How It Feels to Be a Problem: Du Bois, Fanon, and the "Impossible Life" of the Black Intellectual

Posnock, Ross

This essay is organized into two parts. The first constructs historical and thematic contexts, including a reading of W. E. B. Du Bois's famous collision with Booker T. Washington as an instance of a larger historical pattern in the late nineteenth century in both the West and in West Africa, a pattern that reveals the social role of the intellectual as founded on a refusal of the ideology of the authentic. This refusal has rarely, if ever, been articulated more strenuously than in the life and work of Frantz Fanon. "Against origins and starting from them," Fanon and Du Bois fashion a performative cosmopolitanism that anticipates the contemporary moment of postidentity. The extremity of Fanon's turn from Negritude to universalism sets in relief Du Bois's own efforts to negotiate the racial particular and the unraced universal. In moving beyond authenticity, they both displace the originary Cartesian subject by deriving identity from action. In Fanon, this shift is analogous to his plea that anticolonial nationalism move rapidly from national consciousness (pre-occupied with who people are) to political and social consciousness (focused on people acting in relation to others). The contexts developed in part one situate the subject of part two--how a figure who had been deemed a freak of nature requiring containment (at least since the attestation affixed to Phillis Wheatley's book of poems in 1773) managed to emerge as a social category. The emergence of black literary intellectuals depended on their devising an aesthetic of deferral, vagueness, and open margin, modes of literary representation that simultaneously became political strategies of denaturalization in a society where racist stereotypes reigned serenely as "nature."

Geographic Areas


Also Published In

Critical Inquiry

More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
The University of Chicago Press
Published Here
June 23, 2015