Robert Gooding-Williams: W.E.B. Du Bois as Political Philosopher

All day


In In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro Modern Political Thought in America (Harvard UP, 2009), Robert Gooding-Williams argues that The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is W.E.B. Du Bois’s outstanding contribution to modern political philosophy—that it is his still influential answer to the question, “What kind of politics should African Americans conduct to counter white supremacy?” Souls is historically rooted in the segregationist era of Jim Crow, but like most great works of political philosophy its authority reaches well beyond its origins, so much so that its compelling ideas and arguments continue to be taken up by contemporary theorists of black politics in post-segregation America. As Gooding-Williams interprets Souls, it holds that a politics fit to respond to the Jim Crow version of racial apartheid must satisfy two conditions. The first relates to Du Bois’s description of African Americans as “masses:” to wit, to his characterization of African Americans as an aggregate of uncultured, pre-modern slaves or former slaves. The second relates to his description of African Americans as a “folk:” that is, to his characterization of African-Americans as a group united by a collectively shared ethos, or spirit. For Du Bois, a politics suitable to counter Jim Crow had both to uplift the backwards black masses–to assimilate them to the constitutive norms of modernity–and to heed the ethos of the black folk. In short, it had to be a politics of modernizing “self-realization” that expressed the spiritual identity of the folk–what in the book I term a politics of expressive self-realization. Du Bois envisions black elites—the so-called “talented tenth”—as deploying the politics of expressive self-realization to rule and uplift the black masses.


Robert Gooding-Williams (Ph.D., Yale, 1982) is the Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Professor of Political Science and the College. His areas of interest include Du Bois, Critical Race Theory, the History of African-American Political Thought, 19th Century German Philosophy (especially Nietzsche), Existentialism, and Aesthetics (including literature and philosophy, representations of race in film, and the literary theory and criticism of African-American literature). Gooding-Williams is the author of Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism (Stanford, 2001) and Look, A Negro!: Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture, and Politics (Routledge, 2005). In The Shadow of Du Bois is his most recent book and in 2010 won two commendations: one, for the best book on race, ethnicity and political thought awarded by the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics section of the APSA (American Political Science Association); and the second, an honorable mention citation in relation to the David Easton Award, awarded by the Foundations of Political Theory section of the APSA (the Easton award is for a book, published in the past 5 years, that “broadens the horizons of contemporary political science by engaging issues of philosophical significance in political life through any of a variety of approaches in the social sciences and humanities”).

(Lectures in China by Robert Gooding-Williams were sponsored by the American Culture Exchange Center, a joint project between the University of Chicago and Shandong University.  This series was funded, in part, by the American Center for Educational Exchange.)