Thinking about Du Bois and Ambedkar

One day, when the current writing projects are completed, I plan to devote some time to writing about B.R. Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois. One area where I appreciate Ambedkar, was in his critique of Marxism vis-a-vis his interpretation of Buddhism. Du Bois’s relationship to Marxism was complex, reflecting the contradictions of the White left, as well as the limitations of Marx’s theory to addressing the malaise of African Americans. Moreover, Du Bois was influenced by Black nationalism and Pan-African nationalism in various ways, hence tempering his relationship to Marxist theory in some respects.

I compare this to Ambedkar’s discussion of Buddhist philosophy in relation to social inequality. This is from his essay Buddha or Karl Marx.
“A part of the misery and unhappiness in the world was according to the Buddha the result of man’s inequity towards man. How was this inequity to be removed ? For the removal of man’s inequity towards man the Buddha prescribed the Noble Eight-Fold Path.
The elements of the Noble Fight-Fold Path are:
(1) Right views i.e. freedom from superstition:
(2) Right aims, high and worthy of the intelligent and earnest men;
(3) Right speech i.e. kindly, open, truthful;
(4) Right Conduct i.e. peaceful, honest and pure;
(5) Right livelihood i.e. causing hurt or injury to no living being;
(6) Right perseverance in all the other seven;
(7) Right mindfulness i.e. with a watchful and active mind; and
(8) Right contemplation i.e. earnest thought on the deep mysteries of life.
The aim of the Noble Eight-Fold Path is to establish on earth the kingdom”

While Amedkar drew upon Indian philosophy to critique or de-center Marx, Du Bois did not draw upon African philosophy for similar ends. Later generations of Black scholars however would. It would be remiss of me to suggest that Du Bois’s influence would not impact their works even indirectly, as we has, after all, a pioneer of African-centered thought.

The spirit of an age: Confusion and alienation

In his writings, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the “spirit of an age” at least once explicitly, and numerous times implicitly. The “spirit of an age” is the essence, energy, or character that characterizes a particular time period. It is the prevailing mood or personality of a given historical moment.

One might argue, for instance, that the spirit of the age of the mid-1950s to early 1970s was one of mass-struggle, as movements for self-determination or social justice were being waged in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. These movements ran parallel to the state manifesting varying degrees of reform and/or suppression, as these struggles challenged its basic legitimacy.

Similarly, the 1980s and 1990s, and to some extent the 2000s–in the U.S. in particular–were characterized by the ascendance of acquisitiveness, consumerism, and materialistic impulses. All of this was paralleled by a reconfiguration of the state, greater economic insecurity, globalization, and the rapid ascent of technological revolutions in the areas of telecommunications, finance, and commerce.

I would argue that our present moment, the 2010s, is characterized by abounding confusion and alienation, as the “progressive” politics of our day reinforce an untenable status quo in the forms of appeals to reform, despite the fact that we have reached a point in the development of the U.S.’s political-economy where reform is wholly insufficient to move progressively from the current state of things to a truly emancipatory order. In fact, and in many instances, the politics of identity, are advanced as if they were the apex of critical discourse. While appeals to identity may be viscerally appealing to some, liberatory movements must ultimately offer both a critique of and alternative to the existing order. Thus even the most aggressive, seductive, or irrepressible movements of our time are generally insufficient to either disrupt, dismantle, or problematize an increasingly dangerous neo-liberal capitalism, a recalcitrant white racism, or the fratricidal violence of communities that function as almost de-facto sites of “internal colonialism”. This is because, I ague, that these movements, and much of what comprises this cultural moment reflects “abounding confusion and alienation”, and that this myopia is, generally, inescapable and endemic.

More subversive than physical fetters: W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson on the subjugation of African minds (an excerpt)

Central to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson was an on-going investigation of the context of terror visited upon Black bodies (Du Bos 2007a; Woodson 1990). For these scholars the assault upon African humanity was not merely a localized dilemma isolated to a marginal epoch of American history, rather it was a central process in the creation of America’s racialized social order, and beyond this, a key component in the modern global system wherein the humanity of African people was a secondary consideration to their utility as vehicles of or impediments to the acquisition of capital (Du Bois 2007b; Woodson 1990, 2004). Both Du Bois’s and Woodson’s work compels for us to look at the context of enslavement as a foundational moment in the erection of the contemporary power of the west. This process propelled the expansion and entrenchment of a domestic colonial project, in addition to fueling subsequent processes of conquest abroad. Within the domestic milieu, the political-economy of Black subordination via the system of state-sponsored racial subordination necessitated the implementation of an epistemic regime of terror (Du Bois 1978a, 1978b). This process has maintained a dual focus consisting of the oppression of Black bodies via instruments of coercive control, and the subjugation of Black minds via processes of mis-education (Du Bois 2002, Woodson 1990).

What must be asked is not whether this campaign has abated (it has not), but rather how a liberatory form of Black education might more effectively resist this assault? Du Bois and Woodson recognized that Black people, as ever, stand at the precipice, facing on one side a familiar tyranny and on the other a new world that exists just beyond the bounds of our knowing and the fruits of our unfettered social agency. As Du Bois queried in 1960, we must ask again, whither now and why (Du Bois 1973b)? Ultimately we must ponder to what extent has realization of liberation been obscured via the highly efficacious management of Black bodies and minds in the schools of America (Du Bois 1973a; Woodson 1933)?