Monday, February 14, 2011

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion (6): Race & Biblical Metaphor?

Terrance Macmullan, University of Oregon
Treasure Hidden in the Field: The Significance of Biblical Metaphor within W.E.B. Du Bois's Conception of Race 
(March 8, 2002, session on "Du Bois and Dewey")
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, 29th Annual Meeting, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, March 7-9, 2002.

This is a rather pathetic, self-contradictory, and ultimately ambiguous attempt to highlight the alleged religious dimension of Du Bois. If it were simply a matter of highlighting Du Bois' use of Biblical metaphor as rhetorical strategy, and even to suggest the symbolic reference of Du Bois' rhetoric has been overlooked, there would be nothing controversial here. But Macmullan is apparently after more. In the first paragraph Macmullan claims that Du Bois' religious rhetoric is both prophetic and pragmatic, which of course brings to mind the philosophical empty suit of Cornel West's prophetic pragmatism, or preaching with footnotes. While there may be some use to interpreting properly the notion that "that each race bears a gift", it is a mystical notion left over from the 19th century that is best left to the past.

For emphasizing Du Bois' secularism and downplaying the spiritual dimension, Macmullan criticizes Shamoon Zamir, Adolph Reed Jr., Anthony K. Appiah, Lucius Outlaw, and even Cornel West. All this while admitting time and time again that Du Bois was a freethinker. Had Macmullan stuck to statements like the following, there would be no need to object:
His use of religious language stemmed from a recognition of the fact that the idea of race in America emerged largely from a religious discourse, and that this same discourse must be instrumental in its reform.
However, Macmullan implies more with formulations such as the following:
Where Christians at the time succored Africans in America with the image of the Lamb (the chosen child of God that humbly bears suffering for the sake of universal salvation), Du Bois calls on his fellow African Americans to read their plight as the trial of a prophetic people who must boldly speak out against their oppression that others might learn the consequences of cruelty and the need for love.  

He further explicates the Biblical references, and continues:
If we take Du Bois’ biblical orientation to heart, we see that the race-specific ideals of life are prophetic gifts that are of unsurpassable value to those outside the race, yet are also potentially dangerous for the gift-bearing race. 
 The phrase "Du Bois’ biblical orientation" is misleading. Macmullan commences his conclusion:
When we attend to his use of religious language, we better see how and why the racial gift is a bridge across the racial divide made possible by the divide itself. 
 . . . and concludes:
Du Bois developed a perspective on race that is still a vital tool in ongoing efforts to heal the invidious racism of the last four centuries. However, in order to fully understand his idea of race, and in order to fully reach into the lived experiences of most people, we need to not only study the religious language at the heart of his concept but also engage the religious discourses that perpetuate outdated ideas of race.

This position is ideologically bankrupt.  There is no vital tool here, but an obsolete metaphorical framework that may have been justified for its time, but can serve no constructive purpose now. The only proper way to engage religious discourses now is to obliterate them. Furthermore, the spiritualistic concept of race is not an advance over the later and more invidious biological concept, but is rather a retreat to German Romanticism, an absolutely reactionary move in light of two essential considerations: (1) it is essentially anti-scientific; (2) it could not be more at variance with the contemporary reality of American society, in which the meaning of culture, let alone of race, is so radically mediated and altered from the past, that the very idea of a mission or a coherent social entity that could be the bearer of a mission, is utter nonsense.

How rotten is this marriage of multiculturalism and the academic retooling of classic American pragmatism? How high the moon?

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