“Feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics” - An Interview
Phillip Luke Sinitiere: When did you first study W.E.B. Du Bois? In what context did you encounter his work and ideas? What text(s) did you read initially and how did it/they strike your imagination?
Alys Eve Weinbaum: I became aware of Du Bois in college through African American literature courses, and other courses that dealt with race and colonialism. But for my generation, my feeling is that there was an under-educated response to black intellectual and political thought. One could go through college without reading Du Bois—at least in my major, Women’s Studies. In grad school, I really started getting into Du Bois. Like most everybody, my entry point was The Souls of Black Folk. I was beginning to think through my dissertation, which was on questions of race and nation and the ways in which white racial nationalism has historically been subtended by sexual and reproductive politics that are not often fully acknowledged, especially within dominant theories of nationalism.
In particular, I was interested in the notion that the white reproductive body has been construed as the source of citizens and national identity whereas the black body has been seen as the source of children who are the antithesis of this, who have been and continue to be written out of the national script. I was not seeing a robust analysis of these dimensions of the reproductive body or of reproductive labor in the existing scholarship on nationalism (for instance, Benedict Anderson, or even Etienne Balibar). But when I began digging into Du Bois's work, there it was! I was surprised. It was there in a way that was very unselfconscious, but completely pervasive.
Two spots in Souls fascinated me—Du Bois’s figuration in his chapter on the failures of Reconstruction of the new nation through the image of a relationship between a former master and his female slave, and his depiction in “Of the Passing of the First Born” of his own child (Burghardt) as the non-inheritor of the nation—a story of tragedy and loss. As I began to think about these two places in the text, I realized that gender, sexuality, motherhood, and reproduction pervade Du Bois’s work; and I began to ponder how they structure the more recognizable political portions—his various arguments against white supremacy, imperialism, racial capitalism, etc.
Also, I noticed that there’s a theory of what Orlando Patterson would later call “natal alienation” in Du Bois that was not being excavated by other scholars. For Du Bois it is not just the denial of kith and kin; natal alienation is a salient rupture of the maternal-child relationship as a sign of non-belonging in the world that is first formalized in slave law as partus sequitur ventrem and that lives on after slavery in the form of racialized and gendered dispossession. For Du Bois the way the nation is founded on this refusal of maternity to black women and childhood to black children is understood in a very intuitive and deep way—but it is mainly expressed through elliptical literary figuration, never directly expressed in the terms I’m using to talk about it now.
As I went deeper into Du Bois’s writings, I began to understand that he wasn’t just focused on racial nationalism—which is an impression you can first get from immersion in Souls. He was a thoroughgoing internationalist. I began to understand that even Souls is an internationalist text; it understands a racial capitalist world system, it understands the intersection of American racism and Jim Crow with wider currents of imperialism and colonialism. So, I began to pay more attention to the increasing presence of internationalism in his work and to explore how it might be a function of his figurations of gender and sexuality, and especially black motherhood.
The next text that I spent lots of time with was Dark Princess. I won’t be the first to say that it is not a great novel, but it is a wonderfully imaginative one in that it wants to produce a world alliance among the enslaved and the colonized that is fundamentally reproductive. There’s a child brewing in the womb of this “Dark Princess,” Kautilya, and her child represents for Du Bois all of Pan-Asia and Pan-Africa come together. The father of the child is Matthew Townes, an “American Negro,” and together Kautilya and Matthew are breeding this symbol of black internationalism that encompasses those who Du Bois refers to in the novel and in other texts as “the darker peoples of the world.” Of course, the image of this child is also terribly problematic. Whereas in his critique of racial nationalism reproduction is something that Du Bois seems to understand as mobilized in the interest of white supremacy, in his internationalist vision he is far less critical. He sees reproduction as a force that could unite Afro-Asia with little thought to what this means for women, for ideas about reproductive sexuality and kinship. These fictional “flights of fancy” or what he also, elsewhere, calls “alightings” are important to me. I keep returning to them in my thinking about Du Bois.
Much later I became obsessed with Black Reconstruction. With this expressly Marxist text I began to think about reproductive insurgency in the context of American racial nationalism and global racial capitalism. I wanted to know what would a general strike of reproductive laborers look like? What would a strike of slave women look like? And this question took me in the direction of my most recent work on Du Bois.1
Sinitiere: In Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B Du Bois, you (and co-editor Susan Gillman) craft an innovative way of approaching Du Bois termed the “politics of juxtaposition.” This approach reads both within and against his broader anti-racist, anti-imperial historical method to explore themes of gender and sexuality across his vast archive of writings. Can you elaborate upon the politics of juxtaposition’s residence “next to the color line,” and the ways in which it might connect to the history and practice of socialism and democracy?
Weinbaum: This is a concept I developed with Susan Gilman.2 Together we analyzed Du Bois’s 1920 text Darkwater which for us crystallized the politics of juxtaposition into a full internationalist consciousness. In Darkwater, Du Bois looks back at World War I as an imperial tragedy and he juxtaposes this tragedy to American Jim Crow and the racism within the labor movement. He uses the essays that comprise this book to connect the dots among all these concurrent developments through thematic juxtaposition and also through generic juxtaposition—the placing of fiction and poetry (those “alightings”) next to more polemical non-fiction prose. What Susan and I began to see is that the non-fiction essays on imperialism, the racism of labor movement, the war, don’t seem to be about gender and sexuality, but in fact every single one of these essays is set alongside of, or juxtaposed with a poetic or fictional interlude that relies upon gendered and sexualized figuration.
The term we develop for this phenomenon—it is really best understood as a rhetorical method—is drawn from Du Bois’s oft-cited chapter from Darkwater, “The Damnation of Women.” There he writes: “The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When, now, two of these movements—woman and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning.”3 This quote, in a certain unselfconscious way, announced the problem with which Darkwater was engaged. Gender and sexuality are always “next to” racism and imperialism—never fully articulated in and through either. But nonetheless the opening for thinking articulation is everywhere, it is available. A feminist reader can thus take this generically hybrid text as a manual of sorts, an invitation, an open door to a feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics. Du Bois never goes through the door with you, but in Darkwater he opens the door for you. To restate, the politics of juxtaposition is this: the national and international color line is always front and center and yet there’s an unacknowledged way in which gendered, sexualized, and reproductive figurations subtend the elaboration of and the analysis of the color line.
Sinitiere: The politics of juxtaposition influenced your feminist reading of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, arguably his most important Marxist-inflected text. How does a feminist analysis of Black Reconstruction, through which you explore what you call “black feminism’s philosophy of history,” assist in understanding slavery’s afterlife?
Weinbaum: Yes, the politics of juxtaposition is at work in Black Reconstruction as well! What I found most important for my thinking on its presence in Du Bois’s Marxist tome is his lead up to his famous chapter on the general strike. And also Du Bois’s innovation—which Cedric Robinson picked up on—is that the slave ought to be recognized as “the black worker,” as the revolutionary agent, and slaves as a black collectivity, who waged, fought, and ultimately won the Civil War through a stoppage of work.
My questions were: “Where’s gender in this general strike? Is this mass of black workers gender differentiated or not? And does reproductive labor fit within Du Bois’s understanding of the work done by slaves or not?” There are moments in the text leading up to the chapter on the general strike where the exploitation of women’s reproductive labor by white masters is discussed. Du Bois sees clearly that women were breeding machines in the context of slavery. He actually intimates that these women whose reproductive labor and children have been extracted are the ones that catalyze the insurgency that explodes in the Civil War. Thinking of women as striking workers who take their sexual and reproductive labor out of circulation when they refuse to participate in slavery or when they join Union lines is a way of thinking about women’s contributions to the work stoppage that was the general strike—Du Bois’s text opens this up, though, once again, Du Bois does not walk through the door that he opens with his feminist reader—we need to go it alone.
The politics of juxtaposition is therefore an against-the-grain reading of the text. It brings gender and sexuality into the center and recognizes the role that both play. Despite the black radical tradition’s celebration of and emphasis on masculinized theory, and masculinized categories of analysis—work, workers, class, consciousness—where gender and sexuality can easily become submerged, in my analysis of Du Bois's work gender and sexuality are realized as part of the main story.
Sinitiere: As you think about the context of the present historical moment overlapping with the sesquicentennial of Du Bois’s birth, how might his work—by which I mean his historical method, publications, and intellectual legacy—relate to contemporary efforts towards socialism and democracy?
Weinbaum: The analysis of the general strike provided a way in to my current work on contemporary capitalism and what some scholars call biocapitalism—the form of capitalism that is predicated on the extraction of in vivo labor and therefore on the extraction of human reproductive labor and the commodification of life itself (in all its forms—eggs, sperm, stem cells, organs, babies etc.). I’ve always worked on the question of reproduction and reproductive politics, so I am very interested in the forms of exploitation of the reproductive body that were becoming pervasive beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was especially watching the development of surrogacy as an industry, the organ trade, and the growth of genomics. My current work is to understand the relationship between biocapitalism and racial capitalism, including what the historian of slavery, Walter Johnson, calls slave racial capitalism. To understand slavery as an early form of biocapitalism is one way into the question about the reproductive nature of slave work. And it also one way in which we can understand the historical roots—material and epistemic—of the extraction of reproductive labor that characterizes biocapitalism today.
The main argument I try to advance in the book I’ve just completed is that if we are to understand forms of the extraction of life itself in contemporary capitalism, we must understand the long history of chattel slavery and the systematic exploitation of human reproduction within the system of chattel slavery.4 While surrogacy is not a hugely pervasive practice—although it is becoming an increasingly popular practice that is being outsourced internationally (the U. S. is the largest market, after that, until recently, India)—the question is: what is it that’s going on that allows us to imagine that somebody’s womb and her in vivo processes are things that can be turned into a resource for capitalism? That imagination—which is a racialized imagination, really what I'd call a racialized reproductive imaginary—is in my view one that comes right out of the history of chattel slavery. It comes out of the ways in which contemporary global capitalism is built out of slavery in some very foundational ways—a point that is made by Cedric Robinson and other scholars—and one that I seek to add to by gendering it and sexualizing it and making it reproductive. Because if we really understand reproductive extraction as the motor of slavery, then we must also understand that racial capitalism has at its center reproductive extraction. And, likewise, we must understand that the extraction of life itself in biocapitalism is in turn predicated on forms of reproductive extraction that are not altogether new. I’m interested in understanding the connections between slave racial capitalism and contemporary biocapitalism and the relationship of historical reciprocity between the two.
Of course, I’m also interested in understanding the forms of insurgency that people have imagined against a system of reproductive extraction over time. And that takes me back to Black Reconstruction, the question of how slave women participated in the general strike against slavery? And then the related question: how might people today who are being hyper-exploited and forced into forms of reproductive extraction—how might the imagination of reproductive insurgency—what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley would call “freedom dreams” be alive and well (or not) at this very moment?
Du Bois’s work creates the opening to think about the centrality of reproductive extraction to slavery and the centrality of the insurgency of reproductive laborers against exploitation in the context of the long history of racial capitalism and biocapitalism. Unfortunately, other scholars who work on biocapitalism—mainly social scientists, anthropologists and sociologists—do not ask these historical and epistemic questions about Atlantic slavery. In part I’m launching a critique of this work, offering a provocation: you are so interested in contemporary capitalism and women’s in vivo exploitation but why aren’t you thinking about the history of racial capitalism? Why aren’t you thinking about slave racial capitalism? Why haven’t the insights of the black radical tradition and especially of black feminist thinkers inflected your understanding of contemporary capitalism?
I think that black feminism has been the single most powerful intellectual formation to date in its ability to imagine this connection between slave racial capitalism and biocapitalism—there are no black feminists that talk about it in these precise terms—but in my book I attribute to black feminism developed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s what I call (after Walter Benjamin) a “philosophy of history” that enables these connections. Black feminists—historians, writers of fiction, activists, legal scholars and literary scholars—have made this association between the extraction of reproductive labor in slavery and contemporary forms of reproductive extraction. For this reason, black feminism is the intellectual formation that gives us access to this thinking, to the possibility of making the associations and connections that need to be made today.
Sinitiere: During 2018 and 2019 in the context of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth and the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States, how can reading Du Bois perform political insurgency for the times in which we are living?
Weinbaum: It’s just what we talked about. It is the insistence on going back to the history of slavery and reanimating our understanding of the gendered and racialized power dynamics that drove slave racial capitalism. It’s an awareness that this is the history that we need to understand if we are to fully grasp the forms of exploitation we’re faced with now. I don’t see how anyone can approach the question of the long history of racism and capitalism without thinking with and through Du Bois. We need him. Feminists need him. And queer studies scholars need him. This is the message I’ve been trying to get out there for so long. It is very easy to assimilate Du Bois into a black radical tradition that includes only great black men. But there’s a lot of rich thinking about race and gender that can be excavated from Du Bois’s texts when we read them against the grain. And his thinking about race and gender resonates in truly compelling ways with the work of black feminists. Recognizing this resonance allows us to understand the ways in which the central arguments of the masculine black radical tradition that regards Du Bois as a central player are themselves dependent upon sexual and reproductive gender logics that have not been adequately thought about or understood.
1 Alys Eve Weinbaum, “Gendering the General Strike: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Black Feminism’s ‘Propaganda of History’,” South Atlantic Quarterly 112:3 (Summer 2013): 437-464; and “The Gender of the General Strike: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History,” in Citizen of the World: The Late Career and Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois, ed., Phillip Luke Sinitiere (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019).
2 Susan Gilman and Alys Eve Weinbaum, eds. Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality, and W. E. B. Du Bois (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
3 W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 ), 87, emphasis added.
4 Alys Eve Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism's Philosophy of History (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2019).