Should We Continue to Study Race?

by Kenneth Warren

hen W. E. B. Du Bois published Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil in 1920, he felt called upon to explain his decision to "write again on themes on which great souls have already said great words." In the self-deprecatory mode common to essayists since Montaigne, Du Bois did not justify his contribution by citing his considerable intellect and scholarship. Instead, he offered merely "a point of view" centered in what he described as the "heart of my problem." This problem, however, was not strictly his. It lay within "the problems of my people," by which he meant, of course, the problems faced by black Americans. In Du Bois's estimation, the world's judgment of the grand human drama had not yet been sufficiently informed by the view from one "veiled corner" of human experience.

By now, it's nothing new, even if still controversial, to claim that the social prejudices of racism and other bigotries still obstruct our efforts to understand the world we inhabit. The claim has merit: Don't we all stand to lose something when access to our intellectual resources is unfairly restricted? Likewise real are the controversies: What, after all, is a racial or gendered point of view? Don't such points of view obstruct as much as they reveal?

Yet, for the moment, I'm more interested in something often obscured by the fog created by these various debates, namely, the depth of Du Bois's belief that a properly orchestrated humanistic inquiry might enable us to understand the human condition. Du Bois still inhabited that world view which had given us the great projects associated with such figures of Vico, Hegel and Marx--a world view, to quote Erich Auerbach, premised on the belief that because human history "was made by men [sic] themselves; accordingly, men themselves can know it."

We should also not overlook the ascendance of the social sciences as one aspect of this belief in the knowability of human activity. Such an oversight would be particularly inexcusable here at the University of Chicago, where it is arguable that the School of Sociology invented the modern study of race, and conversely, that the modern study of race invented the School of Sociology. Richard Wright, to take one obvious example, asserted that the "huge mountains of fact piled up by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago gave me my first concrete vision of the forces that molded the urban negro's body and soul." Wright, in fact, credited such Chicago scholars as Robert E. Park, Robert Redfield, and Louis Wirth with giving him the "meanings" of Twelve Million Black Voices and his epoch-making novel Native Son.

And, for his part, Robert Park confessed that "I think I probably learned more about human nature and society, in the South under Booker Washington, than I had learned elsewhere in all my previous studies." Park went so far as to claim that by studying what he termed black America's "slow but steady advance" he "became convinced, finally, that I was observing the historical process by which civilization, not merely here but elsewhere, has evolved." Taking Park at his word, it would seem then not only that the "Negro problem" constituted part of the knowable world, but, more importantly, that the "Negro problem" itself had helped make the world more knowable.

Just over a century old, this university owes a good deal of its current prominence to its association with one of this nation's most visible social problems, a problem which it helped largely to define. And like most legacies, this is a mixed one.

For neither Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute nor Chicago School Sociology (from its inception under Park and Howard Burgess and Louis Wirth, to its more recent incarnations in the work of former Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson) has been a neutral force in shaping the education of black Americans, the politics of race and the policies through which our racial world is administered. In fact, so dubious is this legacy that the late Ralph Ellison accused Park of assisting Booker T. Washington in his effort to "deflect Negro energy away from direct political action." In making this allegation, Ellison cited such Parkian observations as his claim that the Negro "is primarily an artist, loving life for its own sake. His métier is expression rather than action. He is, so to speak, the lady among the races." The words speak for themselves.

And yet, there is lurking somewhere in this project the belief that we can understand "race" because we have made "race." Looking backwards over one century and forward to the next we can see that the reality of racial difference is not a natural one but a "made" one--a reality which was constructed by and, equally important, which helped to construct, our social, political and educational institutions.

We cannot, then, simply wish it away. But certainly, we can better understand it. The question, however, is whether we can make "race" central to the study of where we've been over the last portion of this millennium--tracking its force in shaping our imaginations, fears and desires--without allowing it to determine where we will go in the next one. Should we continue to study race?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Kenneth Warren

warrenKenneth Warren is a professor of English and the humanities at the University of Chicago. His research interests lie in African-American literature, nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, and critical theory. Among his publications are Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (1993) and an article titled "The End(s) of African American Studies," which appeared in the fall 2000 issue of American Literary History. Warren is currently at work on two books. The first, So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism, is projected for publication in 2001. The second, Where I'll Be Free: Literature, Politics, and the African Diaspora, will appear shortly thereafter. Both of these projects assess the direction that African-American studies has taken over the last 50 years.

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