N. D. Chandler: "Beyond This Narrow Now" Or, Delimitations, of W. E. B. Du Bois

"Beyond This Narrow Now" Or, Delimitations, of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Chandler, Nahum Dimitri
328 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lena Dallywater, Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde Leipzig e. V. (IfL), Leipzig

Nahum Dimitri Chandler intricately engages early Du Boisian thought with a distinctly scholarly orientation of epistemic density that forbids the possibility of casual reading. Indeed, Beyond This Narrow Now, or Delimitations of W. E. B. Du Bois, is a definitive attempt to break new ground by renewing a trajectory of Du Boisian scholarship that he originally initiated with X The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought.

Guided by two interrelated concerns, with Beyond This Narrow Now, Chandler seeks to produce a more patient understanding of W. E. B. Du Bois early writings, and more importantly to pose a general problematization of the status of African American matters for thought. In doing so, three primary questions come to the forefront: “Who or what is W. E. B. Du Bois as a problem for thought?”, “Who or what are the matters African American for W. E. B. Du Bois?”, and “How does Du Bois understand the relation of matters African American to modern historicity?”. Chandler hence combines an autobiographical and historiographical approach with Du Bois’s theorization of historical possibility and towards disclosing principal theoretical offerings to contemporary conceptions of modern historicity and the humanity of the future.

The driving focus of Chandler’s discursive orientation is intent on the recovering of the singularity of Du Bois as an intellectual, a thinker, over and above the uses and abuses of Du Bois as a political figure, thus avoiding any serious engagement with his own thought and discourse. Trenchantly reminding us to understand him, as a passionate writer, who in fact produced a massive volume of daily writing, 37 volumes in the years from 15 to 95. “[…] [W]e must think [italic in original] with him, allowing his questions to become our own”, Chandler proposes (p. 6); to contextualize his thought internally, not externally. This means to think first of the problematic and movement of discourse that is specific to Du Bois’s thought, to realize the ensemble of questions, given by his conditions, and the relationship of thought and context, without understanding his conceptions as mere derivative expressions thereof.

Du Bois resolutely affirmed freedom and chance in human action towards democracy and universal opportunity. Under the analytical heading of the concept-metaphor ‘the problem of the color line’ he critiqued practices and institutions that would foreclose such chance and freedom, based on contemptuous modern distinctions among humans. At the same time, Du Bois elaborated an understanding of his historical present, an interpretation of modern global history as a whole. The ‘problem of the color line’, understood on a global scale, is produced in modern history as basic and fundamental aspect of new historical relations among groups of people. It is not only a historical form of hierarchy among others though, “it has a unique standing as a specifically modern ensemble of practices and institutions of proscription” (p. 11). Chandler asserts that there is no true scholastic account of Du Bois’s term ‘the problem of the color line’ as a problem for contemporary thought. And yet his proposal speaks to a different epistemic horizon that is demeaned when we reduce ‘the problem of the color line’ to a slogan or idiom, that is all too often abused for rhetorical purposes, without any idea of its fundamental meaning. [3] Chandler also carefully refutes the assumption that Du Bois's complicated negotiation with the concept of race could be subordinated to, or amalgamated with, the problem of the color line. This work also questions the trajectory of Du Bois’s global perspective as something that didn’t just arise as a result of his participation in the Exposition Universelle in Paris, or the Pan-African conference in London in 1900 as it has often been suspected: the African American situation has always been a global one for him; it is an example of the global problematic (p. 15). As such, Du Bois’s ‘problem of the color line’ is an interpretation of global history as a whole and underscores an epistemic problem for contemporary thought.

Along these lines, Chandler does well in asking us to read Du Bois anew, acknowledging his scholarship as a practice in which the whole is always at stake, which is about possibilities of thought and futures, about “the illimitable chance of becoming in the future that is yet to come” (p. 20). At the juncture of the past and future, the known and unknown, that is where we find Du Bois, the author holds (p. 23). Du Bois always believed that the example exposes circumstances and the possible (p. 22). He himself, the figure of Du Bois is such an example, Chandler believes, and offers possible ‘delimitations’ of the practice of W. E. B. Du Bois “on the track of two paths of the example” (p. 24). Being "on the track of two paths of the example" makes it difficult for the reader though not to lose the path completely. To summarize Chandler's exposition in one' own simple words is a challenge in itself. So deeply does he pierce into Du Bois' (equally profound) thoughts that it takes some effort to work one's way through the analysis of an analysis. In part I, the author elaborates Du Bois’s theorization of matters African American as fundamentally of and about historical possibility. Part II of the book then is dedicated to the author’s interest in Du Bois’s ‘problem of the color line’, a thought he first presented in 1899 as the problem of the twentieth century, at once epochal and global in its implications. The conclusion, called “Another Coda, the Explicit – Revisited” indeed revisits what Chandler aimed to do in his study. He recapitulates how the example of the African American, and especially the historically singular situation of Haiti in modern historicity, entailed for Du Bois a rethinking of the future of all humans in general. The example of the Negro American posed a question about possibility for Du Bois, and the example of Du Bois, on the other hand, can serve as a resource for a new thought of the contemporary (past and future) (p. 224).

The publication by Chandler forms part of a vibrant field of research and inquiry on matters African American, needless to mention the entire Du Bois scholarship, but, at the same time he powerfully shows how not only African American matters may be historicized by recognizing them in the context of modern history and thought on the whole, but that our understanding of modern historicity in itself is powerfully historicized through re-thinking Du Bois’s understanding of it, including the conception of ‘the problem of the color line’. It is precisely this going beyond African American issues, pointing beyond to global dynamics that other authors have skillfully discussed in recent years. [1] “[…] [T]he question of the African American is a question about the possibilities of a global modernity in general”, as Chandler would formulate it in reference to Du Bois (p. 16). It is this skillfulness and beauty of language, perhaps, and the radicality of his interpretations for the present time that Chandler may sometimes be missing to make the book a true pleasure to read. Precisely, almost technically, Chandler goes through the text in minute steps to reveal facets that, according to Chandler, have been hitherto overlooked by the general public, and in some cases even by Du Bois scholars. It is the dense, detailed analysis, however, that soon makes the generally educated reader give up.[2]

Though quite specific in its analysis, the book can be of interest for non-specialists of Du Bois still, because it draws our attention to firstly, the inherently global dimension in Du Bois’ thinking, and secondly, the conceptual value of Du Bois’s approach in thinking unlimited possibilities for the future. Chandler's exposition of the inherently global dimension of Du Bois's thinking in the introduction to his book is exciting and interesting for the global history community as well. Chandler shows: the interest of Du Bois in African American Issues is not at odds with the global classification of these dynamics. Global thinking did not come to Du Bois suddenly and by chance, as some might suggest. Chandler also plausibly lays out how the concept of "race" should not be confused with the "global color line" thesis that is so central to the Du Boisian oeuvre. The potential value of reading Du Bois anew lies in appreciating his unique contribution to the interpretation of modern global history as a whole. Secondly, his thinking allows for a different sense of horizon, Chandler posits.

Du Bois’s itinerary and expression in thought was not contemplative, it was and is activist in him being concerned to use knowledge to effect the best outcomes for the future. But, despite our expectations today, Du Bois does actually not so much elaborate any narrative of the production of the concept of race. He rather posed the general question of humanity – the humanity of the future. It is this futurity and cosmic imagination (which Chandler names atopia) that can inspire generations to come. Additional readings are recommended for readers interested in more radical readings of Du Bois's approach and interpretations for today's agency in the struggle against global inequalities. [3]

Chandler’s work is a definitive contribution towards a re-assessment of contemporary orientations of Du Boisian scholarship. His original thoughts and perspectives on Du Bois, though at times burdened with the discursive weight of a technical vocabulary that threatens to obscure as much as it discloses, provides new, innovative approaches to the work of such an iconic thinker and writer who may indeed suffer from the sheer contempt of our supposedly familiarity with his work. For those who wish to reacquaint themselves with Du Boisian thought, Chandler's work deliberately overwhelms the epistemic palate. And yet, for such a dense offering of decadently detailed thought, driven by engaging the iconic work of one of the 20th century’s towering intellects, we should welcome the challenge. For as the structural-inert violence of the 21st century has so far already disclosed, ‘the problem of the color line’ remains.

[1] See e. g. Fumi Okiji, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited, Palo Alto 2018; also Lena Dallywater, Fumi Okiji. Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited. 2018. COVID-19, Black Social Life, and a Global Crisis Unfolding, in: The Brotherwise Dispatch 4 (2020) 11, September-November/2020. URL: http://brotherwisedispatch.blogspot.com/2020/09/jazz-critique-and-global-crisis-by-lena.html.
[2] I would like to take this opportunity to thank very sincerely Shahid Stover of The Brotherwise Dispatch, for his continued recognition and support, and especially for helping with his acumen and knowledge to meet the heavy burden of Chandler's profound analysis with a more accessible response.
[2] E. g., amongst others, Charisse Burden-Stelly, W.E.B. Du Bois in the Tradition of Radical Blackness: Radicalism, Repression, and Mutual Comradeship, 1930–1960, in: Socialism and Democracy 32 (2018) 3, pp. 181-206, DOI: 10.1080/08854300.2018.1575070.

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