Friday, November 11, 2011

Democracy's Reconstruction

As part of my self-education in Africana philosophy, I've taken to teaching portions of W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk in my introductory courses in philosophy. Since I've been keeping  note of these things: in the NDPR, Frank M. Kirkland reviews Lawrie Balfour's Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois. Kirkland highlights the continuing relevance of Du Bois' political thought, including his critique of the "American Assumption":
Du Bois does not, for Balfour, historically retrieve the past for the sake of salvaging it, but does so for the sake of delivering it from a stupor and a void threatening to deprive it of any novel role it could assume in a future-oriented present. And she sees the expansion of democracy as requiring a future-oriented present that is at the same time historically redemptive of its past in the fashion just described.
Balfour's example for this point is Du Bois' critique of what he calls in his Black Reconstruction the "American Assumption." This "assumption" is the conviction that affluence is the successful outcome of one's hard work alone and can be the result of each and every one's own effort. It first emerged in conjunction with "King Cotton" predicated on slave labor. The assumption has, however, never been pertinent to the material lives of most Americans. But it subsequently grew steadily in the minds of most of them, steadily separating generations from the wrong of slavery and steadily affirmed that those who profited from that wrong bore no responsibility for it. In effect, Americans have carried this belief in the ethic of individualism and hard work to the current day, despite its longstanding irrelevance to their material lives and despite the fact that it was and continues to be sustained racially (notwithstanding the line of African-Americans running from Booker T. Washington through Herman Cain affirming it) as well as by class.

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