Brent Hayes Edwards — The Recourse to Internationalization: A Response to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


by Brent Hayes Edwards

“Du Bois in a Comparative Context” was the title of the session of the January 2018 Modern Language Association convention where I presented an initial version of this response to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Du Bois in the World: Pan-Africanism & Decolonization.” The session title struck me as a usefully provocative way to frame Gayatri’s intervention, especially due to the double implication of the phrase. If it implies the question of what it means to read Du Bois across contexts—to see his work from different vantage points—it also raises the issue of considering Du Bois himself as a comparativist thinker. What would it mean to approach the monumental oeuvre of a man who in 1940 described the main current of his work over the previous fifty years as “centering around the hurts and hesitancies that hem the black man in America” (Du Bois 1986 [1940]: 551) as a model of comparative thought?

Spivak’s essay is an attempt to think through the significance of what she describes as the ultimately “failed encounter” in 1946 between Du Bois and the great Indian jurist, economist, Dalit activist, and constitution-framer Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. As their brief correspondence demonstrates, both men were committed to “efforts at joining struggles,” she writes, but their epistolary encounter in 1946 was a “stood-up date”: a lost opportunity. Spivak analyzes the reasons this exchange proved to be a dead end. Although Du Bois told Ambedkar that he had “every sympathy with the Untouchables of India” (Du Bois 1946), she argues that he could not go beyond such a rhetorical gesture because Du Bois’s “understanding of Pan-Africanism, leading to the visionary world without colonialism, did not offer him an opportunity to get into struggles interior to colonized space.”

When a connection is made between political struggles, Spivak notes, it is usually metonymic: a matter of focusing on one issue as the point of continuity (taking the part for the whole). In both cases, whether in Du Bois’s “stylized spectacular way” of exoticizing India in works like his 1928 novel Dark Princess, or in Ambedkar’s concerted efforts to study US race relations, the “metonymic obligation … backfired because they were both temperamentally and circumstantially in an amphibolic relationship with identitarianism; for both of them, identitarian thinking and acting both built and broke.”

The efforts at joining struggles that were a driving force both in Pan-Africanism and in decolonization movements often rely on what Spivak terms “class-continuity”: the mutual recognition and attendant camaraderie among the elite. It is not uncommon for leaders of social movements such as Du Bois and Ambedkar to come into contact through this dynamic of recognition, a resonance between itineraries of privilege, summarized in her essay: “Harvard-Columbia-London School of Economics; top administrator and world-class intellectual; neither of them subaltern by birth.” It seems clear that in this case class-continuity was indeed the “first enabler,” as Spivak puts it.

This was a repeated pattern in Du Bois’s links to the international vanguard of Pan-Africanism and decolonization, she writes, because his “anti-colonial connections were with the nationalist dominant.” Such an impulse is evident in Du Bois’s career even much earlier. When he wrote to Gandhi and Tagore in February 1929 to request that each send a message to be published in The Crisis, Du Bois stressed the exclusivity of his milieu, describing himself to Tagore as “the Editor of a small magazine which has a circulation of a little less than thirty thousand copies monthly among the educated Negroes,” and justified his request as one vanguard speaking to another: “I want the Negroes in this land to hear directly from a great leader of the Indian people” (Du Bois 1929; Gandhi 1929; Tagore 1929).

At the MLA panel, I took the prompt of the session title to as an opportunity to pose a question: would it be right to describe the failed encounter between Du Bois and Ambedkar as a failure of comparison? Put differently, does their inability to join their struggles (through a metonymic understanding of each as part of a larger whole) amount to what one might term a methodological shortcoming or blind spot, or is it instead an ideological limitation (due to an identitarianism that finally proves to be too solipsistic)?

Spivak’s essay also begins to make a case (promised to be further elaborated in the book-in-progress of which this piece is a section) that certain texts by Du Bois “stage an inability to imagine the subaltern episteme—stateless social groups on the fringe of history—to remind ourselves of Gramsci’s formula—as they prepare to step into citizenship,” although she insists that in Du Bois’s work, “this inability cannot be imagined or staged in the case of the interiority of the post-colonial.” By “stage an inability to imagine,” I take her to mean that the texts themselves perform that incapacity or dereliction, which is incorporated into their very form in a manner that is legible to the reader.

Spivak highlights the unusual way Du Bois comes to employ the term caste throughout his writing in theorizing the regime of American racism: a formulation such as “color-caste” comes to serve as a “convenient abstraction” that helps him “to describe all the divisions that are not quite race or class, with internal ‘keep out’ rules.” With respect to the passages where Du Bois’s writing does succeed in staging an inability to imagine the subaltern episteme, I would only add that it seems necessary to distinguish between points where caste serves a term of critical analysis (as with his use of “color-caste”), and other points that might be described on the contrary as an internalization of what Gayatri calls “the natural-inequality story” (that is, the notion that “some people are just not good enough”) as a “very general analogy for a hierarchy that is neither race nor class.” One example of the latter is the startling paragraph in the fifth chapter of The Souls of Black Folk where Du Bois writes disparagingly of the founders of black universities such as Fisk, Howard, and Atlanta, that

they forgot, too, just as their successors are forgetting, the rule of inequality:—that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should be made a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a free workman among serfs. And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite. (Du Bois 2007 [1903]: 59-60)

The proposition that Du Bois’s work can be understood as “staging an inability to imagine” also compelled me to revisit another of his most important transitional pieces from the interwar period: the article first published under the title “Worlds of Color” in Foreign Affairs in 1925 and subsequently reprinted in revised form later that year as “The Negro Mind Reaches Out” in the anthology The New Negro (Du Bois 1925; Du Bois 1989 [1925]; on the second as a revision of the first, see Edwards 2007: 128-29). After all, that piece is Du Bois’s attempt to discover an adequate figure for the way that, in the wake of World War One, “the race problem is the other side of the labor problem; and the black man’s burden is the white man’s burden…. [E]mpire is the heavy hand of capital abroad” (Du Bois 1989 [1925]: 386).

The essay memorably makes recourse to yet another of Du Bois’s habitual optical concept-metaphors, figuring the relationship between capitalism and imperialism as a matter of shadows: “With nearly every great European empire to-day walks its dark colonial shadow…. One might indeed read the riddle of Europe by making its present plight a matter of colonial shadows, speculating on what might happen if Europe became suddenly shadlowless” (Du Bois 1989 [1925]: 386). The essay proceeds through a series of sections in which Du Bois deploys this figure in a description of the politics of labor in various European empires: “The Shadow of Portugal”; “The Shadow of Belgium”; “The Shadow of France”; “The Shadow of England.” Toward the end of the piece, in a section titled “Labor in the Shadows,” Du Bois strains to extend this figure in order to encompass the emergence of labor movements around the world. Currently, he observes, “white labor is segregating colored labor in just those parts of the world where it can be most easily exploited by white capital and thus giving white capital the power to rule all labor” (408). But “colored labor” knows this, he adds; “and as colored labor becomes more organized and more intelligent it is going to spread this grievance through the white world” (408).

In the final section of the essay, Du Bois attempts to suggest the ways that this burgeoning organization of “colored labor” might result in fully-fledged anticolonial internationalism. “How much intelligent organization is there for this purpose on the part of the colored world?” he asks. “So far there is very little. For while the colored people of to-day are common victims of white culture, there is a vast gulf between the red-black South and the yellow-brown East” (408). The title of this final section invents a striking figure for the emergence of anticolonial internationalism—a “common consciousness of aim”—among peoples of color around the world: “The Shadow of Shadows” (408). “Some day they are bound to awake,” he predicts (411). Du Bois describes the “tangible accomplishment” of his own work in the Pan-African Congresses as “a little and negligible thing” (411), but an effort that is part and parcel of this broader emergence: “yet slowly but surely the movement grows and the day faintly dawns when the new force for international understanding and racial readjustment will and must be felt” (413).

Spivak points out that over the course of his career—in a “sustained evolution” that can be traced from articles such as “Worlds of Color” all the way to his late Black Flame trilogy of novels—Du Bois took into account the way that “in colonialism, slavery became an instrument (however out of sync) of the self-determination of capital.” By the 1930s, with his magisterial Black Reconstruction, Du Bois was able to “write it into the world-historical discourse of Marxism, rewriting the color line, by way of colonialism, into brown, red, and yellow.”

As I have suggested, we should understand “the shadow of shadows” as Du Bois’s first figure for this rewriting. But it is worth returning to, I think, because it is ultimately so strange and unwieldy—a figure hovering at the verge of incoherence. It represents something other than what Gayatri calls the “differential ontology of social formations,” in my opinion. The figure seems to collapse upon itself: is it really possible for a shadow to have a shadow, or for one shadow somehow to proliferate into a succession of other shadows? To further elaborate Gayatri’s argument, then, I wonder whether we might say that the figure of “the shadow of shadows” stages—in what is characteristic fashion for Du Bois: through the conundrum of an optical metaphor—the inability to imagine the ground of comparison: that is, the basis on which that metonymic obligation in “joining struggles” could be carried out.

*  *  *

            Having had time to think a bit more about the correspondence between Du Bois and Ambedkar, I would like to pursue one other line of thought here. Revisiting the letters they exchanged in 1946, I wonder whether it really was a “failed encounter.” One could just as easily make the case that their back-and-forth was a clear and straightforward transaction in the spirit of solidarity. Ambedkar’s letter to Du Bois in July 1946 makes a specific request:

I was very much interested to read that the Negroes of America have filed a petition to the U.N.O. The Untouchables of India are also thinking of following suit. Will you be so good as to secure for me two or three copies of this representation by the Negroes and send them to my address. I need hardly say how very grateful I shall be for your troubles in this behalf. (Ambedkar 1946)

Ambedkar describes himself as a “student of the Negro problem” and explains that “there is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” But the letter is basically a request for information. It makes a case for parallel strategies—each movement sending its own petition to the United Nations—but not for joining struggles.

At the end of the month, Du Bois’s reply emphasizes his “sympathy for the Untouchables of India.” But he interprets Ambedkar’s request as a request to share information between parallel but discrete causes, and he fulfills it to the letter:

As you say a small organization of American Negroes, The National Negro Congress has already made a statement which I am enclosing. I think, however, that a much more comprehensive statement well documented [sic] will eventually be laid before the United Nations by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If this is done I shall be glad to send you a copy. (Du Bois 1946)

Ambedkar’s message “did not catch fire” (to use Spivak’s phrase) because it was sent and received as a request for assistance between struggles marked by “similarity,” rather than as a means of proposing an avenue of collaboration. Du Bois’s posture—utilitarian solidarity (“I shall be glad to be of any service I can render if possible in the future,” he concludes his letter), not collaboration—takes us back to Spivak’s point that his “anti-colonial connections were with the nationalist dominant.” A decade later, when Du Bois writes a fascinating essay about Gandhi for an Indian periodical on the eve of the Civil Rights era, it’s the same thing—one vanguard learning strategy from another, but not a joining of struggles. After World War Two, Du Bois writes, “we American Negroes …. began too to realize the role of Gandhi and to evaluate his work as a guide for the black people of the United States” (Du Bois 1995 [1957]: 91). Again: a guide, not a fellow traveler.

I have not touched upon one of the most important threads of Spivak’s essay: her argument that both Du Bois and Ambedkar were committed to “studying the greatest tools of generalization, as a member of the group that was not allowed to generalize, into the world-historical discourse of constitutionality.” Whether one is thinking of race or caste, whether one is thinking of the black poor in the US or the colonized in India, the great difficulty is that, as Spivak writes, “the fleshliness of the gendered episteme of the racialized and the fleshliness of the indefinitely heteronomous gendered episteme of the casted … cannot be generalized or analogized.” Either way, one is confronting “a situation that can only be generalized with real access to citizenship.”

This is a complicated angle of comparison, Spivak admits, because while Ambedkar was one of the architects of the Indian constitution after independence in 1947, Du Bois was a “ferocious” critic of the perversities of the “constitution fetish” in the United States, where all too often fealty to the inviolability of the founding document of American democracy has come to serve as an alibi for the prolongation of racist oppression. Still, Spivak argues, both men saw citizenship grounded in the guarantees of state constitutionality as the primary, even the sole, mechanism for the achievement of full democracy and a “visionary world without colonialism.” Constitutionality, she concludes, “is the agenda for this failed date.”

This is a crucial insight. In 1931, when Du Bois contributed an essay on “India and Africa” to a volume in honor of Tagore, he suggested that their interests “have more in common than the interests of either have with the ideals of modern Europe” (Du Bois 1931). It is “the dark millions of India and Africa and their descendants and kinsmen throughout the world,” Du Bois wrote, who “have upon their shoulders the vast responsibility of re-making this world nearer to the ideals of true civilization and high culture.” As he saw it, to fulfill that goal India and Africa would have to take up “mighty opportunity” provided by the two core advances of modernity: industry, on the one hand, and democracy, on the other. The ideal of democracy is rooted in “the fact that out of the masses of people can be developed just as much power and genius, ability and culture as has in the past been shown by the aristocracy, by the favored few.” Although Du Bois does not evoke it explicitly here, when he counsels that India and Africa “must educate and develop the masses of their people” he arguably takes for granted that such a project can only proceed on the basis of citizenship grounded in the protocols and guarantees of a constitution.

Nevertheless, to return to the Du Bois-Ambedkar exchange, I am not entirely convinced that constitutionality was the unspoken and unfulfilled agenda of their interaction. It is worth reconstructing the historical context of that moment in 1946 to get a better sense of what Spivak calls the “contextual imperatives” of the broader political moment.

The previous month, in June 1946, the National Negro Congress presented a petition largely written by Max Yergan, Revels Cayton, and Herbert Aptheker to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations “on behalf of 13 million oppressed Negroes of the United States of America,” asking the UN to investigate the systemic oppression of the black population in the US as a human rights violation (National Negro Congress 1946). We should recall that, as historian Carol Anderson has observed, the impetus of the petition was expressly a rejection of constitutionality (Anderson 81). The very first document in the petition is a “letter of transmittal” from Max Yergan to Trygvie Lie, the Secretary General of the UN, in which Yergan explains that “we, a section of the Negro people, having failed to find relief from oppression through constitutional appeal, find ourselves forced to bring this vital issue—which we have sought for almost a century since emancipation to solve within the boundary of our country—to the attention of this historic body” (National Negro Congress 1946: 1).

Although the petition was eventually blocked from full consideration in the UN—in no small part through the behind-the-scenes machinations of American delegates including Eleanor Roosevelt, who had grave concerns at the prospect of establishing a mechanism by which an “oppressed” minority “could get its case before the United Nations in spite of its own government” (quoted in Anderson 87)—other civil rights officials including Du Bois and Walter White found it to be an inspired strategy. As White put it, the National Negro Congress initiative “captured the imagination” of the black community by “lifting the struggle of the Negro” out of the “local and national setting and placing it in the realm of the international” (quoted in Anderson 91).

Du Bois and White emerged as the driving forces behind an effort by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to draft a new petition that would build on the National Negro Congress attempt, but go farther. As Du Bois wrote to Ambedkar on July 31, he was confident that the NAACP would be able to prepare “a much more comprehensive” and “well documented” statement. Whereas the National Negro Congress petition ran to a mere fifteen pages, the NAACP assembled a team of researchers to compile a thorough dossier on the pervasive impact of racial discrimination in every aspect of American life, culminating in a hundred-page long petition titled An Appeal to the World! that was delivered to the UN in October 1947 (Plummer 178-84; Anderson 94-111; Dudziak 44-46).

It is important to remember that the Economic and Social Council had only established the Commission on Human Rights in February 1946. When Du Bois and Ambedkar were writing each other the following summer, these were brand-new instruments, in other words. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would not be adopted until December 1948.) It is unsurprising that—from their separate vantage points, on different sides of the globe—Du Bois and Ambedkar were both keen to test the leverage that a recourse to internationalization might provide in the case of their different “minority” struggles. The point, however, is that unless we read them as concomitant strategies—through which one aims to up the ante by making a rights claim on the basis of an international “constitution” (the UN Charter) to find redress when the recourses provided by a national constitution prove to be a dead end—the agenda behind their exchange was internationalization rather than constitutionality.

The month before the men corresponded, there was another important test case, an incident that Kamala Visweswaran notes may have even inspired Ambedkar to contact Du Bois (see Visweswaran 154). On 22 June 1946, India filed a formal complaint in the UN against the Union of South Africa regarding the mistreatment of Indian workers there. India charged that, by openly discriminating against Indian guest workers, the South African state had violated “a series of treaties whereby India would provide South Africa with laborers and the South African government would, in turn, ensure that the Indian workers enjoyed all ‘the rights and privileges of citizenship’” (Anderson 86). The South Africans attempted to mount a defense on the basis of the “domestic jurisdiction” clause of the UN Charter, which some interpreted as a severe restriction of the scope in which the UN could act: Article 2, paragraph 7 specified that the UN was not authorized “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” (Logan 90). According to the South African government, segregationist laws restricting Indian land ownership were not a treaty violation but strictly a domestic affair.

The US delegates were troubled by the dispute because of the precedent it potentially represented. One US Senator admitted that he found it difficult to discern the difference between “Indians in South Africa and negroes in Alabama” (quoted in Anderson 87). In January 1947, a makeshift alliance among UN delegates from the Soviet bloc and from the emerging Third World drove the General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning the South African segregationist legislation as a violation of human rights. The South African government was instructed to bring itself into “conformity with the principles and purposes of the Charter” (Anderson 88-9). For African American observers including Max Yergan and Rayford Logan, this was a momentous development because it seemed to enshrine the principle that the international protection of human rights outweighed “domestic jurisdiction.” Logan drove home the point in his contribution to An Appeal to the World!, a chapter expounding the legal basis for protecting the “rights of minorities” under the UN Charter: with its January 1947 resolution, he argued, “the General Assembly has implicitly recognized that any act in violation of the principles set forth in the Charter is a matter of concern to all the Members of the United Nations and falls within the competence of the General Assembly irrespective of the nature of origin of the situation” (Logan 93-4).

After Du Bois was able to stir up public pressure, the UN Commission on Human Rights finally agreed to receive An Appeal to the World! in October 1947, without making any commitment that its claims would be investigated or discussed at greater length, much less acted upon (Anderson 103-105; Dudziak 44). Interestingly, the NAACP team strove not only to document the breadth of American racism but also to frame it as an issue that went beyond the “domestic” treatment of African Americans alone. Du Bois was able to gather support from a range of foreign organizations, mostly Caribbean and African labor unions and national councils, as well as some of the groups that had coalesced around the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester (the International African Service Bureau, the League of Coloured Peoples, and the West African Youth League) (see Plummer 181). In his introduction, Du Bois argued that “because of caste custom and legislation along the color line, the United States is today in danger of encroaching upon the rights and privileges of its fellow nations” (Du Bois ed. 1947: 13). Foreign visitors and even UN delegates had faced discrimination and violence in the United States when “mistaken for a Negro.” Du Bois conceded that “these are but passing incidents,” but insisted that

a discrimination practiced in the United States against her own citizens and to a large extent a contravention of her own laws, cannot be persisted in, without infringing upon the rights of the peoples of the world and especially upon the ideals and the work of the United Nations.

This question then, which is without doubt primarily an internal and national question, becomes inevitably an international question and will in the future become more and more international, as the nations draw together. (Du Bois ed. 1947: 13)

Given that the NAACP was a non-governmental organization claiming to speak for a minority population in a member nation-state that was unwilling to bring the petition through official channels, the only way for An Appeal to the World! to get a hearing at the UN would have been for a member state to agree to sponsor it. Intriguingly, India emerged as a potential sponsor of the petition; as early as January 1947 the Indian delegation invited the NAACP drafters to give a briefing on its contents, and Du Bois found their reaction to be “friendly and sympathetic” (Plummer 179).

That same month, however, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Indian emissaries in the US about the “Negro problem.” He emphasized that “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes,” but instructed Indian representatives to “avoid any public expression of opinion which might prove embarrassing or distasteful to the Government or people of the country where they serve” (Slate 2012: 178). The Indian diplomatic corps should refrain from “participating in functions which deal with controversial domestic politics or with sectarian affairs” (Plummer 182). Under the circumstances, India did not offer to bring the petition forward to the General Assembly. In the end it was the Soviet Union that made the case in the Commission on Human Rights that the charges in An Appeal to the World! should receive further investigation and discussion by the General Assembly. The US delegation was able to portray the Soviet attempt as brazen Cold War propaganda, and the proposal ended up being defeated in December 1947.

When one recalls the significance of 15 August 1947 for the “midnight’s children” generation in India, it is easy enough to conclude that—the class-continuity between Du Bois and Nehru notwithstanding—it must have seemed all too risky for a nation on the cusp of independence to sponsor such a petition. Still, if India had sponsored the NAACP An Appeal to the World! at the UN, it would have marked a notable collaboration, an “effort at joining struggles” in the interest of internationalization. More than the pragmatic and sympathetic exchange between Du Bois and Ambedkar, I would argue that this “missed date” was the real failed encounter between African America and India in the late 1940s in the overlaid shadows of Pan-Africanism and decolonization.

*  *  *

Gayatri’s essay culminates with an extremely dense and difficult question:

So, I ask Hortense, do these differences, between the collective ontic and the differential ontology of social formations, between the ungeneralizable subaltern and the constitutional subject, qualify as a species of that abeyance of closure, that break in the passage of syntagmatic movement from one more or less stable property to another – two separate differences – in the dream of decolonization and the ruse of globality?

Although it feels like something of a transgression to dare to answer a question so openly addressed to Hortense Spillers, I do want to close by outlining my own sense of an initial response.

Earlier in the piece, Spivak quotes a passage from Spillers that is cited by Nahum Chandler in his groundbreaking book on Du Bois. The quotation comes from Spillers’s “Moving on Down the Line,” an essay first published in 1991, which as I understand it was originally a section of her unpublished doctoral dissertation on the African American sermonic tradition. She writes: “if by ambivalence we might mean that abeyance of closure, or break in the passage of syntagmatic movement from one more or less stable property to another, as in the radical disjuncture between ‘African’ and ‘American,’ then ambivalence remains not only the privileged and arbitrary judgment of a postmodernist imperative, but also a strategy that names the new cultural situation as a wounding” (Spillers 2003 [1991]: 262; Chandler 148-49).

As Spillers explains, her own essay is a reading of “African-American sermons as a paradigm of the structure of ambivalence that constitutes the black person’s relationship to American culture and apprenticeship in it” (Spillers 2003 [1991]: 255). She proceeds through a virtuosic reading of the texts of two sermons given by two early African American preachers: Samuel Magaw’s inaugural sermon at the African Church of Philadelphia on 17 July 1794, and William Miller’s sermon at the African Church of New York on 1 January 1810. In saying that the sermons are documents of ambivalence, Spillers above all means to highlight the ways that Magaw and Miller handle the relation between the African ancestry and American circumstances of their free black audiences. Their sermons neither describe the transition to the United States as “progress” in any simple sense (much less triumph over “pagan” origins in Africa), nor privilege African identity in a rhetoric of proto-nationalism. Instead, in Miller’s sermon for instance, “‘Africa’ marks a site of degradation at the same time that Miller embraces it as a point of cultural origin” (260). For Spillers, this particular kind of “double-speaking” (261) represents an “abeyance of closure,” a paradigmatic staging of that broader ambivalence that structures the African American “apprenticeship” in American culture.

The two, paired “differences” in Spivak’s question should not be conflated. The term “collective ontic” is a “solecism,” as Spivak admits; strictly speaking it is indeed something of a grammar violation to imply that the ontic could be somehow shared or recognized among a collectivity. I interpret the “collective ontic” as an allusion to the facticity of what Du Bois calls “color-caste”: the systemic disfranchisement and oppression of the African American population as a group. The “differential ontology of social formations” would seem to imply the complex dynamics of political positioning and vanguardism—for instance, Du Bois’s characteristic references to “college-trained men” as the necessary means of the “salvation” of the masses. If so, the “movement from one more or less stable property to another” would mean something rather different in this case than it does with regard to movement between the properties (“African” and “American”: ancestry and citizenship, one might say) that are poised in ambivalent relation in Miller’s sermon. In any case, for Du Bois, the “color-caste” regime touches the black elite as much as the masses; as he writes in his introduction to the NAACP petition, “the discrimination practiced in the United States is practiced against American Negroes in spite of wealth, training and character” (Du Bois 1947: 12). So it seems plausible to argue that the experiential difference between the collective ontic and the differential ontology of social formations could qualify as a species of the particularly African American abeyance of closure described by Spillers.

I am less sure about the other pairing Spivak evokes, between the “ungeneralizable subaltern,” on the one hand, and the constitutional subject, on the other. To go back to two of Spivak’s earlier attempts to theorize the term, subaltern refers to “people from the very bottom layer of society excluded even from the logic of the class-structure” or, to put it in a more theoretical register of abstraction, “the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic” (Spivak 2001: 121; Spivak 1988: 207). In other words, subaltern is a way of marking an outside to the logic of social mobility and democratic participation in state politics. As Spivak writes, the whole problem is that the “fleshliness of the indefinitely heteronomous gendered episteme of the casted … cannot be generalized or analogized.” The only solution, she emphasizes, is “real access to citizenship.” But if that process is carried out—if one can indeed succeed in what Gayatri calls the “slow and persistent” work of building subaltern agency to the point where someone from that “bottom-layer” position does begin to gain the reflexes of democratic citizenship—then I don’t see how such an individual would experience or articulate the ambivalence Spillers describes. In theory, at least, in the transition from subaltern to citizen there should be no abeyance of closure. On the contrary, any such accomplishment would presumably have to involve a complete and unambiguous syntagmatic movement from one more or less stable property to another: a radical transformation, with no looking back.


Brent Hayes Edwards is a Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard University Press, 2003), Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017), and the translation of Michel Leiris’s Phantom Africa (Seagull Books, 2017).


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