W.E.B. Du Bois in the Sociological Review

Image: [[File:WEB DuBois 1918.jpg|thumb|WEB DuBois 1918]]

Gurminder K. Bhambra

The first Universal Races Congress was held at the University of London in July 1911. It was organised with a view to enhance understandings between East and West and was promoted by the Sociological Review. In an article on the ‘proposed congress’, it is stated that: ‘Nothing is clearer to the instructed observer of the world movement than that the problems of race are destined in the near future to play a decisive part in international relations, and that, generally speaking, there is no department of public affairs in which politicians, administrators, and permanent officials are more urgently in need of scientific guidance’ (Jan 1911: 50). It is here that WEB Du Bois is first mentioned within the pages of the journal in terms of his attendance at the forthcoming Congress along with the likes of Ferdinand Tonnies and J. A. Hobson. There is then a report on the Congress, written by A. Caldecott, in the October 1911 issue in which he writes that Professor Du Bois gave a powerful paper ‘and himself stood out as one of the most effective members of the Congress’ (1911: 317).

The Programme Committee of the Sociological Society, taking advantage of his presence in London, arranged for Du Bois to give a paper at a special evening meeting (as noted in the Proceedings of the Sociological Society, 1911: 376). The paper was delivered to ‘an unusually large gathering, presided over by Sir Sydney Olivier, Governor of Jamaica’ and Du Bois ‘answered a great number of questions’ with the discussion opened by Mr. J. A. Hobson (1911: 376). This paper was published in the same issue of journal under the title, ‘The Economics of Negro Emancipation in the United States’.

The main question that Du Bois dealt with in this paper was to argue for emancipation not only in legal terms, but also economic ones. That is, emancipation was not about a particular type of labour being made illegal, but ‘the deeper question as to the slow development of that organisation of labour from a primitive to a more advanced form’ (1911: 303). Alongside this, Du Bois argues for consideration of what freedom means given that emancipation left formerly enslaved people with nothing except their freedom (no land, no capital, no possessions). While there had been initial discussion of establishing a Freedman’s Bureau and a system of public education systematically to address the past injustices, it was felt by the white North and South that this would be too much of a burden for the ‘general’ (read white) public to take on and ought to be the responsibility of those who had been freed.

Freedom in such conditions was quickly curtailed with the establishment of share-cropping and other newly devised forms of bonded labour. One such, as Du Bois describes it, continues to resound in the present in Ferguson and across the rest of the United States: ‘Negroes were systematically arrested on the slightest pretext and then their labour leased to private individuals, or single individuals convicted of crime were paroled to any owner who paid his fine’ (1911: 310). Du Bois ends his piece with a call for solidarity not just across the colour line, but across lines of economic inequality: ‘In all these problems we cannot doubt lies the economic core, the old slavery which is determined to reduce human labour to the lowest depth in order to derive the greatest personal profit. Against this world-old tendency the black men of America are fighting a battle on the frontiers of the world—and for their success they ask the active sympathy of all right-thinking men’ (1911: 313).

The next mention of WEB Du Bois within the pages of the Sociological Review does not come till eighty-six years later in an article by David Parker in 1997 on teaching sociology in the 1990s. He discusses the way in which some sociologists deploy the ‘Du Bois gambit’, using the latter’s own valorisation of the classics to argue for the maintenance of the canon and against discussing Du Bois’s own work or that of other scholars outside of the standardly accepted canon as appropriately part of it (1997: 132). He goes on to consider the different ways in which Du Bois could, or perhaps should, be integrated into the sociological curriculum and the consequences of this for remaking sociology for our present times. Du Bois is mentioned three more times in the Sociological Review to date. Once by Liz Stanley, Helen Dampier and Andrea Salter in 2010 mentioning the significance of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks for the development of Olive Schreiner’s thinking on race. Then there are two references to Du Bois’s work in two separate articles by Monika Krause. In the first co-written article Krause and Alexandra Kowalski reference Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks in their discussion of ‘a certain kind of reflexivity as a burden born by dominated groups’ (2013: 36). The second article by Krause refers to Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro as a key text on African Americans in cities (2016: 199). None of these latter articles engage substantively with Du Bois’s work although, as noted, there is reference to it.

It seems remarkable that in over a century of publication there is no article engaging substantively with the work of one of the founding fathers of sociology. This, despite the journal having published a key article by him in 1911. The Universal Races Congress that was the primary motivation for this initial engagement with Du Bois was supposed to have been a quadrennial event. But no further Congresses took place as a consequence of the world wars. The next time that an international group of social scientists, scientists and politicians met to discuss race was under the auspices of UNESCO in the 1950s. Du Bois’s AJS article ‘Prospect of a World without Race Conflict’ was one of the key readings informing the group’s deliberations. However, there appears to be no discussion in the Sociological Review of the UNESCO meeting or the Race statements it organised. The sociological and societal dilemmas upon which Du Bois spoke across the first half of the twentieth century continue to structure our understandings and practices through to the present. It seems to be beyond time to move away from the segregated sociologies of the past to build on our common heritage for a future that looks different from the past.

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