Gerald Horne and Charisse Burden-Stelly
W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History
Interviewed by Annie Bares
This interview with Gerald Horne and Charisse Burden-Stelly was conducted in January 2021 on the occasion of the publication of W.E.B Du Bois: A Life in American History. As they describe in the interview that follows, in 2019, they collaborated on W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History, a biography of Du Bois that drew upon Dr. Horne’s 2009 iteration. W.E.B. Du Bois emphasizes the importance of Du Bois to the Black radical and Black internationalist traditions. An ideal text for both scholarship and teaching, it includes reproductions of primary sources, a timeline, bibliography, and historical information to situate him in the larger contexts of his long, extraordinary life.
Dr. Horne is the Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. Dr. Horne received his PhD in history from Columbia University, his JD from the University of California, Berkeley, and his BA from Princeton University. Dr. Horne has published nearly fifty books of history, including, most recently, The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering and the Political Economy of Boxing (2021) and The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (2020). He is also a prolific public intellectual. In 2017, he was the inaugural recipient of the St. Louis Worker’s Education Society Award.
Dr. Burden-Stelly is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She is the 2020-2021 Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago. Dr. Burden-Stelly completed her MA and PhD in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a BA in Political Science and African and African American Studies from Barrett Honor College at Arizona State University. Her scholarship has appeared in Small Axe, Souls, Du Bois Review, Socialism & Democracy, International Journal of Africana Studies, and the CLR James Journal, among other journals and publications. Like Dr. Horne, she has a large public platform, including one of the Boston Review’s most-read articles of 2020.
Annie Bares (AB): How did your collaboration on W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History come together? What was the process like? And I’d also invite you to reflect on this project as an example of mentorship and working with scholars across generations.
Charisse Burden-Stelly (CBS): The press, ABC-CIO was starting a new series called Black History Lives and reached out to Gerald to see if he would reissue the biography that he had written with Greenwood Press with new material. He asked if I would be interested in co-authoring the text. We’d already co-authored three other book chapters, one on Du Bois, one on Third World Internationalism and the color-line, and one on Pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism, so he was familiar with my work and my writing process and writing style.
Essentially, we took his narrative from the old text, and then I did all of the new material, including twenty sidebars, a concluding chapter on why Du Bois matters, an updated bibliography, and a timeline. I also went through the narrative itself and significantly revised it into a new biography that turned out to be kind of a genealogy of Du Bois’s radicalism and the different articulations of his radicalism at different points in his life.
I sent everything to Gerald and he added in his comments, approval, and that was the collaboration process.
Gerald Horne (GH): In terms of the collaboration process, I think that it’s very important for senior scholars to engage in such collaborations with junior scholars for several reasons. First, I think that the perspective of junior scholars can add new ideas and, in fact, new methodologies to a project. Then, I think it’s important to pass the torch because a person like myself, as the saying goes, has more yesterdays than tomorrows. And it’s important to begin to look ahead, which is an optimistic way of looking at where the planet is going in light of climate change and nuclear war.
AB: Throughout W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History, and elsewhere in both of your scholarship, you emphasize the role of internationalism in radical movements and as a response to fascism. How do you see internationalism operating historically and today?
GH: Internationalism in the Black American community, in particular, has been critical, not least because of the potency of white supremacy on these shores. Historically, international alliances have allowed us to construct a countervailing power against our domestic foes. You see that, for example, with regards to the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804, which ignites a general crisis of the entire slave system, not least in the Americas, which can only be resolved with its collapse. With the rise of socialism in the 20th century and the rise of national liberation movements in Africa and the Caribbean, Washington finds it difficult to compete for hearts and minds in the resource-rich Africa and Caribbean, in contestation with his socialist camp as long as people of color are treated so atrociously on these shores.
That creates a dynamic that leads to the retreat of the more egregious forms of white supremacy and Jim Crow. One of the tradeoffs that were made as Jim Crow was forced into a halting retreat approximately seventy-odd years ago was that the mainstream Black leadership would turn its back on internationalism and internationalists like W.E.B Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois.
And that has remained a factor to this very day. Indeed, I think that in the current conjuncture what’s happening is that the economic royalists, the 1%, are reconsidering their electoral alliances, which in 2008 almost led to the collapse of capitalism, and in 2020 not only almost led to the collapse of capitalism but the continuation of two unwinnable wars that had started under the last republican President—then a raging pandemic and then an attempted insurrection [on] January 6, 2021. And so, this electoral alliance that the economic royalists constructed as [a] sort of united front of the 1% with the foot soldiers in the Euro-American working class and middle-class supplying votes, the Republican Party that then goes to Washington and supplies giveaways and tax cuts to the 1% comes with a downside as January 6th tended to suggest. And so, the coalition now in power in Washington realized its power relies heavily on the Black American vote, but since the Black American leadership and organizations were forced to distance themselves from internationalism as a result of the bargain that led to a retreat from Jim Crow, this new alliance in Washington gives the economic royalists just as much latitude as they had under the Republicans.
This means that the Black community and our allies are fighting with one arm behind our back when we don’t engage internationally, particularly since the fascists are engaging internationally. Before January 6th about $500,000 worth of cryptocurrency transferred into the virtual wallet of ultra-righters from Western Europe right before the January 6th misadventure. And the New York Times has done numerous stories about the ties between ultra-right in the United States and their counterparts in Germany, for example. So, this is the state of play as we speak, and it’s unclear to me if that’s sustainable.
CBS: I want to address this question by highlighting the work of Dr. Horne because one of the most egregious follies of the US academy is the underutilization of the massive canon that Dr. Horne has produced since the mid-1980s. His books The Counter-Revolution of 1776, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, and The Dawning of the Apocalypse narrate the rise of the confluence of settler colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy and how those bore out in the 16th and 17th centuries.
When he was speaking about the rollback of Jim Crow on the one hand, and the crushing of both internationalism and the left more broadly, it manifests in his book Black Liberation/Red Scare. Black people utilizing the international situation, not least protesting before the United Nations is manifest in his book Black Revolutionary. He also has two books on Afro-Asian solidarity, Facing the Rising Sun and The End of Empires. So, if we want to understand the importance of the international situation to the Black experience and the ways that Black people have utilized international connections, we need to look no further than Gerald Horne’s canon.
AB: Dr. Burden-Stelly, your 2020 Monthly Review article, “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism: Some Theoretical Insights” traces varied genealogies of thought related to racial capitalism and makes several significant interventions, including your argument that anti-Blackness and anti-radicalism are co-constitutive of modern US racial capitalism. Could you talk more about how your thinking there developed and how you hope that other scholars will take up this understanding of it?
CBS: Again, I give so much credit to Gerald Horne for part of that revelation. After I finished my dissertation and had begun thinking about anti-radicalism and anti-Blackness, I remember him saying to me that the Civil War was the largest expropriation in US history, and so part of what that got me thinking about ways that white folks have been trying to get their shit back—that recoup their wealth—ever since then. The other revelation came from The Counter-Revolution of 1776, specifically from his point that the Alien and Sedition Acts were not only hostile towards refugees from the French Revolution but also targeted those who came to the US from the Haitian Revolution and the threat of radicalizing enslaved Africans that it presented.
We see how the Alien and Sedition acts were trying to control enslaved Africans here in the US, so what that said to me is that there’s anti-radicalism on the one hand, this hostility to revolutions elsewhere in the world that at least in the French case that represents “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” and then the Haitian Revolution case, were saying “we’re men, we’re human, we’re free,” with the first successful slave revolt in the world.
And so that hostility to radicalism was inseparable from hostility toward the idea of free Blackness and certainly, the idea of rebellious Blackness. And the Alien and Sedition Acts come right at the nation’s founding, so this anti-radicalism and anti-Blackness is there from the outset.
So, part of what I think about is how anti-communism is simply the most current enunciation of that history. For example, in the 1880s, there’s hostility towards German Socialists in places like Ohio. Part of that hostility is not only that they were socialists, and not only that they were German and “foreign,” but also that they were part of interracial organizations. So, there’s deep hostility toward organizations like the CPUSA that, at least in their rhetoric, support human equality in general and Black equality specifically. The CPUSA also did a lot to challenge Jim Crow unions and Jim Crow policies in the South as they went to organize sharecroppers and other Black workers. While there’s been a turn towards the idea of Blackness as an ontology, if we look at racial capitalism and we look at how the US has been hostile in parallel ways to socialism and Blackness, we have to look at the material conditions that reproduce these modes of hostility and exploitation in tandem.
In my dissertation, I wasn’t thinking about racial capitalism as a conceptual framework, but as I go back to it now, I realize that’s what I was thinking about. But part of the reason I did not use that terminology was that Cedric Robinson’s theorizing of racial capitalism didn’t fit. So, part of my intervention in racial capitalism is thinking about early theorists of racial capitalism, who didn’t use that term but were doing that work. For example, when Black Communists were talking about super-exploitation, I understand this to be earlier articulations of racial capitalism without utilizing that terminology. I also challenge intellectual McCarthyism that tends to not pay attention to Black Communist thinkers, so I want to center that intellectual archive and genealogy.
AB: Dr. Horne, you’ve written a lot about radicalism and anti-radicalism in both biographical form and through the lens of world history. How did you come to radicalism and antiradicalism as a subject that persists throughout your work?
GH: I’m a descendant of enslaved Africans in North America, my parents were from the heart of darkness, that is Mississippi. I grew up on tales of Jim Crow Mississippi. I grew up in St. Louis Missouri as a child laborer in a Jim Crow town. My father was a member of what used to bill itself as the largest union in the capitalist world, the Teamsters, which, in turn, was riddled with organized crime interests, which led to the plundering of the Treasury, including my father’s pension.
So, if that were not enough to shape a class warrior, I was growing up at a time when Africa was surging to liberation and, of course, the emblems of that movement were all individuals who, to a greater or lesser degree, were part of the radical left. It seemed to me that, in terms of translating that environment into work, one of the things I’ve found puzzling and baffling was the traditional Left interpretation of US history, which I thought stressed unduly the alleged positive aspects of the revolt against British rule in 1776, which had as a result, the United States ousting Britain as the leader of the African slave trade and then moving West expropriating the land of the Native Americans and then moving across the Pacific expropriating lands of the Indigenous Hawaiians. It was difficult for me to understand why this was being put forward as some sort of step forward for humanity.
At the same time, many of our friends on the Left were instructing us simultaneously that the socialists camp, which was arming Africans to fight against North Atlantic imperialism, that supposedly their project was dastardly and despicable. So, in other words, for those who enslaved us, we should rationalize on their behalf, and for those who would assist in their liberation, we ought to condemn and castigate them. That made no sense to me, and I think that that’s what impelled me on the scholarly path.
I should say also, you know I’d done law for a while and it quickly became clear to me that law is just an elaborate process to throw dust in the eyes of the public. I’ve learned that at an early stage and certainly I’ve learned it as the courts began to turn to the right, just as the promise of the Earl Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s was fading into the sunset.
AB: Dr. Burden-Stelly, do you want to elaborate on how you came to study radicalism and anti-radicalism?
CBS: I’m a Black Studies scholar. I’m classically trained; my BA, MA, and PhD are all in Black Studies—Africana Studies—and as I was completing my PhD. I was sort of obsessed with the question of why there were no political economists in Black Studies. That question led me to think about Marxism and the dearth of Marxism, which led me to think about anti-communism, which led me to think about the consequences in the academy, as the intellectual arm of the state, and how Black Studies as it became institutionalized and had its materialist and pan-Africanist roots disciplined out and turned to diaspora studies as part of what I call a culturalist project.
Before coming to graduate school, I took a class called “The Making of Modern Africa,” with Lisa Aubrey, which was a course on economic development, and so we talked a lot about exploitation. That was my first exposure to world-systems analysis. When I got to graduate school, I thought I was going to write a dissertation about developmentalism and export processing zones and discourses of development and modernization and the ways that that was ensconced in a broader project of anti-Blackness and the domination of racialized countries. My project ultimately went in a different direction, but I still think [about] the whole discourse of development and its racial capitalist logic.
So, I came to it through books and study. I’m an academic, I don’t have an organizing or activism background. So much of what I learned is through reading and intellectual community. My interest in radicalism and anti-radicalism is what I call the confluence of ethics, epistemology, and politics as upholding this deeply anti-radical and anti-Black society and the world in which we live.
AB: In the spirit of Du Bois and the last chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History, which defines Du Bois’s praxis by anti-imperialism, peace advocacy, and mutual comradeship, what advice do you have for grad students and other early-career scholars about doing this work with integrity, considering both the possibilities and limits of the academy?
CBS: What I always say about the academy is that I’m in it, but I don’t share a lot of the values that constitute academic work. Part of what I see as my historical task for my work in the academy is the redistributive function, so redistributing knowledge, but also redistributing resources to the best of my ability. Walter Rodney talked about how guerilla scholars and real intellectuals have to wage struggle where they are.
I currently work at Carleton College, which is a predominantly white elite liberal arts college. Even though a plurality of my students are Black, racialized, or otherwise minoritized students, there is still a large contingent of affluent white students. So, what I tell them is, “okay, so when you go to work at Goldman Sachs, you’ll now know you have the option of whether or not to destabilize the economy. You cannot say you didn’t know better.” So, I try to provide them with an alternative framework.
I’ve been told that my politics are for the already converted, but I want people to know that there is an alternative. Yanis Varoufakis, who was the Finance Minister in Greece, reminds us that instead of Regan’s motto “TINA: there is no alternative,” he says, “TATIANA: that, always, there is an alternative.” Part of my work is to make socialism, real socialism, not Keynesianism, not embedded liberalism, not social democracy, but socialism rooted in Black political and intellectual thought, mainstream. I think that those tended to be some of the most advanced people who are interrogating the Negro question and the political economy of the Negro question.
Part of how I stay on that track is by trying to build intellectual collectives around me. Recently, I tried to do more outward-facing work to disseminate my work beyond the academy and be in conversation with non-academics, activists, organizers. I’ve joined the Black Alliance for Peace.
I think that the Academy is an industry like any other one. We can work within it, but we do not have to share the ethics or the values or the approach. That goes for teaching and how we choose to interact with students, how we choose to advocate for contingent faculty, and whether or not we choose or choose not to reproduce hierarchy.