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Friday, June 11, 2010

A Myth of Africa: Ritual Structure in Dusk of Dawn

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/11/10 at 10:32 AM

Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Serendipity, fate, kismet, synchronicity, or just plain coincidence. Call it what you will.

I’d been planning to post these notes ever since I started my series on race in the symbolic universe. Earlier this week I’d decided that this would be the week. And now I see that Aaron Bady has a post on the Western construction of Africa. And so this post of mine becomes something of an oblique counterpoint to that. While it too is about a Western construction of Africa, it is a specific construction, by a single individual, the great W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois was born in New England and died in Ghana. He was a Pan-Africanist whose need for a symbolic Africa was different from that which Bady describes in his post.

* * * * *

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt.  Dusk of Dawn.  In W.E.B. Du Bois:  Writings, ed. by Nathan Huggins, Library of American © 1986 by Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, pp. 549 - 802.  First published in 1940 by Harcourt Brace.

Ritual Structure

No autobiography is a simple chronological account of the facts.  There is always a plot, an argument, some special pleading, a mythological/symbolic dimension.  This is very obviously so with Dusk of Dawn —Du Bois tells us as much several times, first in the opening “Apology.”

I believe that Dusk of Dawn an overall form corresponding to ritual structure as expounded by Van Gennep and Durkheim. The center section of the book, in which De Bois describes his trip to Africa, corresponds to the marginal phase of ritual where the celebrants have left the secular world for the sacred but have not yet returned.  It is in the center of the book, chapter 5 out of 9, that we find the romantic evocation of Africa. 

Here’s how I explained this standard ritual structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim’s “states of the moral person” (Leach 1965a). They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage (Van Gennep 1960). The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms. The ontological problem is isomorphic to that of hypnosis. Secular life corresponds to ordinary waking consciousness; separation corresponds to induction; margin or transition corresponds to trance; and aggregation or incorporation to release – which leaves the person back at the initial state, ordinary consciousness, or secular life. Hypnosis and ritual both involve ontological transition.

This is the pattern that Northrup Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, associated with New Comedy in ancient Greece, and which Frye C. L. Barber have used in analysing Shakespeare’s comedies. It is thus a pattern with a strong literary pedigree.

What’s surprising about finding it in Dusk of Dawn is that that work is not a work of fiction, it is an autobiography, a work of fact. Fictions can be patterned to suit the needs of the author. Lives are not so readily patterned, what happened is what happened.

But one need not tell what happened in the order in which it happened. One can change the order in the telling while remaining truthful about the dates so that the reader can supply the chronological order. And that is what Du Bois does. His displaces his first trip to Africa, which took place later in his life, to an earlier part of his narrative. It is that displacement that signals to the reader that something special is going on here.

Here’s the chronology. The first four chapters take us to 1910. Then, ruoghly 15 pages into Chapter 5, Du Bois tells of his trip to Africa, which began late in 1923. Thus he has skipped 13 years in his chronology. This chapter and the next two are discursive and expository in nature, not narrative. It isn’t until chapter 8 that Du Bois rejoins the narrative, which he does at the point where he left off in Chapter 4, 1910.

Here then is the overall scheme of the book, with the secular/sacred designations being mine:


1.  The Plot
2.  A New England Boy and Reconstruction
3.  Education in the Last Decades of the Nineteenth Century
4.  Science and Empire


5.  The Concept of Race
6.  The White World
7.  The Colored World Within


8.  Propaganda and World War
9.  Revolution

The rest of this post consists of my notes on those three central chapters. While I’ve touched them up a bit here and there, they’re still pretty much raw notes. As such they jump around a bit and, in particular, invoke Freud in a way that makes sense to me – after all, they are my notes – but may not make sense to anyone else. For that I apologize. Still, you should be able to get the drift.

Ch 5: Into the Sacred: Back to Africa

Chapter 5, “The Concept of Race,” begins as follows (625):  “I want now to turn aside from the personal annals of this biography to consider the conception which is after all my main subject.  The concept of race lacks something in personal interest, but personal interest in my case has always depended primarily upon this race concept and I wish to examine this now.  The history of the development of the race concept in the world and particularly in America, was naturally reflected in the education offered me.” From there he moves through primary and secondary school (the rest of the opening paragraph) then the second paragraph covers Fisk and Harvard, and the third paragraph Harvard and Germany. 

He then begins discussing how his own awareness developed and changed.  Fisk was pivotal (627):  “Then of course, when I went South to Fisk, I became a member of a closed racial group with rites and loyalties, with a history and a corporate nature, with an art and philosophy.  I received these eagerly and expanded them so that when I came to Harvard the theory of race separation was quite in my blood.” He then goes on to discuss the fact that the boundaries between so-called races are not clear and strong—people came in many different complexions, much mixed blood.  And so (628) “I began to emphasize the cultural aspects of race.”

Then comes an account of his own heritage, which was mixed (c. 9 pages plus a one page geneological chart, great grandfather, father’s father’s father was white).  From here he moves to Africa, opening with a Countee Cullen poem “What is Africa to me.” Du Bois says (639) “Africa is, of course, my fatherland.  Yet neither my father nor my father’s father ever saw Africa or knew its meaning or cared overmuch for it.  My mother’s fold were closer and yet their direct connection . . . became tenuous; still, my tie to African is strong.  On this vast continent were born and lived a large portion of my direct ancestors going back a thousand years or more.  The mark of their heritage is upon me in color and hair. . . . [640] ¶But one thing is sure and that is the fact that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants have had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and have one long memory. . . . the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery . . . and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.  It is this unity that draws me to Africa.”

It is at this point, in the very next paragraph, that Du Bois tells of his first trip to Africa:  “When shall I forget the night I first set foot on African soil?  I am the sixth generation in descent from forefathers who left this land.  The moon was full and the waters of the Atlantic lay like a lake.” And hence follows the rest of the account of his trip to Liberia, which goes on for 8 or 9 pages. Narrative and lyricism are strong at the beginning, with commentary and reflection gradually taking over until the final 3 or 4 pages of the chapter are mostly discursive rather than narrative.  The final paragraph of the chapter (651):  “This was the race concept which has dominated my life, and the history of which I have attempted to make the leading theme of this book. . . . All this led to an attempt to rationalize the racial concept and its place in the modern world.”

What interests me is the narrative place the evocation of Africa has in the book as a whole.  First, this is (I belive) the place where Du Bois most strongly asserts an African ethos which runs counter to the Western ethos—and ethos which is, however, stated largely in the terms he learned from European romantic thought and art.  This is where Du Bois gets his healing alternative to Europe, his fulcrum point on which to lever a criticism of white values and to assert the positive value of African American, as a component of Pan African, culture.

But this assertion is surrounded by “ritual” protection.  There is no sense at all of where the trip to Liberia fits into the general chronology of his life.  The extensive material in the chapter before this point, Ch. 4, pretty much takes this African trip out of the chronological flow of the book.  He arrived in Liberia on Dec. 22, 1923.  The previous chapter (4:  “Science and Empire”) ended at 1910.  He doesn’t return to the main narrative until chapter 8, where he picks up with 1910, where he left off in Chapter 4.  Thus, in this autobiography, the trip to Africa has been “ripped” out of the chronological sequence of his life.  [In the terms of the Russian formalists, the ordering of life events in the plot of the book is different from its order in the story.] It has been set apart as though it were in a sacred space which must be kept separate from the secular space of Western/white culture.  But, it is here that he gives us his geneology, as the immediate prelude to Africa, thus linking Africa firmly to the larger historical arc in which his life is only one segment.  It also has the effect of putting his essential origins outside the chronology of his life.

Ch. 6: The White World

Having asserted the primacy of Africa in Chapter 5, Du Bois can then gradually work his way back from the sacred territory to the secular.  The next chapter (6:  The White World) can be seen as a counterpoint to 5 and is mostly presented as a dialogue between Du Bois and “my white friend.” That is, this chapter isn’t autobiographical either (and, as a literary form, the dialogue goes back to Plato).  It is in a different rhetorical mode, as is Chapter 7:  The Colored World Within.  After a two-page intro it swings into a bridge-table [not bid whist] conversation among educated “Negroes, say, in Harlem” (683) about race (c. 2 pages).  Then follows discursive exposition and argument culminating in his cooperative economic program.  Then he returns, in Chapter 8 (Propaganda and World War), to the main biographical narrative, starting with the Niagara Movement.

It seems to me that Du Bois could confront the white world in chapter 6 only after he established an alternative set of values, African values, in chapter 5.  In the next chapter, chapter, 7, “The Colored World Within,” he’ll begin by stating the dilemma of middle-class African-Americans who have, by virtue of their education, jobs, and aspirations, absorbed a great deal of European cultural values.  This is where he begins dealing with the problem of where to go from here.  So,

Chapter 5:  Africa
Chapter 6:  The West
Chapter 7:  Africa in the West

Chapter 8 ("Propaganda and World War") begins (716):  “My discussion of the concept of race, and of the white and colored worlds, are not be be regarded as digressions from the history of my life; rather my autobiograpy is a digressive illustration and exemplificaiton of what race has meant in the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centures.  It is for this reason that I have named and tried to make this book an autobiography of race rather than merely a personal reminiscence . . .” This verbal formula marks the book’s return to autobiography (secular), just as the opening paragraph of chapter 5 marks the book’s journey to the lyrical narrative (Africa) and dialogue modes (sacred).

What do we Make of This?

Now, what are we to make of this extraordinary narrative structure?  My instincts suggest:  1) Du Bois is attempting to span the gap between the particularities of his life and the universalities of black experience (this much Du Bois tells us), 2) his romanticism forces him to make Africa an ideal thing apart (i.e. Eden, the Platonic Forms), but 3) he is trying to close the gap between where he (and his culture) is and where it must go to get to the ideal Africa.  This ritual narrative is thus also a quest, What gives this romantic narrative a peculiar twist is the fact that the author is, in the romantic terms given to him by his literary culture, a denizen of paradise of Eden.  But Du Bois knows that isn’t really so.  He is thus at odds with the literary and conceptual categories he must use to express himself.  This disjuncture is caused by racism. 

Finally, I think this narrative structure is related to the same reticence that leads Du Bois to neglect Freudian thought, though he clearly knows that it is applicable.  As a middle-class American born and raised in the late 19th C. Du Bois is heir to the repressions of the age.  And so the ideal and sacred Africa is also that part of himself which Du Bois has had trouble coming to terms with.  He is most comfortable surrounding it with the ritual protections afforded him by the rhetoric of romanticism.  He must deal with a major portion of his emotional nature at arms length.  But, unlike many whites, he doesn’t have the mechanism of racism available to him as a way of dealing with this psychological incompleteness.  It is not simply that, as a black man he is at the sexual and emotional and primitive and childlike end of the racist stereotype—that is true enough.  But, it is also obvious that Du Bois has more personal integrity and insight than most people, and that kept him fairly honest.

But, could he do the Lindy?

Chapter 7:  The Colored World Within

This is the third of the central “mythological/sacred” chapters as I have identified them.  The title is intriguing.  Given my own affection for Freudian analysis the title suggested something like the African Soul within the European Body.  But, the chapter was not psychological at all.  It was sociological and political.  However, within that socio-political arena it really was about the African within, the African within the middle-class African American (where the chapter begins), and, more generally, the African within the European world.  So we have this sequence:  Africa (chapter 5), Europe (chapter 6), Africa-in-Europe (chapter 7).  Good old Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

Now, the question which I have as a literary critic:  Is this also how it worked psychologically in the mythos of Du Bois’ mind?  Is he, in this trio of chapters, indicating the psychodynamics of his inner world?  Is he showing us how his psyche is structured as an Africa within European America?  And, is the point of the whole book the working out of this dynamic relationship?

Consider: 679-680 (final sentence of chapter 6, “The White World"):  “The colored world therefore must be seen as existing not simply for itself by as a group whose insistent cry may yet become the warning which awakens the world to its truer self and its wider destiny.” This is one statement of Du Bois’ conviction the blacks are the major source of hope and innovation for world culture.

Chapter 7, “The Colored World Within,” begins (681):  “Not only do white men but also colored men forget the facts of the negro’s double environment.  The Negro American has for his environment not only the white surrounding world, but also, and touching him usually much more nearly and compellingly, is the environment furnished by his own colored group.  . . . The American Negro, therefore, is surrounded and conditioned by the concept which he has of white people and he is treated in accordance with the concept they have of him.  On the other hand, so far as his own people are concerned, he is in direct contact with individuals and facts.  He fits into this environment more or less willingly.  It gives him a social world and a mental peace.  On the other hand and especially if in education and ambition and income he is above the average culture of his group, he is often resentful of its environing power . . .”

702:  “Most whites want Negroes to amuse them; they demand caricature; they demand jazz . . . between the extraordinary reward for entertainers of the white world, and meager encouragement to honest self-expression, the artistic movement among American Negroes has accomplished something, but it has never flourished and never will until it is deliberately planned.” Are we to take it that Du Bois doesn’t exactly approve of jazz?  If so, he is prisoner to cultural standards he inherited from European America.  And so he can’t really see the positive dynamic of American popular culture.  This is, of course, related to his Freudian reticence.  And it is at odds with some of the romanticism of his “African Paradise” passages, which is, perhaps, why those passages are ritually segrated from the ongoing narrative of his autobiography.  Well, it is consistent with those passages.  Du Bois doesn’t really recognize, nor affirm the funk.  His middle class background is too strong.  He can only look at it, strangely, nostalgically, from a distance.

714:  The emotional wealth of the American Negro, the nascent art in song, dance, and drama [recall this is being written in the very late 30s, when Ellington has been going strong for 10 years and is about to flower, when Bird and Diz are about to take flight] can all be applied, not to amuse the white audience, but to inspire and direct the acting Negro group itself.  I can conceive no more magnificent nor promising crusade in modern times.  We have a chance here to teach [715] industrial and cultural democracy to a world that bitterly needs it. . . . Here then is the economic ladder by which the American Negro, achieving new social institutions, can move pari passu with the modern world into a new heaven and a new earth.

Comment:  But he isn’t fully aware of the bounds of the “emotional wealth of the American Negro,” he’s cut off from some of the richest stuff—why does he write essays about “sorrow songs” but not about jazz?  He’s got a skewed view of the African American’s contribution to American culture, of Africa’s contribution to world culture.  He doesn’t see the whole picture.  He’s ambivalent, etc.


"Du Bois is attempting to span the gap between the particularities of his life and the universalities of.... experience.”

Can’t speak abut Du Bois but I think this is a theme at play in Gawain. It is grounded on a depiction of courtly life at play.

I think one of the themes he may have been exploring are the tricks of oratory and language and the performance of the conjurers. The line between fantasy/reality, are very blurred in the text and constantly at play. He is certainly spanning a gap between distinct realms.

It’s most apparent I think in a particular event that would be familiar to his readers in life.

The beheading game was a standard trick of the lower type of entertainers. Went under the name of ‘the decollation of John the Baptist.’

It’s often read as an ancient Celtic ritual survival in the text. I think it’s drawn very much from contemporary life and the activity of a trickster somewhat adept at juggling objects and enchanting an audience.

By on 06/12/10 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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