The London Lectures 21-22: Expanding Horizons
Chike Jeffers (Dalhousie University)
In his famous 1897 essay, “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois advocates that African Americans hold on to their distinctiveness as members of the black race because this enables them to participate in a cosmopolitan process of cultural exchange in which different races collectively advance human civilization by means of different contributions. Philosophers like Kwame Anthony Appiah and Tommie Shelby have criticized the position that Du Bois expresses in that essay as a problematic form of racial essentialism. I will investigate in this lecture how Du Bois’ 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk escapes or fails to escape that criticism. It is easy to worry that the diversity characterizing what Du Bois is willing to treat as a black contribution to the development of America in this book pushes us from the problem of essentialism to the other extreme: a lack of any conceptual constraints whatsoever on what can count as a black gift. I will argue that recognizing the cultivation of historical memory as a form of cultural activity is key to understanding the concept’s unity.