Representing Black Freedom – Black Articulations of Citizenship at the Edges of US Empire

Aaron Yates, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This paper traces representations of Black political subjectivities in Black radical thought at the turn of the twentieth century. While American sociology was being established as an academic discipline concerned with the social scientific study of modernity, Black intellectuals were challenging the exclusion of people of African descent from emerging theoretical constructions of modern political subjects. While scholars in elite American universities were constructing modernity as driven by scientific, moral, and cultural progress, thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James were centering colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and the revolutionary conflicts leading to the eventual emancipation of millions of formerly enslaved Blacks as modernity’s founding dilemmas. This paper examines the work of Du Bois and James with attention to their theoretical representations of the structuring conditions of possibility for Black political subjecthood in the wake of slavery. It explores the differences in their work relative to their own positions in the heart versus at the margins of US and European empires. Positioned within, Du Bois’s early visions of Black political consciousness largely take the form of integration into the full rights of American citizenship more broadly. Alternatively, for James the larger dilemma was the political (im)possibility of the recognition on the part of European and North American empire-states of Haitian sovereignty as an autonomous Black nation.

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 Presented in Session 171. Empire, Citizenship and Racial Subjectivity