The Semiotics of Racial Différance in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger”

In American literature, as in American culture more generally, race has played a central role not only in the sense that a great deal of literature is directed at the problems of race, racism, and race relations, but in the means by which racial differences and similarities are used as signs. Many of the tropes, commonplaces, symbols, and values used and reflected by the great American literary works written by white authors, as Toni Morrison writes, are “in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (5). The white American literary tradition—like the idea of whiteness itself, as James Baldwin (169) and others have pointed out—has in important aspects relied upon a reference to blackness and to the experience of black people in America to arrive at its self-definition (Gates, 12). The content of the idea of whiteness as a racial concept, then, is derived from blackness both as it differs and defers, and vice versa. Borrowing Jacques Derrida’s (78) French neologism différance to describe the simultaneous differing and deferring of signs, scholars such as Ellen T. Armour (62), Ryan Simmons (84), and others have used the term racial différance to describe this mutual derivation of meaning through juxtaposition in the black/white binary. It is this binary and the racial différance it feeds from and creates anew that informs the use of African Americans and of blackness as signifiers for white characters as well as white and black readers in the works of Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s 1955 short story “The Artificial Nigger” serves as an illuminating example of her use of racial différance in its use of African Americans as a sign by which white characters attain greater self-understanding, a common theme in O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor’s identity as a white Southern woman and a practicing Catholic produced in her a complex relationship with her region’s history and legal and cultural dictates on the relationship of the races to each other. On the one hand, as she wrote in a letter to a close friend in 1957, she “became an integrationist” after witnessing African American bus riders insulted by the driver as they made their way to the back of a segregated Georgia bus (1988, 253). On the other hand, however, she refused the request of a more militantly integrationist friend, Maryat Lee, to meet with the African American author James Baldwin, fearing that “it would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion” (329). While expressing admiration for Baldwin’s work and admitting that “it would be nice to meet him” in New York, O’Connor explained that she would not violate Southern custom by meeting with a black man in Georgia. In another letter to Lee five years later, O’Connor expresses a more sour opinion of Baldwin, writing, “about the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind” (580). In the same letter, however, she expresses admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. (“King I don’t think is the age’s great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do”) and Muhammad Ali (“Cassius is too good for the Moslems”). As Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s friend and the compiler of her letters, explains in her preface to O’Connor’s collected letters in The Habit of Being, O’Connor “never thought” in terms of “large social issues” like the Civil Rights movement, choosing instead to focus both her work and her thought more generally upon what she saw as the higher and eternal issues of salvation and damnation (O’Connor 1988, xviii–xiv).

O’Connor subsumed her own complex relationship with racial différance under the more central, spiritual concerns of her fiction, often introducing black characters as a sign which will become the means of grace for the white central characters. As Nicholas Crawford (3) observes, “these characters wear masks, and their unreadability actually corresponds to a failure of self-recognition on the part of the white principals.” This unreadability also reflects O’Connor’s inability to, as she put it, “get inside their heads,” in her interactions with African Americans (O’Connor 1988, xix). O’Connor’s characters’ (and O’Connor’s) inability to understand the internal worlds of the African Americans with whom they interact allows the black characters to function as signs for greater self-illumination on the part of the white characters. The black characters, then, become a means of grace for the white characters, though this does not in any of O’Connor’s stories lead to a greater understanding between members of the two races (Crawford, 3–4).

The jocko figure encountered by Mr. Head and Nelson at the conclusion of “The Artificial Nigger,” which O’Connor described as her favorite of her own works and “probably the best thing I’ll ever write” (1988, 209), is an especially illuminating example of this motif as it appears in O’Connor’s works. In this case, the black “person” who acts as a means of grace and who is also the eponymous character in fact has no head to “get inside” of, given that it is a statuette. Mr. Head’s off-color joke about the statue, offered even as the grace given through the statue acts upon his soul, highlights his unchanged racial attitudes. “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one,” he jests in lieu of “a lofty statement” of explanation to his grandson (O’Connor 1971, 296). As Anthony Di Renzo (9) insightfully comments on this passage, through O’Connor’s juxtaposition of religious awe and low humor, “we are asked to seriously consider the possibility that a plaster lawn jockey is also a crucifix.” Like a real crucifix, it must be remembered that the plaster lawn jockey, to be meaningful both within the story and without, is a symbol of the real suffering of real human beings. O’Connor (1988, 78) wrote in a letter just after the initial publication of “The Artificial Nigger,” “What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all.”

Mr. Head had himself taken part in causing this suffering. Before their trip to the city, he tells Nelson that “there hasn’t been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago” (O’Connor 1971, 252). In a reversal of W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness, Mr. Head and Nelson find themselves lost in a black neighborhood in the city, observed with curiosity by its residents: “Black eyes in black faces were watching them from every direction” (260). Du Bois (1986, 364) describes the double-consciousness of African Americans in The Souls of Black Folk as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This mark of the African-American experience becomes the experience of the white grandfather and grandchild. Seeing himself through the contempt and pity of his black observers, “Nelson was afraid of the colored men and he didn’t want to be laughed at by the colored children” (O’Connor 1971, 261). Having forgotten their lunch on the train, they are tired, thirsty, and hungry strangers in the city, linking them symbolically to the hungry, thirsty, and tired strangers with whom Christ identifies in Matthew 25:44–45. Their situation also links them to the experiences of African Americans in the segregated South, like the black man whom Mr. Head participated in excluding from his rural county. In a passage of his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which may consciously draw upon the description of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31–46, Martin Luther King, Jr. (69–70) describes the hardships and indignities endured by African Americans in the segregated South. Included in his list are those hardships and indignities endured by Mr. Head and Nelson: the inability to find a place that will serve them food and drinks and the inability to find a place to rest. King’s conclusion to his list of the sufferings of African Americans is particularly illuminating when applied to the situation in which O’Connor’s characters find themselves; King writes, “When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stances, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair” (70). Their temporary endurance of the sufferings of African Americans, while mitigated by the certainty that they are still, within the larger social context, members of the dominant racial group, acts as a means of purification before the moment of conversion. To share in the sufferings which he has caused is a form of asceticism, a penance—perhaps even a “dark night of the soul”—which Mr. Head must undergo before grace is given to him (Tropman, 97).

This motif of the suffering African American as Christ-figure recurs throughout the story. On the train, Mr. Head and Nelson encounter a black man followed by two women—a figure which calls up medieval depictions of the crucifixion of Christ featuring Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary at the foot of his cross.[1] In the dining car, Mr. Head comments approvingly that “they rope them off” from the rest of the diners (O’Connor 1971, 256). Later, Mr. Head and Nelson encounter an image of the Virgin Mary in the form of “a large colored woman” (261). Nelson, a child, correctly senses her maternal symbolism and “would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had not pulled him roughly away” (262). While she attempts to point the way for the lost pair of visitors like the Virgin Mary motioning toward the Christ-child in church paintings, Mr. Head once again participates in the exclusion and suffering of those who will bring about his redemption and salvation.

The title of the work itself works to implicate the (ostensibly, white) reader in this suffering. Joyce Carol Oates (2009) has noted that “The Artificial Nigger,” in spite of being one of O’Connor’s best short stories, is “virtually unteachable as a consequence of its blunt pseudo-racist title.” The controversy over the story’s title began, as Tison Pugh (584) explains, even before its publication. “John Crowe Ransom, the editor of the Kenyon Review, suggested that she change the title to avoid ‘insult[ing] the black folk’s sensibilities,’” Pugh explains, citing Sally Fitzgerald’s account of the exchange. Far from being an example of racial insensitivity, however, O’Connor’s refusal of Ransom’s suggestion to change the title of “The Artificial Nigger” preserved and reinforced both the spiritual and social messages of the story. “To have sanitized the title would have robbed the story of its real power,” writes Ralph C. Wood (2005, 144), “the power to invert racist intention into antiracist redemption.” As she does with African American suffering and racial différance throughout the story, O’Connor uses the grotesquery of the racially charged title as a means to her spiritual end. By identifying the eponymous “artificial nigger” within the story with Christ, she revivifies the “scandal of the cross” described by St. Paul (Gal 5:11). This scandalousness—a shock registered on the part of both the ancient Jews and Romans at the notion of the God of the universe submitting to what the Roman orator Cicero described as “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” of crucifixion—is hardly registered by moderns as a result of a superficial familiarity with the image of the crucified Christ (Sheckler and Leith, 74). By revivifying the scandal of the cross and implicating the white reader in Mr. Head’s racism, she invites the reader to share in the end in Mr. Head’s conversion—a conversion which may not lead to reformed racial attitudes, but which strikes at the root of racism in the sinfulness of man (Monroe, 65).

[1] All four gospels mention women disciples who gather at the site of the crucifixion. See Mt 27:55–56, Mk 15:40, Lk 23:49, and Jn 19:25. Matthew and Mark mention Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary by name while implying that there were others. John mentions Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, and another Mary by name. Luke does not list any of their names. All three synoptic gospels also claim that the women disciples accompany Jesus’s body to the tomb. Matthew and Mark again identify Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary specifically while Luke offers no names. See Mt 27:61, Mk 15:47, and Lk 23:55. All four gospels also claim that Jesus’s woman disciples were the first to see him risen when they came to his tomb early on Sunday morning. Matthew names the women at the tomb as Mary Magdalene and what may be Jesus’s mother the Virgin Mary; Mark identifies Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary; Luke identifies Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the Virgin Mary; and John mentions only Mary Magdalene by name. See Mt 28:1, Mk 16:1, Lk 24:10, and Jn 20:1. It is common for medieval and later Catholic depictions of the crucifixion to feature only two women, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. Depictions of the crucifixion with only the Virgin Mary and the apostle John at Jesus’s side are also common. See Roberts 2014, 194.



Armour, Ellen T. Deconstruction, Feminist Theology, and the Problem of Difference: Subverting the Race/Gender Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Baldwin, James. “On Being White . . . And Other Lies.” First published 1984. In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, 166–70. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

Crawford, Nicholas. “An Africanist Impasse: Race, Return, and Revelation in the Short Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.” South Atlantic Review 68, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 1–25. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Print.

Di Renzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: Flannery O’Connor and the Medieval Grotesque. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. Print.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. First published 1903. In W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, edited by Nathan Huggins, 357–547. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Race”, Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Why We Can’t Wait.” First Published 1963. In Why We Can’t Wait, 64-84. New York: New American Library, 2000. Print.

Monroe, W. F. “Flannery O’Connor’s Sacramental Icon: ‘The Artificial Nigger.’” South Central Review 1, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 64–81. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Parables of Flannery O’Connor.” The New York Review of Books, April 9, 2009. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/04/09/the-parables-of-flannery-oconnor/. Web. March 28, 2017.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988. Print.

———. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Print.

Pugh, Tison. “Chaucer’s Rape, Southern Racism, and the Pedagogical Ethics of Authorial Malfeasance.” College English 67, no. 6 (July 2005): 569–86. Print.

Roberts, Helene E. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Sheckler, Allyson Everingham, and Mary Joan Winn Leith. “The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors.” Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (January 2010): 67–88. Print.

Simmons, Ryan. Chesnutt and Realism: A Study of the Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. Print.

Tropman, John E. The Catholic Ethic in American Society: An Exploration of Values. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. Print.

Wood, Ralph C. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005. Print.



Conclusion (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 6 of 6)

 It is on this basis that Du Bois was able to defend African Americans from the accusations of the scientific racists of his day even while accepting certain aspects of that science—such as race essentialism—that most scientists today would reject. In so doing, Du Bois raises important questions regarding the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. While Du Bois was able to make an argument against racism through his scientific approach to humane disciplines like history and philosophy, the arguments he formulated rebutted ideas that were accepted as scientific fact in his day. By framing his life as a refutation of the scientific racism popular in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and by applying scientific methods to the humane arts in an attempt to rebut racial pseudoscience, Du bois helped to define the relationship between the humanities and the sciences and points to a healthy engagement between the two in which each can inform the other. A scientism which ignores the human element severs itself from the experiential facts of the lives it hopes to explain while a humanism that disvalues scientific ways of knowing is incomplete and likely to result in navel-gazing prognostications with little meaning for the real world. By bringing the two together, Du Bois used his training in the humanities and his knowledge of the sciences as means by which to explain and to change for the better the lives of millions of people.

History and Race Vindication in The Gift of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 5 of 6)

Twenty years after the initial publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to expand upon his use of history for race vindication with his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk. There, Du Bois built significantly upon his previous lists of African American contributions in yet another attempt. Published by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, as part of a series of three volumes exploring the contributions of persecuted ethnic groups to the United States, The Gift of Black Folk, along with the other two volumes in the series—one on Jewish people and the other on Germans—was part of an attempt to combat rising prejudice in the interwar United States by highlighting the achievements of members of ethnic minority groups.

        The book takes its title, argument, and structure from an assertion Du Bois originally made in The Souls of Black Folk:

Here we have brought three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.[54]

The chapters of The Gift of Black Folk begin with a discussion of “the gift of sweat and brawn.” Starting with the earliest explorers of the Americas and stretching through the history of the United States, Du Bois describes the numerous ways in which African American manual labor has contributed to the development of America. “Hard manual labor, and much of it of a disagreeable sort, must for a long time lie at the basis of civilized life,” Du Bois writes in response to those who would devalue this sort of work.[55] “In an ideal society it would be highly-paid work because of its unpleasantness and necessity.” Following this discussion of the contributions of black labor to the building of the United States, Du Bois transitions, via a discussion of the participation of African Americans in all of the United States’ wars, to a discussion of the cultural and intellectual contributions of African Americans to American society.

        Expanding on his claims in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois once again highlights the role that African Americans played as active agents in securing their own freedom. In so doing, claims Du Bois, African Americans accomplished a great victory for democracy and thereby expanded and secured the liberties of all peoples. Du Bois links African Americans’ struggle for and achievement of emancipation to the history of the United States as a whole: “There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.”[56] By gaining their own freedom, then, African Americans became participants in the expansion of freedom that has marked American history more generally. It is an “inescapable fact,” explains Du Bois, “that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic.”[57] The self-emancipation of African Americans, then, is a victory for all Americans.

        Du Bois also extends this discussion to encompass the overturning of social hierarchies more generally, attributing to the emancipation of the African American slaves of the South and the subsequent period of Reconstruction in that region the advent of “democratic government . . . free public schools . . . [and] new social legislation” which ended the Southern slaveholding oligarchy and thereby made the South more democratic, granting access to education and representation to whites of the non-slaveholding classes as well.[58] Du Bois would significantly expand upon these thesis in 1934 with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. There, taking a more clearly Marxist turn in his historiography, Du Bois countered the claims of the scientific and historical racists that African American leadership failed during Reconstruction and that the good that came out of the period was to be attributed to whites with, as was typical of his style, another thoroughly researched and well-documented historical discussion.[59]

        The last half of the book Du Bois dedicates to the gifts of song and spirit, the contributions by African Americans to American culture which he had highlighted as the most significant in The Souls of Black Folk. Writing as he did in 1924 during the Harlem Renaissance Du Bois is now able to expand upon his previous discussions of these contributions by pointing to the rising importance of African American music as well as the numerous contemporary African American poets. As Du Bois writes, these musicians and poets “form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression” that rose out of the spirituals and became the definitively American musical and poetic forms.[60] Just as American culture was shaped by the musical and poetic traditions of African Americans, writes Du Bois, American religion—that great center of all culture—bears the “imprint of Africa on Europe in America.”[61] In the final chapter, Du Bois discusses the numerous contributions of Africans and African Americans to American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, including leadership, hymns, and styles of worship. As Du Bois had shown, then, African Americans had contributed to the United States in body, mind, and soul.

[54] Ibid., 262–263.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk [1924] (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2009), 17.

[56] Ibid., 81.

[57] Ibid., 59.

[58] Ibid., 106.

[59] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (London: Cass, 1966).

[60] Ibid., 144.

[61] Ibid., 151.

Scholarship, Poetry, and Story in The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 4 of 6)

In 1903, Du Bois compiled and edited a collection of fourteen of his essays under the collective title The Souls of Black Folk, a book that has proved an enduring classic of American letters. The very title of the book proclaims its thesis, masking its depth with an apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of meaning. Du Bois’s use of the plural “souls” here is intended not to refer to the souls of African Americans as a group, but the duality Du Bois believed to be present within the soul of each African American, an idea which he acquired from the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel through the work of Du Bois’s friend and professor William James at Harvard. The term “folk” is an intentional borrowing by Du Bois’s from the nationalist movements of Europe, especially the German volk of Otto von Bismarck, who had only recently unified the German-speaking peoples of central Europe and upon whom Du Bois had chosen to write his undergraduate thesis at Fisk University.[36] Du Bois, then, is taking up, applying, and simultaneously transforming the thought of the vanguard of American and European intellectuals and political leaders with the intent of racial uplift for African Americans. In so doing, he seeks to find a place for African Americans within these paradigms while also serving the cause of racial vindication through the quality of his scholarship.

        One of the most influential and often discussed ideas introduced by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk is the notion of “double consciousness,” the source of the title’s plurality of “souls.”[37] As Du Bois describes it in the opening chapter,

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[38]

There is, of course, more than a little autobiography in this description of the state of being, so to speak, hyphenated. Du Bois’s many numerous experiences with rejection—from the little girl who had refused his card as a child in Great Barrington to the ending of the funding for his studies at the University of Berlin—had been frequent and painful because they had been based merely on the color of his skin and all in spite of his enormous and undoubted intellectual abilities. Du Bois sought to undermine this denial of opportunity that he had so often experienced himself and which had been even greater burden to so many other African Americans through a simultaneous appeal to the consciences of his white readers and careful elevation of African-American contributions to culture to a place alongside the contributions of Europeans and European-descended Americans.

        In one of the most famous passages from The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois movingly writes,

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?[39]

Du Bois’s invocation of the name of Alexandre Dumas alongside Shakespeare, Balzac, Aristotle, and Aurelius and the unnamed but nonetheless invoked Plato and Moses is significant. Dumas, like Du Bois himself and like most African Americans, was of mixed racial descent; his grandfather was black, which made Dumas, according to the race scientists of Du Bois’s time, black and a sharer in the innate inferiority of blacks. Du Bois intentionally places Dumas alongside other great authors who were of entirely European descent, calling attention to his undoubtedly deserving location alongside them as “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.”[40] Just as he had through history and the social sciences, Du Bois here makes his case against racial hierarchy through an appeal to the humanities and the contributions people of African descent have made therein, coupling this with the accusation—undoubtedly correct—that other people of African descent were being denied the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the culture. As was the case with his treatments of black freedom under American slavery and black poverty in Philadelphia, Du Bois once more turns the accusations of the racists against them, pointing to racism and its proponents as the reason for the relative dearth of cultural contributions by those of African descent and the possibility, realized in Dumas, of such contributions by those who are allowed to contribute.

        Du Bois, in fact, drives this point home at the beginning of each chapter. For each of the chapters of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois chose a dual epigraph featuring lines of poetry from mostly European and white American poets and lines of musical notation from one of the Negro spirituals, for the latter of which Du Bois coined the nomenclature “sorrow songs.”[41] As Dolan Hubbard points out, Du Bois uses these epigraphs as a means of philosophical justification for African Americans by entering into the realm of aesthetics, in which hitherto “the canon of beauty adhere to a European standard.”[42] This canon of beauty, as has been noted, became one of the primary means by which scientific racists denied the full humanity of people of African descent. The comparison of skull shapes featured in Gliddon and Nott’s Types of Mankind, for example, clearly relied upon an assumption that the reader would immediately recognize difference and therefore a relationship of superior to inferior in their presentation of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, a well-known Roman statue widely considered to be the standard of artistic and physical beauty, alongside a caricatured drawing of a the head of an African. By positing people of African descent outside of the standard limits of beauty, Hubbard explains, the scientific racists had cut them off from humanity. “Any theory of life must begin with a theory of the sublime and beautiful, the ultimate cultural capital,” writes Hubbard, “for they are closely tied to our perception of as well as relationship with the Divine.”[43] Therefore, says Hubbard, “blacks struggle to become human” while “whites struggle to become God.”[44] 

        By positioning music from the spirituals alongside poetry written and respected by whites, however, Du Bois undermines this assumed racial hierarchy. Instead, as Zamir writes of this and other aspects of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois is adopting and modifying Plato’s allegory of the cave in such a way as to imply that the prisoners in the cave—here, equated by Du Bois with African Americans—have a message for those outside it just as much as those who are outside of the cave have, as in Plato’s original allegory, knowledge to impart to those within it.[45] As Du Bois writes, “Negro blood has a message for the world.”[46] This phrasing is indicative of both Du Bois’s subverting of the traditional racial hierarchy and the assumptions attached to it as well as his inability to entirely get outside of it. Such was the pervasiveness of the assumption that physical and cultural difference were intertwined that not even Du Bois seems entirely able to break free of it. His fight, then, was not necessarily one against race essentialism itself but instead a fight to prove that the essence of the African was different from what was thought by the advocates of racism.

        Early reviews of The Souls of the Black Folk along with Du Bois’s response to those reviews are particularly telling in this regard. One anonymous reviewer writing in the New York Times, for example, writes,

To a Southerner who knows the negro race as it exists in the South, it is plain that this negro of Northern education is, after all, as he says, “bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh” of the African race. Sentimental, poetical, picturesque, the acquired logic and the evident attempt to critically fair-minded is strangely tangled with these racial characteristics and the racial rhetoric.[47]

Du Bois’s response to his critics, published in The Independent in 1904, far from rejecting such race essentialism, embraced it as an important aspect of his book and his self. There, he writes, “In its larger aspects of the style is tropical-African. This needs no apology. The blood of my fathers spoke through me and cast off the English restraint of my training and surroundings.”[48] While such statements sound jarring to modern ears, it must be acknowledged that there was a limit to the extent to which Du Bois could depart from the racial assumptions of his time; such race essentialism was, after all, scientific fact according to the greatest minds of his day. What was possible for Du Bois, however, and what he could realistically set out to do, was an alteration of the assumptions that attached to the shared character of African-descended people.

        In many ways, this willingness to compromise with race essentialism as well as Du Bois’s methods in attempting to redefine the characteristics attributed to the essence of African-descended people is a further reflection of Du Bois’s interest in and influence by German nationalism, already seen in his adoption of the word volk, his Fisk senior thesis on Bismarck, and his happy experiences studying in Germany. The famous brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, for example, had been engaged in a project of searching for the essence of the German volk when they set off into the German countryside to collect and classify stories and to study the origins of the German language.[49] Just as fairy tales were seen by the Brothers Grimm in their proto-anthropological studies as constituting one of the aspects of the essence of the German volk, Du Bois points to the sorrow songs, both in their music and in the stories they tell, as essential aspects of the “soul” of the African American folk as well as defining features of the American cultural landscape:

We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folk-lore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.[50]

For Du Bois, then, the music and stories of African Americans are their essence and their contribution to America and to the world. These are, writes Du Bois, “the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”[51]

        This contribution, in turn, places people of African descent alongside the members of the great civilizations of world history as contributors to the world’s knowledge and culture. “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son,” writes Du Bois.[52] Du Bois turns the rhetoric of the scientific racists against them to make this assertion; he writes,

The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. . . . Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?[53]

Just as whites of Northern European descent saw themselves standing atop a racial hierarchy with people of African descent at the bottom, writes Du Bois, it would have been possible for a Roman or a Greek to point to the Germanic and other peoples of Northern Europe and to assume a certain racial inferiority of these peoples given those peoples’ relative cultural inferiority. They did not, however, and, indeed, “the Teuton,” as Du Bois refers to these descendants of Northern Europeans, later made his mark on the world’s culture and civilization. It is the Teuton, however, a relative latecomer to civilization, who currently judges those whom he sees as not yet having made their mark to be incapable of doing so and therefore acts to deprive them of the opportunity of doing so.

[36] Arnold Rampersad, The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 28.

[37] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 3.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 109.

[40] Ibid., 4.

[41] Ibid., 250.

[42] Dolan Hubbard, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Invention of the Sublime in The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 305.

[43] Ibid., 312.

[44] Ibid., 311.

[45] Zamir, 184–186.

[46] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 4.

[47] Erica L. Griffin, compiler, “Reviews of The Souls of Black Folk,” in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, ed. Dolan Hubbard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 21.

[48] Ibid., 33.

[49] Megan Christine Thomas, Orientalists, Propagandists, and Ilustrados: Filipino Scholarship and the End of Spanish Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 207.

[50] Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 11–12.

[51] Ibid., 251.

[52] Ibid., 3.

[53] Ibid., 262.

Historical Vindication: Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 3 of 6)

Du Bois’s first foray into what would become a lifetime of writing toward this goal of race vindication came in 1892 with the writing of his meticulously documented doctoral dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. In this dissertation, Du Bois did not engage in the philosophizing and mythmaking sort of historical research which had long been popular and remained so up to his time. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s five-volume work The History of England from the Accession of James II had been read by Du Bois “with relish as a child and then at Fisk,” but Du Bois found the tendencies of Macaulay and other earlier and contemporary historians to engage in metaphysics, moralizing, and mythologizing insufficient to his task.[22] Du Bois knew the strength and popularity of the ideas that he was working to repudiate and saw that need for a purely and overwhelmingly scientific argument against them—the sort of argument that could not be refuted or rejected as mere speculation or opinion.

        Such was the power and popularity of the “pseudo-science” in history, biology, and other fields of thought which insisted that blacks were inherently unequal to whites that even former ardent supporters of the uplift of African Americans were beginning to be won over by the arguments of the advocates of racial hierarchy. As Shamoon Zamir writes,

Even [Professor Albert Bushnell] Hart [of Harvard University], Du Bois’s dissertation supervisor, proud of his abolitionist heritage and exceptionally active in his support of black advance, conceded in reviewing literature purporting to demonstrate black inferiority that “if provably, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Hart finally agreed that the argument was indeed provable and that blacks were inferior to even “poor white people, immigrants or natives.”[23]

That even someone like Hart could be won over by the arguments being advanced by the scientific racists at the end of the nineteenth century is demonstrative of the formidable task that Du Bois faced as he set out.

        In Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois chose to remain firmly in the realm of the empirical. Relying heavily upon citation of primary source material for every claim put forward, Du Bois thoroughly documented the failure of those who opposed the slave trade and of the United States as a whole to put an end to the slave trade, often in spite of its own self-understandings and promises. In four appendices spanning more than a hundred pages in the original, Du Bois provided lists of dozens of sources for his conclusions drawn from laws passed at the local, state, national, and international levels.[24] In so doing, Du Bois smashed the myths of American exceptionalism and American moral superiority, exposing the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values of freedom and equality. By all accounts, Du Bois’s dissertation was an outstanding success. It became the first published volume in the Harvard Historical Series of books.[25] As Lewis points out, “critical reception of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade had made him one of the most talked-about young scholars in the country.”[26]

        Du Bois’s first academic appointment after graduation from Harvard was as Chair of the Department of Classics at Wilberforce University. There, in nearly a direct refutation of Calhoun’s infamous pronouncement on the inability of people of African descent to understand Greek syntax, Du Bois taught not only Greek but Latin, English, and German, in addition to history.[27] He requested to teach a course in sociology as well, but was turned down by the administration. Du Bois’s tenure at as a member of the Wilberforce University faculty, however, was short-lived.

        After only two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania that afforded him the opportunity to continue his scientific investigations into the lives of African Americans and their communities. This time, the product of Du Bois’s work would be his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, “the first sociological study of an African American community ever published in the United States.”[28] Du Bois’s groundbreaking work set out to study the social conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Du Bois’s sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania initially commissioned the work in the hopes that the observations of Du Bois, undoubtedly the world’s leading black scholar already at this point in his life, would confirm what white sociologists had long claimed: that the poverty, crime, and squalid conditions of emerging African American urban communities were to be attributed to innate black inferiority. Du Bois writes in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, “The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely in the slums at the lower end of the seventh ward.”[29] Du Bois’s work, however, not only refuted but entirely upended such claims.

        “Though black and committed to social justice,” writes Keith E. Byerman, Du Bois resolved to “function as a disinterested scientist in examining black life,” certain that the facts as accurately documented and reported would bear out his belief that the poor conditions of black life in Philadelphia were not the consequence of black inferiority.[30] Just as he had in his research and writing for his doctoral dissertation, Du Bois was once again as meticulous as possible in both the research for and the presentation of The Philadelphia Negro. As Zamir writes, “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include more historical assessment of the evidence in his work.”[31] Only after carefully tracing the history of the African American community of Philadelphia and explaining the various trials it had faced from the forces of racism, economic and social exclusion, the competition for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, and the setbacks caused by the migration of African American former slaves from the South. Following this historical survey, Du Bois launched into a lengthy presentation of the sociological data he gathered by personally visiting every African American household in the seventh ward as well as others elsewhere in the city. For almost a year and a half, Du Bois himself travelled from house to house in the seventh ward with a set of questions inquiring into family life, income, employment, religious affiliation, and other facts about the household and its members.[32] For his presentation of the data he collected in The Philadelphia Negro, writes Byerman, “Du Bois fills his chapters with tables and graphs to demonstrate that his study is in fact wonderfully objective.”[33] The result is an exceedingly well-researched and well-documented study that undermines the insistence of “the city authorities” who claimed “that the city’s problems stemmed from its black population,” writes Zamir.[34] Instead, “Du Bois not only exposed the myth of black criminality, but also laid a large part of the blame for the condition of the Seventh Ward at the doorstep of white prejudice and its enforcement in both overt and hidden ways.”[35] Applying the scientific methodologies he had learned at Harvard alongside his own inclination to specificity and meticulousness, Du Bois presented for the first time a definitive and indubitable argument that historical and social factors—including especially the effects of white racism on housing and employment opportunities for African Americans—were largely to blame for African American poverty rather than black inferiority, as white social scientists and others had insisted.

        In both The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois had used the tools of historical study and scientific research as a means by which to vindicate his race before a white audience and its prejudices. With The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, he had meticulously documented the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values, calling into question the popular notion of American exceptionalism and demonstrating the moral shortcomings of the nation. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois once again called into question the assumptions of white Americans by turning a study of African Americans into a mirror through which white Americans could see their own shortcomings and the ways in which those shortcomings created the conditions that prevented African Americans from social and economic advancement. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, still his most popular and influential work and widely considered a classic of American letters, Du Bois would set out to do still more than this in his refutation of racism.

[22] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, in Writings, 199–345.

[25] Yvonne Williams, “Harvard,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, eds. Gerald Home and Mary Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 99.

[26] Lewis, 141.

[27] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections: 1877–1934, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 38.

[28]  Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, eds., Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings (Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 338.

[29] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 596.

[30] Keith E. Byerman, Seizing the Word: History, Art, and the Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 51.

[31] Zamir, 89.

[32] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 1–2.

[33] Byerman, 52.

[34] Zamir, 89.

[35] Ibid.