Vaughn Rasberry is Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Associate Professor of English at Stanford University, where he teaches African diaspora literature and philosophical theories of modernity. He is the author of Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination (Harvard UP, 2016), winner of an American Book Award and the Ralph Bunche Award from the American Political Science Association.
“Du Bois After World War II: Between Multidirectional Memory and Comparative Racialization”
In his 1952 essay “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto,” W.E.B. Du Bois writes movingly about his experience of the genocidal violence visited upon Poland’s and Europe’s Jewish populations—and the relationship between this destruction and the plight of Black Americans. This text is only one of several testimonies that Du Bois penned against the scourge of anti-Semitism and in support of the dignity and liberation of Jewish peoples worldwide. In these testimonies, Du Bois consistently compared Black and Jewish suffering and freedom struggles, embodying the ethos and imagination that Michael Rothberg so persuasively delineated in his book Multidirectional Memory.
Yet Du Bois’s principled commitment to parallel emancipation for Jewish and Black diasporas also betrayed a notable, though seldom discussed, lapse in judgement: namely, his racialization of Palestinians who found themselves displaced and occupied by the nascent Israeli state. In an earlier defense of Zionism, Du Bois reproduced a variety of racist tropes about the Palestinian people, from the notion of Arabs as uncivilized and unindustrious to the myth of Palestine as a sparsely inhabited land in need of development. Although Du Bois never quite self-corrected for these lapses in judgment, his later work of the 1950s—during the onset of decolonization and the Cold War—shifts toward a more critical (but still sympathetic) stance toward the state of Israel and an enhanced solidarity with the Afro-Arab sphere. This trajectory, I argue, illustrates both the promise and peril of comparative memory in the political sphere. In this talk, I recount Du Bois’s political trajectory during the Cold War and the critical lessons it contains for research in multidirectional memory and comparative race studies.