Memory and Compassion

“[…] herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, —who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

In the context of “Of Alexander Crummel,” the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk in which the quote above appears, Du Bois is speaking about his eponymous peer, a Black Episcopalian minister who “[i]n another age […] might have sat among the elders of the land in purple-bordered toga” but at the time of Du Bois’s writing had died “work[ing] alone, with so little human sympathy,” (199) with his name and work all but forgotten after his death. Du Bois’s assessment of the tragedy of his age (a tragedy that remains with us, whether or not it is the tragedy, or if his age is still ours) is the assumption encountered during this course I’ve spent the most time thinking about, and it offers the most direct entry point into the reflection I’d like to do here. “Men know so little of men” is a broad enough statement that a more freewheeling analysis could stretch it to encompass whatever one would like to fit under it, but I think that within its context, it illuminates much of INTD 288: both the ideas I have encountered in the class and the in-classroom experience of the course. In Du Bois’s statement I read two primary themes: firstly, the importance of memory, and secondly, the destructive social impacts of an inability or unwillingness to recognize humanity in other human beings.
Although I initially expected that it would be an ancillary resource to the texts I thought would be the main focus of this course, The Souls of Black Folk is the text that made the greatest impact with me over the duration of this class, and I want to begin by exploring memory and the cognizance of common humanity in the context of our edition of the book. Du Bois’s naming of the tragedy of his age is made more eye-catching to a contemporary reader by the way that his phrasing — “that men know so little of men” [emphasis mine] — hints toward his own shortcomings as a sociologist. There is a concern displayed throughout Souls for “sexual immorality” among Black women, and Vann Newkirk, in the introduction of our edition of Souls, draws our attention to the “crude and chauvinistic descriptions of women [and] genteel elitism” that underscore Du Bois’s analysis (xviii). The additional matter exists of “the pervasive latent anti-Semitism” present in “the main form in which the text circulated for fifty years,” as George Borenstein notes in “Du Bois and the Jews.” As was noted at the beginning of the course, the edition of Souls that we have leaves out each chapter’s “bar of the Sorrow Songs,—some echo of haunting melody from the only American music which welled up from black souls in the dark past” (6) that Du Bois included in the original printings of the book, and with this absence, we also lurch further toward not “knowing” other humans (whether that is Du Bois as author or the “black souls” he referenced.)
In other, unexpected ways, however, Du Bois expresses solidarity with oppressed peoples everywhere. I was surprised, as a reader from a moment in which discourse tends to posit anti-blackness as the exceptional racism and reading an edition of Souls with a blurb placing Du Bois in the same literary lineage as Ta-Nehisi Coates (who can be read as a writer in the realm of Afro-pessimism), to see that Du Bois begins his work by stating that the problem of the twentieth century, the color-line, is the problem of “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Du Bois even goes beyond equating anti-racist struggles in the U.S. to anti-colonial struggles abroad: in “Of Alexander Crummel,” Du Bois seems to imply, surprisingly, that American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba is worse than slavery. Writing of Crummel’s lifetime, Du Bois recalls that “[Crummel] was born with the Missouri Compromise and lay a-dying amid the echoes of Manila and El Caney: stirring times for living, times dark to look back upon, darker to look forward to” (192). Writing in “Of the Training of Black Men,” Du Bois refers to “sinister signs in recent educational movements,” and states that the tendency is present in these movements “to regard human beings as among the material resources of a land to be trained with an eye single to future dividends” (91). This tendency, he writes, was “born of slavery and quickened to renewed life by the crazy imperialism of the day.” There is a strong anti-colonial, anti-imperialist message throughout The Souls of Black Folk, and it speaks, as does Du Bois’s eventual correction of the book to remove anti-Semitic passages, to a commitment to human solidarity and against forgetting. In the places it falters, as Newkirk writes, we can think of its incompleteness “as an exact framework for understanding race and movement today” as a spotlight to “the layers of nuance and thought that have been added to its tradition in the century since its publication.”

The lectures we received from History Department faculty were the most readily applicable to the ideas of memory and humanity. Dr. Adams’s lecture on the transatlantic slave trade (especially her incitement to think about what it means to represent the mass kidnapping of men, women, and children into bondage as part of a map of trade goods) offered another angle from which to think about Du Bois’s prognostication. Dr. Adams’s class also touched upon the fact that the Latin American and Caribbean experience of slavery is largely absent from the narrative of slavery common in the U.S., which focuses primarily on the American South. This kind of forgetful memory, which fails, among other things, to note that forty percent of those who survived the Middle Passage disembarked in Brazil, obscures the scope of the African diaspora and of the legacy of slavery itself. In Cuba this January as part of ANTH 226: Race, Racism, and the Black Experience in Cuba, I was exposed to scholarship showing that, contrary to the popular conception that the process of enslavement was made easy due to enslaved peoples coming from disparate cultures, a great number of enslaved peoples had been subjects of the same West African polities, were members of the same ethnic groups, and spoke the same languages. What would it mean to cross out “slaves” on an import/export map of the triangular trade and replace it with “kidnapped subjects of the Kingdom of Kongo,” or “enslaved Bakongo people,” or “abducted Kikongo-speakers”? We would be obliged to think about enslaved people as people with cultures, political actors, enmeshed in social and economic webs in Africa just as complex as the ones they were forced into. Consciously making the choice to refer to them in language that is as specific to their lives as possible (an exercise in memory) might work against the still-pervasive assumption that slavery was a long-term benefit to Africans by taking them out of a primitive state of existence.

Dr. Cope’s lecture provided a historical example of how the failure to recognize the humanity of another human can be not only a passive mistake but an active tactic towards political ends, in the form of seventeenth-century English pamphlets depicting Irish rebels as subhuman and worthy of extermination. My background in Latin American Studies, in which colonialism and imperialism and the struggle against them are recurring themes, as well as the knowledge that Du Bois was a member of the All-American Anti-Imperialist League, made me interested in trying to place Ireland in the global historical context of these trends. Looking after Dr. Cope’s class at resources that addressed Ireland’s place in anti-colonial thinking, I came across a digital resource page for the Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor’s 2002 novel Star of the Sea. Within the site’s collection of artists on postcolonialism is an article by Anne-Marie Pedersen titled “Why Ireland Should Be Categorized as Postcolonial,” which argues that Ireland is largely missing from postcolonial frameworks, partly due to the fact that “postcolonial critics do not identify Irish authors as necessarily postcolonial,” confining Irish postcolonial discussion to Irish studies, “rather than in the wider postcolonial dialogue.” Pedersen attributes the attitude that Ireland’s history is not colonial to attitudes prevalent among early Irish nationalists such as John Mitchel and Arthur Griffith, who “considered it outrageous that Ireland should be treated as a colony because to do so was to put an ancient and civilized European people on the same level as non-white colonial subjects.” Mitchel was a white supremacist and advocate for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and Griffith, the fourth head of state of the revolutionary Irish Republic, later defended his colleague’s “views on negro-slavery.” The Irish independence movement was understood by its participants and observers in an internationalist context: responding to the Easter Rising, Lenin wrote that who wrote that social revolution was inconceivable “without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe,” and Griffith himself had published The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland, which praised Hungary’s “manly policy of passive resistance” against Austria and advocated for an Austro-Hungarian style dual monarchy in Ireland and England. The Easter Rising was also an inspiration to anti-colonial thinkers outside of Europe: The British journalist Lester Holloway, writing for the think tank Runnymede, notes that Marcus Garvey christened the United National Negro Association’s meeting place as Liberty Hall, “in conscious emulation of the headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army, the socialist republicans who had fought in the Rising,” and that in colonial India, the “martyrdom of Patrick Pearse and other leaders of the Rising was incorporated into a long-standing emphasis on violence, sacrifice and heroic martyrdom in Indian revolutionary traditions.” Du Bois himself weighed in on the Rising, writing in the NAACP’s Crisis that though conflict between Irish and Black Americans “has given the Irish cause little or no sympathy as far as Negroes are concerned,” “we must remember that the white slums of Dublin represent more bitter depths of human degradation than the black slums of Charleston and New Orleans, and where human oppression exists there the sympathy of all black hearts must go.” Here, Du Bois and the African and Asian anti-imperialists displayed more understanding of a common humanity, and a memory more capable of placing their own struggles in a global context, than were possessed by many of the people they were inspired by. By “adopting the attitudes of their colonizer,” as Pedersen writes, and denying a common humanity between themselves and non-white colonized peoples, Irish nationalists like Griffith and Mitchel undermined what might have been a European addition to the international anti-colonial struggle by “further affirming racial stereotypes that were as damning of their own people as they [were] of the peoples of Africa and Asia.”

Memory and compassion were as thematically present in the experience of sitting with fellow students in Welles 216 as they were in the texts we read and lectures we received in the room. Actions like filling out cards that gave us the opportunity to share pertinent information about ourselves, as well as learning each other’s names and pronouns, all served to proactively avert the man-knowing-so-little-of-man tragedy. The knowledge brought to the class by a group of students more disciplinarily diverse than the typical class of English majors or Latin American studies minors I’ve usually sat in during college meant different pool of knowledge and memory, which was both a help and a hindrance in the process of learning this semester. Lindsey’s blog post on how the human brain has to work harder to spot detail in black and white images brought to the table a background in psychology that I don’t have, and provided me with an enriching perspective with which to think about visual art. I can say the same for Dan DeZarn’s lecture on the principles of design and Dr. Nicodemi’s lecture on math and visual perspective; both of these went beyond the scope of the artistic analysis I’ve been trained in, and beyond only being interesting, augmented my understanding. On the other hand, I was often frustrated by the interactions I had with fellow students outside of my discipline in which I felt that I had to explain what seemed like the basic principles of literary analysis I’d learned as a freshman— especially the idea that meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text. Here, I feel that I need to mention that I was reprimanded during the course of this class, deservedly, for not being intellectually present and for being dismissive towards other students. I bring this up both because it was part of the classroom experience of INTD 288 and because those two faults are the opposite of memory and compassion, respectively— my failure to apply these two lessons to my own lived experience. I was asked what my values were during the conversation in which I was told I needed to do better— memory and compassion are certainly among them, and the lived experience of this class has been a reminder that these values are valuable because they can be applied in our immediate lives, not just looked for in books and articles.

There is something perceptibly lacking in this reflection of what I have learned in The Art of Steve Prince— Prince’s art itself. I was not able to make the kind of in-roads this semester that I was hoping to with Prince’s work, and I feel that it still eludes me beyond a more-or-less basic grasp. Still, though, I can see how memory and compassion apply to at least one Prince-related experience this semester. We worked on “Urban Garden” as a community, and on the wall of societal negatives I saw police violence depicted alongside mass incarceration, endless war, environmental degradation, systemic racism, and a host of other problems. I don’t think it’s possible that each student who worked on this part of the piece had first-hand experience with each of these problems, and I personally know people who worked on elements of the piece that they personally have no tangible connection to. In this sense, “Urban Garden” was an exercise both in communal memory via its naming societal problems, and in knowing each other through recognizing the need to struggle against those problems, which may have nothing to do with our individual lives.  I want to close this essay with a quote I found in my Irish anti-colonialism rabbit hole, spoken by the Irish socialist and civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin about her experience in New York in the late 1960s, which I feel is clear in its offering of compassionate solidarity as both a necessity and a tool against forgetting:

“My people’—the people who knew about oppression, discrimination, prejudice, poverty and the frustration and despair that they produce– were not Irish Americans. They were black, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos. And those who were supposed to be ‘my people’, the Irish Americans who knew about English misrule and the Famine and supported the civil rights movement at home, and knew that Partition and England were the cause of the problem, looked and sounded to me like Orangemen. They said exactly the same things about blacks that the loyalists said about us at home. In New York I was given the key to the city by the mayor, an honor not to be sneezed at. I gave it to the Black Panthers.”


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