more guilty of exploitation than others, had helped the Hitlers of the world” (quoted in Brackman, 2000: 92).

What we can glean here are a few things of profound import for understanding Du Bois’s Enlightenment rationalist humanism, and some of its limits as well. What Du Bois confronted in Europe and Poland on his various visits were the limits of his own understanding of modernity and race. West, as noted earlier, criticized Du Bois for his failure to engage with the literature of Russia and Central Europe, which were for West the major analogs of the Black experience in the United States. West goes on to note other artists who have examined the profound irrationalities and the tragicomic nature of the human experience in general, and the Black experience in particular: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison (and we would add Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor, Octavia Butler, August Wilson, Imbolo Mbue, and Dinaw Mengestu, among numerous others). What West highlights here, something raised by Ralph Ellison in his earlier response to Du Bois’s critique of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, is the unwillingness of many of those working within Enlightenment traditions (including the Radical Enlightenment, socialism, and specifically Marxism) to grapple with the question of desire, the human personality and the human psyche. It should be noted here, though, that Wright and Ellison appeared to share many of Du Bois’s Eurocentric views on the West versus the rest, despite their antiracist writing and activism (see Baldwin, 1961: 24-48; see Rampersad, 2007).

There is, however, another aspect of Du Bois’s lack of engagement with the aforementioned factors that West does not explore. As Popular Front politics on the U.S. left gave way to the Cold War, significant figures in the Communist movement, such as Richard Wright and his friend and protege, Ralph Ellison, were moving away from and indeed, denouncing Communism. At this very time, Du Bois was speaking more and more forcefully against anti-communism and the Cold War, and identifying himself more and more with Communism. As Amiri Baraka recounts in his last play, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” Du Bois was in fact arrested, prosecuted and put on trial in 1951- though he was ultimately acquitted - for being an agent of a foreign power, namely Russia, for his advocacy of peace and criticism of Western militarism, and largely abandoned by an increasingly anti-communist liberal left. Despite its early history of anti-colonial activism discussed by Carol Anderson (2014) in Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, in 1951, the NAACP embraced integration and opposition to segregation as an official plank, moving increasingly away from its earlier advocacy of labor rights as civil rights, while joining the anticommunist chorus, as Risa Goluboff (2007) and Derrick Bell (2008) also powerfully chronicled. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published in 1952 to wide acclaim, winning the National Book Award in 1953, and became the basis for the vision of Black life in the South for such books such as Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998).

Invisible Man is still widely considered one of the great novels of the latter half of the 20th century. Yet at the time of publication, Ellison’s leftist background was buried, while Du Bois’s leanings were highlighted, and he was increasingly marginalized. Barbara Foley (2010) has brilliantly written about the costs of Ellison expunging a left vision from Invisible Man, and the long-term costs of such expungement for the culture of the left. Du Bois’s failure to engage this literature, as West raised, cannot be understood without taking into account the great anti-communist purges within American public and intellectual life. A key aspect of these purges was the derailment of efforts by the left-led unions in the CIO and the labor movement more generally, to organize the South in what was called Operation Dixie. This derailment severed the left from the larger labor and Civil Rights movement for many decades, with long-term political consequences right up to the present, notably the rise of the New Right and its successive incarnations (Goldfield, 1994, 1997; Stepan-Norris & Zeitlin, 2002; Davis, 2018a).

To be sure, there were other aspects of Du Bois’s (1945b) lack of engagement with this literature, as can be seen in his almost wholly negative review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Du Bois notes in his review of Wright’s text: “Nothing that Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is false.” What is presented as false, specifically, is the absence of any likeable characters, of any race, or social, educational, or economic standing; the world of Black Boy is one of “concentrated meanness, filth, and despair.” And it was this criticism that led Ellison to write one of his most famous essays in Antioch Review. In the summer of 1945, “Richard Wright’s Blues” discussed the harsh, absurd and indeed tragicomic aspects of the Black experience that Cornel West took up in his essay on Du Bois, and which Ellison (1952, 2010a) elaborated on so masterfully in his first novel, Invisible Man, and in his posthumously published unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting. An earlier version of this was published as Juneteenth (2000b), a term that commemorates the last day of slavery when the Union forces entered Texas during the Civil War on June 19, 1865. Yet if we interrogate why Du Bois both disliked and largely refused to engage this literature on aesthetic and political terms, we can see clearly that this literature goes against the major aspects of Du Bois’s rationalist Enlightenment humanism, by conjuring up the irrational, the logic of mimetic scapegoating, and hatred, exactly those themes later raised so powerfully in Octavia Butler’s (2010a, b) Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, to which we will return. We can also see that this literature, most certainly the Black literary trajectories mentioned here, conjure up reason to believe that dreaming the impossible dream is just that, no more and no less than, dreaming, rather than living, the impossible.

This will to believe in the impossible, of course, is not limited to Du Bois. Immanuel Wallerstein (1991, 2006), to offer one example, has examined these entwined logics, and while understanding they are antinomies, sees them going together to justify the racialized division of labor on a global scale. At the same time, Wallerstein sees xenophobia as antithetical to this system and the logic of capital accumulation. Yet as Wallerstein surely understands, one function of xenophobia was that global elites, who relied on Jewish financial networks, could turn against their financiers during economic downturns. Likewise, Franz Neumann, in his Behemoth, outlined the logic of what might be called, following the work of Giovanni Arrighi (1983), comparative imperialisms and comparative settler colonialisms in the struggle for world hegemony. Neuman analyzed “the imperialism of the have-nots,” looking at the role of Germany, Italy and Japan (the three founders of the anti-Comintern Pact), with Germany expanding continentally, most especially into the heart of Europe. Here, Nazi ideology drew upon Marxist notions, but inverted them with a logic of the productive proletarian German Volk, versus Jewish finance capital, and Judeo-Bolshevism, a logic that was said to explain what otherwise could not be explained: Germany’s defeat in World War I, and its failure in the capitalist world-economy to gain wealth, despite its unsurpassed industrial productivity (see Neumann, 1944; see Arrighi, 1990, 2009).

Too late and bereft of the necessary resources for overseas expansion, for Germany, as Hitler noted: “Our Mississippi must be the Volga” (quoted in Snyder, 2015: 21). This disturbing vision represented a fusion of German military-industrial power, with ideologies against Jewish finance capital and Judeo-Bolshevism, and fit into Nazi plans to exterminate as many as 30 million people in Russia and Eastern Europe to create what Hitler considered the “Garden of Eden” for German resettlement. What were the deeper origins of this drive? Ironically, as indicated by the Mississippi reference, it was not to England that Germany looked, but, as Timothy Snyder (2015: 12-13) argues:

For generations of German imperialists, and for Hitler himself, the exemplary land of empire was the United States of America…‘Through modern technology and the communication it enables,’ wrote Hitler, ‘international relations between peoples have become so effortless and intimate that Europeans—often without realizing it—take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives.’ Globalization led Hitler to the American dream.

Of course, Hitler’s American Dream was not to be, and this despite the inspiration found too for the central part of Nazism’s anti-Jewish Nuremberg race law, from Jim Crow (Whitman, 2017). Neither was it to be for those generations of Americans in existence after the Wall Street housing bubble and crash of 1929 (with pronounced similarities with the Wall Street housing bubble and crash ushering in the Great Recession of 2008). In these contexts, the limits of Du Bois’s visionary brilliance is clear. At one time assuming the inherently humanizing effects of culture, religion and literature, as part and parcel of the progress of the world, the German and American experience revealed to Du Bois something much more ominous and disturbing, the power of the irrational, evident in both world events and the American Dreams shaping them and the related logic of total destruction. Revealed to Du Bois here was a new understanding of global racism and a necessity to incorporate these oppositionalities and incompatibilities into his ways of seeing and being in the world he had in other ways so keenly observed.

The Great Depression was the overwhelming fact of American life in the 1930s. Here, though, there was an epochal reshuffling of the notion of the American Dream, as it increasingly shifted and became re-centered on the experience of California, during an era that Michael Denning calls “the cultural front.” And today, of course, California, on newly enlarged multicultural social foundations, has emerged as a center of resistance towards Trump and his white supremacist anti-immigrant nationalism (see Levi & Rothberg, 2018; see also Waldinger, 2018). In the current political moment in the United States and across the globe, the irrationalities of today’s carbon-based global capitalism - from the standpoint of what Du Bois’s friend and colleague Max Weber called substantive rationality, having to do with ultimate ethical aims and values - are more apparent than ever, at least to some, as the planet burns and drowns. And yet, this is the exact moment in which a minority of U.S. citizens, predominantly white, elected Trump via the Electoral College.

These seeming paradoxes, irrationalities, and high jacking of history are things that the Black feminist science fiction novelist, and long-term resident of Los Angeles, Octavia Butler, dealt with in her novels, namely what she referred to as “unenlightened self-interest.” Among other things, Butler chronicled the ways in which desperate people will use power, often times in horrible and harmful ways, just to feel that they exercise some power and control. Indeed, in the epigraph to Chapter 6 in Butler’s (2000a: 61) Parable of the Sower, the protagonist Lauren, notes that: “Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.” This presence of the psychology of the irrational, and the role of racism, reflected precisely the concerns of authors such as Ralph Ellison, and indeed, Ellison was a friend and colleague of Joseph Frank (1983), author of the monumental biography of Dostoevsky, who he saw as Ellison’s literary ancestor.

The present political moment, in light of the questions of rationality and literature we are underscoring herein, has been recently highlighted in the work of Jennifer Wilson (2018), who notes the profound importance of the literature of Dostoevsky, and its:

resonance with social problems facing our own society. Some would argue that, with the election of Donald Trump, the American public made the most self-destructive and irrational decision in our nation’s history. And yet, despite this overwhelming evidence that rational choice plays little to no part in political decision-making, those who advocate for liberal causes continue to build arguments around logic, facts, statistics, and science, rather than reckoning with the seemingly impenetrable potency of emotions like hate, shame, and fear that lead people to make unreasonable choices and form baseless opinions about one another…we are reminded of the need to take irrationality and willful self-destruction seriously. They are not only born out of individual choices; they are social forces that can play a much larger role in our politics than we might care to admit (see Davis, 2017; see Achen & Bartels, 2017).

These thoughts suggest that we have not found a way around what David Harvey (1989) might identify as “the dark side of our human natures.” Any realization of this Enlightenment ideal or desire has been handily disputed by a series of events noted above, and including the election of public officials, not just Trump, along with the establishment of public policies that ensure oppression rather than liberation. The mantra of progress evident in Enlightenment thought, which has found footing well beyond this frame of it, has less and less to ground it. Most importantly, here, Du Bois may well be aligned with someone like Condorcet who held onto “the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings” (Habermas, quoted in Harvey, 1989: 13). And as David Harvey (1989: 13) remarks, “The twentieth century - with its death camps and death squads, its militarism and two world wars, its threat of nuclear annihilation and its experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- has certainly shattered this optimism.”

This list is too short, however, if we add the over sixty some million refugees seeking sanctuary somewhere around the world, greater numbers than any time since World War II. This global crisis was poignantly documented by Ai Weiwei (2017) in Human Flow. In the U.S., the current wave of xenophobia towards immigrants, of which California was the epicenter in the 1990s, has now shifted to Arizona, the nation as a whole and the White House. While heartened by the responses of many in California, including cities and other social and political organizations to declare themselves sanctuaries, it is also worth noting that such functions were born out of a pushback against the latest wave of anti-immigrant nationalist sentiment. Today, we are light years away from America’s earlier ideal of the nation-state as a refuge -- exemplified by the poem, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, affixed to the Statue of Liberty, a portion of which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This poem and the embrace of immigrants was popularized more than any other by Louis Adamic, the electric Austro-Hungarian refugee who migrated to the Golden State and involved himself in radical politics, schooling the likes of one of California’s premiere scholar-activists, Carey McWilliams (Davis, 2006). Indeed, as Kevin Starr has so poignantly documented, migration has long been central to the idea of California as the cutting edge of the American Dream. This point is made clear through the many different versions of the song, “California Dreaming,” first made popular by the Mamas and Papas in 1965, and re-recorded by too many artists to name, including but not limited to Bobby Womack, The Beach Boys, America, and Diana Krall. And it is to California’s dreams, including immigrant dreams, and dreams deferred that we now turn.

California Dreaming in Du Boisian Perspective: Another California, Another Country, Another World

A key text in the shifting of the idea of the American Dream, what Langston Hughes called dreams deferred, was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a tale of the exodus of the Okies’ great migration from the Dust Bowl to California. Subsequently the book became a Hollywood film. Interestingly enough, in the film Interstellar, about the dying of the earth in our own time, scenes come from actual documentaries of the Dust Bowl while never telling the viewer. Though as Michael Demming (2010: 260) argues, the roots of Steinbeck’s work lay in the successive strikes by Mexican, Chinese and Filipino workers. In The Grapes of Wrath, however, Steinbeck portrayed the Okie’s instead as white Americans, just as he whitened the striking workers in his text In Dubious Battle. Bruce Springsteen would later pick up the Steinbeck’s evocative themes in his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. This was part and parcel of the process whereby second-generation immigrants and their parents, in the 1930s and beyond, came to be considered on the white side of the color line and gained upward class mobility during the rise of American hegemony until the emergence of new politics of inequality in the 1980s (Davis, 2018a; Roediger, 2006; Alba, 2009).

Equally important in remaking California, and the United States, was the Great Black Migration of the 20th century, a move of African Americans from the U.S. South propelled in some part by a desire for better opportunities, and in some part because of the stifling conditions of southern Black life, although conditions elsewhere in the United States proved troublesome as well. And of course, for Japanese Americans largely from the Pacific Coast, the internment of some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps during World War II, also showed just how fragile and vulnerable to racism and xenophobia their American Dreams were. And this is something particularly important to consider, as our increasingly multicultural realities, in California and the nation, to which we turn, raises the especially urgent question of what Seyla Benhabib (2004) calls “the rights of others,” and the necessity of more audacious multicultural political projects, in the US and globally, that can be fused with moves towards greater democracy and the more equitable distribution of wealth and power. Ai Weiwei’s (2017) film, Human Flow, mentioned earlier, brings out these questions of the rights of others, in terms of migrants and refugees as one of the central issues of our times, but it also relates to this question of multicultural realities and the dangers of a racialized and ethnicized polity at home.

The tragic breakdown of Black-Korean relations and its role in the origins of the LA Uprising in 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, themes powerfully evoked in the 2017 Hollywood film, Gook, and the passage during this period of the anti-immigration proposition 187, until the courts overruled it, show the urgency of these questions (Stevenson, 2015). The dramatic tale of Room 203 at Wilson High in Long Beach, California, an important example here of positive social change, also foregrounds the urgency of such questions. In this tale, in the aftermath of the LA riots, students, fighting against hatred, racism, gang violence, and disenfranchisement, created the Freedom Writers; their story was told in both the book and the Hollywood film of that name, and in a soon to be released PBS documentary, Stories from an Undeclared War. The interrelated questions of multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion, power and wealth these various examples above exhibit, ought to be at the forefront for those aiming to remake democratic socialism on new and enlarged social foundations, in the US and across the globe, as Du Bois at his best envisioned, for the 21st century (see also Arrighi, 1990, 1991; see also Horne, 2018).

By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the US, and especially California, had dramatically changed, especially because of the Hart Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As the first Latinx California Supreme Court Justice, Cruz Reynoso (2015), the son of farm workers, noted, “In my own state of California, the presence of Asians and Latinos, and particularly their children and grandchildren, have made minorities of color the majority of our residents. According to the 2010 Census, approximately 38.4 percent and 14.1 percent of the population in California are Latinos and Asians respectively...Nor have the changes been limited to California, they are nationwide” (Davis, 1999; Lee, 2015; Morales, 2018). In terms of immigration trends, through much of the 19th century the U.S. had virtually an open immigration system, as least in terms of persons from Europe. By the late 19th and early 20th century a nativist reaction set in, resulting in the racist Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924. Thus, from a high point of nearly 15% of Americans being foreign born in 1910, immigration more or less steadily dropped reaching less than 10% in 1970, when the 1965 Act began to kick in, thereby reaching a new high of almost 13% by 2010 (Portes & Rumbaut, 2014: 25). The 1965 Act, however, introduced into U.S. immigration quotas for the Western Hemisphere for the first time. In turn, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border resulted in a growing undocumented population (see Ngai, 2014). And then of course, there was the impact of the Great Black Migration, and subsequent global Black migration from Africa and the Caribbean after 1970. The late Ira Berlin (2010) brilliantly chronicled this in his The Making of African America: The Four Migrations.

In the context of an increasingly racially and ethnically polarized polity, by the 1990s California became the epicenter of nativist anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. By the late 2010’s, this had shifted to Arizona, while Trump leveraged the Republican refusal to cut a deal on immigration into the fuel for his anti-immigrant “America First” campaign. Today, in addition to the recent zero-compassion famil- separation policy at the border, now ostensibly discontinued, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rails against immigration, and lauds the 1924 Immigrant Act, which along with the 1965 Act, largely created the category of “illegal alien” that is a core aspect of Trump’s white supremacist philosophy. Meanwhile, similarly aligned protests, in which chants to “Build the Wall” to chants of “The Jews Will Not Replace Us,” in Charlottesville, Virginia, just a year ago in August 2017, abound (see PBS, Frontline, 2018a, b).

A key reason why California, even in the context of widening inequalities in the state and nation, has emerged as a center of resistance to Trump, is that the increasingly diverse younger generation of Americans, part of the emerging multicultural majority, has become more progressive as the American Dream fades (Chetty, et al., 2017; Goldrick-Rab, 2017). Concomitantly, the younger generation and a growing proportion of the population is shifting to the social democratic and socialist left, a groundswell that is putting increasing pressure on the Democratic Party. This can be seen both in the rise of Presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic primary victory of Democratic Socialist candidate and Bernie supporter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in New York. Polls now show that a majority of an increasingly diverse generation of Americans, and Democrats, have a more positive view of socialism than capitalism. Also, evidence of resistance can be seen in the context of the embrace of Ethnic Studies in places like the public schools of Charlottesville, California, which culminated in the introduction of a bill to make Ethnic Studies mandatory, by the year 2024, the same year that begins Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower.

In many ways, Parable of the Sower captures the multicultural demographic realities of California today and in its likely future. Though California’s immigrant population has declined from its high point of 1990, it still has more than 25% of all the immigrants in the United States today (Portes & Rumbaut, 2014: 87, 94). At the same time, it also reveals a Hobbesian world in which only small scale groups, including incipient multiracial communities, survive. As Mike Davis (1998) has written in his Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles & the Imagination of Disaster, and like cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson argued in Neuromancer and subsequent texts, Butler takes current trends and extrapolates into the future of Langston Hughes’ (1951) query in Montage of a Dream Deferred,

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

To be sure, there have been recurrent explosions, and there are sure to be more in the future. Yet Butler’s (2000a: 123) protagonist, Lauren, takes a different view: “I used to wait for the explosion, the big crash, the sudden chaos that would destroy the neighborhood. Instead, things are unravelling, disintegrated bit by bit.” The novel anticipates the radical increase in homelessness in California, the privatization of public services, and adds exponential increases in joblessness, crime, and climate change. In the novel, gated communities are subjected to break-ins and violence by the growing surplus population outside, until they are forced to take to the streets. Here people on the move increasingly occupy highways, internal refugees of a sort of the second law of thermodynamics, as the characters discuss, in which increasing disorder and chaos is the norm, instead of the exception. This leads directly to Lauren’s invention of a new religion, Earthseed, in which the only constant is change. God is change.

It is in this historicity, this understanding of the universe and the place of humans within it, that Butler makes some of her most important contributions. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2004) has raised this centrality of history, and its relationship to myth and the imaginary, quoting Edouard Glissant, who noted “The West is not a place, it’s a project.” Trouillot (2006: 229) goes on: “Or to paraphrase a character in Alain Resnais’s movie, Mon Oncle d’ Amerique (1980), “The West does not exist. I know. I’ve been there.” Trouillot quotes here The Poverty of Philosophy, where Marx criticizes economists who:

express the relations of bourgeois production, the division of labor, credit, money, etc., as fixed, immutable, eternal categories...but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical moment that gave them birth…[T]hese categories are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products...In each historical epoch, property has developed differently land under a set of entirely different social relations...To try to give a definition of a property as of an independent relation, a category apart, an abstract and eternal idea, can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics and jurisprudence.

The same, Trouillot argues, is true with what he calls classificatory universals, race, class, and gender, and of course, sexuality and nation. Du Bois, when the dream deferred shattered his faith in the American Dream and progress, ultimately chose to turn away from the U.S. and towards Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, moving to Africa and embracing current communist dictatorships in the U.S.S.R. and China, who he saw as willing to help anti-colonial movements. This in turn relates to a major weakness of Marx’s arguments, which Du Bois tried to address during his life, especially in Black Reconstruction, namely the split between the increasing social power of workers primarily on the white side of the color line in the rich countries, and those workers of color in the global South. As he (2014) argued in Black Reconstruction:

That dark and vast sea of human labor...that great majority of mankind...shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned, and enslaved in all but name; spawning the worlds raw material and luxury--cotton, wool, coffee…--how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy and Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured hands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of the basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.

Du Bois illuminates a key ongoing weakness of Marx’s analysis, regarding the lack of attention to the contradictions and intersections of race, class, gender, and nation, and the central importance of an intersectional analysis of these for the remaking of the global system on new and enlarged democratic socialist foundations. For as Arrighi (1990) argued, and Du Bois so clearly understood, when workers of the world have been framed:

as an undifferentiated mass with no individuality...proletarians have rebelled. Almost invariably they have seized upon or created anew whatever combination of distinctive traits (age, sex, colour, assorted geo-historical specificities) they could to impose on capital some kind of special treatment. As a consequence, patriarchalism, racism, and national-chauvinism have been integral to the making of the world labor movement...As always, the undoing of these practices...can only be the result of the struggles of those who are oppressed by them. The social power which the cost-cutting race is putting in the hands of the traditionally weak segments of the world proletariat is but a prelude to these struggles. To the extent that these struggles succeed the stage will be set for the socialist transformation of the world.

It is to this possible transformation that we now turn.


Butler’s view about the constancy of change has an elective affinity with Arrighi’s longue duree analysis of the transformations of global capitalism. Indeed, Butler’s protagonist Lauren, in formulating her Earthseed religion of change, offers up a vision of a project for remaking California, the U.S. and the global system on newly enlarged multicultural social foundations, in ways that profoundly resonate with the democratic socialist visions of Du Bois and Arrighi. In Butler’s (2010a) Parable of the Sower, the epigraph that begins chapter 17, comes from the book the protagonist Lauren is writing, Earthseed: The Books of the Living:

Embrace diversity


Or be divided,




By those who see you as prey.

Embrace diversity

Or be destroyed.

Then, the epigraph from Lauren’s Earthseed that starts chapter 5 in Butler’s (2010b) sequel, Parable of the Talents, is as follows:


At war

Or at peace,
More people die

Of unenlightened self-interest.

Than of any other disease.

These are fitting words for our time. For, despite the omnipresence of change, be it good or bad, there are relative constants, such as what Butler called unenlightened self-interest, and the struggle for and against diversity and inclusion. This illustrates the dialectic back and forth of the social construction of race relations, and racial progress and regress, that has characterized the capitalist world-economy, with the evolution and eventual defeat of Black Reconstruction, so brilliant chronicled by Du Bois as a telling example. And today of course, following the election of the first Black President in the U.S., Obama, we have witnessed the sharp rise in racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, from Trump and the “birther” movement, and then against the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

Insurgent politicians have always played on divisions among the people to the advantage of elites, as Octavia Butler underscored so well in The Parable of the Sower. Here, as the protagonist Lauren notes: “Most people have given up on politicians. After all, politicians have been promising to return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century ever since I can remember” (Butler, 2000a: 20). In Butler’s (2000b: 18-20) Earthseed sequel, Parable of the Talents, set in 2032, Lauren speaks of her:

least favorite presidential candidate…[who] insists on being a throwback to some earlier “simpler time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time where everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on...stomping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country. But these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them...he has a simple answer…’Help us to make America Great Again’.

Prescient words in 1998, and in the novel this candidate did indeed go onto win, though the moment came sooner than Butler even imagined. Of course, in contrast, Hillary Clinton eventually adopted as her slogan, “Stronger Together.” Yet, by allying herself to Wall Street and the military-corporate complex, Clinton’s Democratic Party ran a campaign untethered to a political project that aimed to make multiculturalism a lived reality, and one that might remake the U.S. and the global system on new and enlarged social foundations. In California, despite its huge chasms of wealth inequality, exponentially growing homelessness, and inequalities of race, class, gender and nation, the future has already begun.

For in California, activists and scholars aim to turn this multicultural reality and the new politics of diversity into a political project that might allow for another California, another country, and another world on newly enlarged, more diverse and inclusive social foundations. A key here is an intersectional approach, noted earlier, in which the different multiple subject positions, and identities, coalesce to embrace political projects that are broadly inclusive: the right to health care, housing, fulfilling work, free and properly funded public education, replete with a full employment program. This employment program would need to tackle conversion of the military-corporate complex that is fueling death and conflict around to world to embrace instead cooperative security, while confronting the challenge of climate change and renewable energy.

Not surprisingly, Parable of the Sower, and the present and future worlds on which it hinges, leads to some reflection on the politics of hope (See also Davis, 2018b). Current trends mean more death and destruction, however, for those who live on earth, and those who might live here in the future, battling for the future calls for a radical politics of hope. And it ultimately calls for an enlightened, endarkened rationality, in which concern for humans, darker and lighter, and the natural world on which humans depend, are central. What we can gain, particularly, at this juncture, from Du Bois’s life and work, is the potential of a broadly inclusive, relational, intersectional sociological approach to aid in the acquisition of knowledge; we need a way to bridge between, rather than occlude, the relationship between the irrational and the rational; we need to realize, as did, ultimately, Du Bois, that progress is a possibility, not an actuality, and that blind adherence to it as some kind natural destiny offers a faulty logic, in reality; and, perhaps, most important of all for this issue on Du Bois, it is important to recognize that social uplift is not a given amongst an educated polity, the kind of education matters. As Frantz Fanon (1963: 1) so aptly put it, reframing Du Bois’s adage concerning whiteness as wonderful, and as much as racial framing, as an economic one, in which the talented top of people of color are educated, not so much for the sake of human advancement, but, and rather, for the advancement of a select few, of which this talented group (of which the authors of this piece are assuredly members) is not actually or fully a part:

The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of Western culture; they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed.

In this essay, we have tried to draw out the unfinished dialectic of enlightenment by suggesting that the tradition of Black Radicalism, and what we call the Radical Black Enlightenment/Endarkenment, from the work of W.E.B. Du Bois to Octavia Butler, and many others in between has much to teach us. Instead of making assumptions about the inherently uplifting effects of education, literature and facts, we see instead the utopian possibilities of education, literature and the possible importance of facts, but always in the context of relationships, and political projects to make a better future. For this, we need the best that radical humanists, sociologists, historians, and writers and thinkers of all disciplines have to offer.

Acknowledgments: For helping to inspire this piece, we want to thank Mike Davis, and members of the Mike Davis Research Working Group, and the Another California, Another Country, Another World, Research Working Group at the University of San Diego and FIRSt Grant funding from the USD Humanities Center.


Abrajano, Marisa & Zoltan L. Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, & American Politics, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Achen, Christopher H., & Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Alba, Richard, Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Anderson, Carol, Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony & Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., Africana Arts & Letters: An A-to-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians, & Artists of the African American Experience, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004.

Arrighi, Giovanni, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, & the Origins of Our Times, New York: Verso, 2009.

Arrighi, Giovanni, “World Income Inequalities & the Future of Socialism,” New Left Review 189, September/October 1991, pp. 39-66.

Arrighi, Giovanni, “Marxist Century, American Century: The Making & Remaking of the World Labour Movement,” New Left Review 179, January/February 1990, pp. 29-64.

Arrighi, Giovanni, The Geometry of Imperialism, Revised edition, with a new Afterword, London: Verso, 1983.

Baldwin, James, Another Country, New York: Picador, 1962.

Baldwin, James, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, New York: Dell Books, 1961.

Baraka, Amiri, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: W.E.B. Du Bois,” Unpublished Manuscript, 2014.

Bell, Derrick, “Racial Equality: Progressives’ Passion for the Unattainable,” Virginia Law Review, Volume 94, Number 2, April 2008, pp. 495-520.

Benhabib, Seyla, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, & Citizens, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Berlin, Ira, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Brackman, Harold, “‘A Calamity Almost Beyond Comprehension’,”: Nazi Anti-Semitism & the Holocaust in the Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois,” American Jewish History, Volume 88, No. 1, America & the Holocaust: New Perspectives, March 2000, pp. 53-93.

Bradley, Adam, Ralph Ellison in Progress: From Invisible Man to Three Days Before the Shooting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Brubaker, Rogers, “Between Nationalism & Civilizationism: The European Populist Movement in Comparative Perspective,” Ethnic & Racial Studies, Volume 40, Number 8, 2017, pp. 1191-1126.

Butler, Octavia, Parable of the Sower, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000a. First published, 1993.

Butler, Octavia, Parable of the Talents, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000b. First published 1998.

Canavan, Gary, Octavia E. Butler, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Chetty, Ray & David Grusky & Maximilian Hell & Nathaniel Hendren & Robert Manduca & Jimmy Narang, "The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940," Science, Volume 356(6336), 2017, pp. 398-406.

Crum, Maddle, “A Dystopian Novelist Predicted Trump’s Campaign Slogan in the ‘90s: Octavia Butler Wrote About a Zealot Who Promised to “Make America Great Again.” Sound Familiar?,” Huffington Post, July 2, 2016 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/octavia-butler-predicted-make-america-great-again_us_5776d9dce4b0416464100242

Davis, Mike, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics & Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class, New York: Verso, 2018a. First published, 1986.

Davis, Mike, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory, New York: Verso, 2018b.

Davis, Mike, “The Great God Trump & the White Working Class,” Jacobin, February 7, 2017.

Davis, Mike, “Who Will Build the Ark?” New Left Review 61, January-February 2010, pp. 29-48.

Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, New York: Verso, 2006.

Davis, Mike, “Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City,” New Left Review 234, March/April 1999, pp. 3-43.

Davis, Mike, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles & the Imagination of Disaster, New York: Vintage, 1998.

Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the 20th Century, New York: Verso, 2nd revised edition, 2010.

Du Bois, W.E.B., “The Negro & the Warsaw Ghetto,” Jewish Life, May 1952, pp. 14-15. Reprinted in W.E.B. Du Bois, The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader, ed., Eric Sundquist, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 469-473.

Du Bois, W.E.B., The World & Africa, Introduction by Mahmood Mamdani and Gerald Horne, The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois, New York: Oxford, 2014. First published 1947.

Du Bois, W.E.B., & Guy B. Johnson, Encyclopedia of the Negro: Preparatory Volume With Reference Lists & Reports, A New Edition edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 1945a, 2008.

Du Bois, W.E.B., “Review of Black Boy,” Special Collections & University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, Published in the New York Herald Tribune Books, Volume 21, No. 28, March 4, 1945b, under the title, “Richard Wright Looks Back.”

Du Bois, W.E.B., Black Reconstruction: As Essay Towards the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois, 2014. First published 1935.

Du Bois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk, With the Talented Tenth, & The Souls of White Folk, New York: Penguin, 1996. The Souls of Black Folk was first published, 1903.

Douglass, Frederick, “The Color Line,” The North American Review, Volume 132, No. 295, 1881, pp. 567-577.

Ellison, Ralph, Juneteenth, New York: Modern Library, 2010a.

Ellison, Ralph, Three Days Before the Shooting, The Unfinished Second Novel, edited by John F. Callahan & Adam Bradley, New York: Modern Library, 2010b.

Ellison, Ralph, The Invisible Man, New York: Vintage Books, 2nd edition, 1995. First published, 1952.

Ellison, Ralph, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited and with an introduction by John F. Callahan, and a preface by Saul Bellow, New York: Modern Library, 2003, pp. 128-144. First published in Antioch Review, 1945.

Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove, 1963.

Foley, Barbara, Wrestling With the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

Frank, Joseph, “Ralph Ellison & a Literary ‘Ancestor’: Dostoyevsky,” The New Criterion, September 1983, pp. 11-21.

The Freedom Writers, with Erin Gruwell, The Freedom Writers Diary, 10th Anniversary Edition, with New Journal Entries & an Afterword with Erin Gruwell, New York: Random House, 1999.

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York: Ace, 1984.

Gillman, Susan & Alys Eve Weinbaum, “Introduction: W.E.B. DuBois and the Politics of Juxtaposition,” in Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Minneapolis, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 1-34.

Goldfield, Michael, “The Failure of Operation Dixie: A Critical Turning Point in American Political Development,” in Race, Class & Community in Southern Labor History: Seventh Southern Labor Studies Conference, 1991, Gary M. Fink & Merl E. Reed, eds., Tuscaloosa, Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1994, pp. 166-189.

Goldfield, Michael, The Color of Politics: Race & the Mainsprings of American Politics, New York: New Press, 1997.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, & the Betrayal of the American Dream, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Goluboff, Risa L., The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Habermas, Jurgen, “Modernity as an Incomplete Project,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Washington, 1983, pp. 3-15.

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity, New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Horne, Gerald, Facing the Rising Sun: African Americans, Japan, & the Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity, New York University Press, 2018.

Hughes, Langston, Montage of a Dream Deferred, New York: Henry Holt, 1951.

Israel, Jonathan I., “‘Radical Enlightenment’: A Game-Changing Concept,” in Reassessing the Radical Enlightenment, Steffen Ducheyne, ed., New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 15-47.

Israel, Jonathan I., Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy & the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Jackson, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

Lee, Erika, The Making of Asian America: A History, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Levi, Niel, and Michael Rothberg, “Memory Studies in a Moment of Danger: Fascism, Postfascism, and the Contemporary Political Imaginary,” Memory Studies, 2018, Volume 11, Number 33, pp. 355-367.

Litwack, Leon F., How Free is Free? The Long Death of Jim Crow, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Litwack, Leon F., Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Mills, Charles W., “White Ignorance,” in Race & the Epistemologies of Ignorance, Shannon Sullivan & Nancy Tuana, eds., State University of New York Press, 2007, pp. 13-38.

Morales, Ed, Latinx: The New Force in American Politics & Culture, New York: Verso, 2018.

Neumann, Franz., Behemoth: The Structure & Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944, New York: Harper & Row, 1963. First published, 1942, 1944.

Ngai, Mae, Illegal Subjects: Illegal Aliens & the Making of Modern America, 2nd edition, with a new foreword by the author, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Parrish, Timothy, Ralph Ellison & the Genius of America, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

PBS Frontline, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, August 7, 2018.

PBS Frontline, Trump’s Takeover, April 10, 2018.

Portes, Alejandro & Rueben G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, Fourth Edition, Revised, Updated, & Expanded, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Rampersad, Arnold, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Reynoso, Cruz, “Foreword,” in The Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965: Legislating for a New America, Gabriel J. Chin & Rose Cuison Villazor, eds., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. xiii-xv.

Robinson, Cedric, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition, 2nd edition, with a foreword by Robin Kelly and a new preface by the author, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Roediger, David, Working Towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford University Press, 2009.

Schneer, Jonathan, London, 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Snyder, Timothy, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History & Warning, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015.

Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath, New York: Penguin, 2006. First published 1939.

Steinbeck, John, In Dubious Battle, New York: Penguin, 2006. First published 1936.

Stepan-Norris, Judith, & Maurice Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds & America’s Industrial Unions, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Stevenson, Brenda, The Contested Murder of Latisha Harlins: Justice, Gender, & the Origins of the LA Riots, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, “The North Atlantic Universals,” The Modern World-System & the Longue Duree, Immanuel Wallerstein, ed., Boulder, Paradigm Publishers, 2004, pp. 229-238.

Waldinger, Roger, “Immigration & the Election of Donald Trump: Why the Sociology of Migration Left Us Unprepared...and Why We Should Not Have Been Surprised,” Ethnic & Racial Studies, Volume 41, Number 8, pp. 1411-1426.

Wallerstein, Immanuel, European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power, New York: New Press, 2006.

Wallerstein, Immanuel, “The Ideological Tensions of Capitalism: Universalism versus Racism and Sexism,” in Etienne Balibar & Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, New York: Verso, 1991, pp. 29-36.

West, Cornel, “W.E.B. Du Bois: An Interpretation,” in Kwame Anthony Appiah & Henry Louis Gates, ed., Africana Civil Rights: An A-Z Reference of the Movement That Changed America, Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004, pp. 442-458.

Whitman, James Q., Hitler’s American Model: The United States & the Making of Nazi Race Law, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Wilson, Jennifer, “Floating in the Air: The World That Made Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment,” The Nation, March 22, 2018.

Wright, Richard, Black Boy, New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. First published, 1945.

Zilberg, Elana, Spaces of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis Between Los Angeles & San Salvador, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press Books, 2011.