Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s lecture on “WEB Du Bois and his Vision of Democracy” hosted by the student group JNU Academic on May 21 at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, has erupted in an internet-driven controversy about her alleged “arrogance” directed at a “subaltern” student who identified himself as Anshul Kumar, “founding professor and chairperson of the Centre for Brahmin Studies” (according to his profile on x, formerly twitter). I was present at the event, sitting one person away from where the student stood as he questioned her after the lecture.

I would like to offer a brief account of Spivak’s lecture, much of which I believe has been lost in the identity-driven mêlée that has followed. The lecture is significant for the valuable lessons on the practices of democracy that it carries for all of us in these fraught times, and the event for its most immaculate irony.

The irony lies in what has followed on social and news media, carried out precipitously by many not present there, well before they have had the opportunity to even watch the entire proceedings on video (and not via clips). This is entirely contrary to what Spivak in her lecture was exhorting the mainly student crowd to do: to think before making hasty judgements, and to be aware of one’s complicity in contradictory and complex practices of democratic thinking and doing.

Anshul Kumar's tweet that sparked a debate online.

As with Spivak’s writing and speaking, there were multiple strands in her talk – interspersed with both light-hearted banter (often aimed at herself) and stern admonitions – and I write from memory, without recourse to a video recording which I am sure will become available soon, so I beg that indulgence. This is a subjective takeaway from the lecture, as someone belonging to the much-maligned Humanities that Spivak was positioning herself in, and from.

Spivak, it appeared to me, began by espousing a certain approach to reading lives and texts that is embedded in the Humanities: flagging two terms, complicity and unverifiability, and working through a method of resonance. The social media controversy has turned on the pronunciation of the name Du Bois (du-boys and not du-bowa) which Spivak insisted on many times throughout her lecture, and not only at the Q&A at the end of the event.

The context

The context is this, which she spent a good ten minutes on in her introductory remarks: WEB Du Bois’s full name was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, and she paused at the history of “Burghardt” to explicate that lineage, and its implications, in his future as a Black anti-slavery activist. Du Bois’s mother Mary Silvina Burghardt belonged to a free Black population of a region in Massachusetts. Her family were landowners in the state and descended from Dutch, English and African ancestors. Du Bois attended a local integrated public school with many White schoolmates.

From various sources, one learns also that Du Bois’s maternal great-great-grandfather was a slave, and his paternal great-grandfather James Du Bois was an ethnic French-American who fathered several children with slave women. One of James’s mixed-race sons was born in the Bahamas, immigrated to the United States and then worked in Haiti.

So, it was evident from the first ten minutes of Spivak’s lecture that she was drawing attention to WEB Du Bois’s complicated lineage, by which he was already complicit by birth and schooling in having what may be called a second-hand knowledge of slavery. It was only much later when he went to Tennessee that Du Bois experienced direct racial discrimination and suffered for it.

After offering some of his background to highlight the complex nature of his later activism against slavery, Spivak asked the audience whether they had knowledge of Du Bois’s work and writings, and when she gleaned that not too many did, she stated that she would pitch her talk at students who did not know about him, rather than any of the audience there who did. She proceeded to talk about Du Bois’s place in the anti-slavery movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century America and in the larger Afro-American context as well, marking that his lineage and his positions could not have been pristine (just like many of ours are not).

Following this track, and her method of resonance, she immediately juxtaposed Du Bois’s growing up with her own in a Christian missionary school, Diocesan, in Calcutta, where she grew up with certain privileges. Yet she also failed to make the entrance test to some prestigious universities abroad and did not win a scholarship to go to America to study, having, therefore, to borrow money for her fees and her passage to Cornell University in the early 1960s.

Image courtesy: Brinda Bose.

To return to the two matrices of her lecture which performed a certain Humanities practice, she spoke of complicity and unverifiability, by a method of resonance. Spivak, via Du Bois, was demonstrating, it seemed to me, how the Humanities teaches us to do activism and think about political unrest, differently perhaps from more positivistic disciplines. She repeatedly identified herself as a teacher of the Humanities, a discipline that studies life and fiction on parallel tracks and therefore is hinged on the unverifiable. She was not valourising the Humanities against any other discipline but pointing out its “standpoint”, to use a term in the currency for identity and positionality. Her lecture pertained to the complicated insertion of the subject of democracy within the objective processes of democracy.

A lecture against arrogance

Interestingly, and ironically enough, in talking about the acknowledgement of complicity, Spivak’s lecture was against arrogance – the arrogance of taking an “I am Right, You are Wrong” position when the matter is contradictory and complicated – by citing Du Bois as an exemplary case. Through a few insightful readings into his life’s trajectory, she tried to show how a person becomes political by actually living a complicated and contradictory life.

On the one hand, Du Bois was often apologetic about not having first-hand experiences of enslavement like some of his compatriots. On the other, throughout his life, he became more forthright in the positions he took, which was evidenced by a most innovative bibliography at the end of one of his books, which listed citations under devised sub-headings that indicated wryly the thrust of their politics.

Spivak named her teachers and mentors Bimal Krishna Matilal and Jacques Derrida as two thinkers who recognised the value of tentative confidence and expansive intellectual generosity. She warned explicitly against indulging in turf battles. Returning to the resonance method, she made some references to her own work in Birbhum and Bardhaman (West Bengal), in Nigeria, and her recent talk in Ukraine: always insisting on little activisms, on not offering philanthropy from above as a professor from America, but trying in small ways to become a part of the people and places she inhabits from time to time – which we know she does quietly and with unfailing regularity in dementedly scorching summers, despite the constraints of advancing age.

In her second methodological approach, unverifiability, she appears to define a core Humanities that brings together life, literature and the arts. The subject of democracy is at once confused, astute, vulnerable, greedy, anxious, jubilant – such complex subjectivities are unverifiable; they can only be sensed. Humanities tell us to imaginatively and intuitively occupy the other’s place, and acquire, slowly, a sense of politics by treading this path. One takes forthright decisions, but not hasty decisions.

Spivak referred to her recent book The Idea of India: A Dialogue (2023), where she is in conversation with Romila Thapar: a conversation that embodied both mutual respect and disciplinary differences. Spivak occupies a Humanities position of unverifiability – and yet the conversation had moved forward with trust and a recognition of some differences.

Later, a question from a History scholar elicited a response from Spivak in which she asked the scholar to stick to her disciplinary training of verifiability with confidence. In reply to another difficult question from a student who asked whether her observation that Du Bois was humanised by certain violent events he had experienced and witnessed meant that his going to war had humanised him – and if so, was she supporting war – she stated unequivocally that she was a pacifist and did not support war in any circumstances.

Spivak speaks to a full house in JNU on May 21. Image by Brinda Bose.

The politics of pronunciation

At points in her lecture, Spivak also talked about humility, specifically the humility of learning, and about talking to students who had come to listen to her about Du Bois whom, they indicated, they did not know well (fair enough, Spivak accepted, and proceeded to outline her own learnings from his life and work at ground level), and to complicate it with current understandings of democracy. She talked about what was happening on her own campus, Columbia University, at the present moment, in no uncertain terms condemning police and administrative action on protesting students across America and other parts of the world.

She spoke too about what was to become the subject of the troll-storm, the pronunciation of Du Bois: Spivak repeatedly explained throughout the lecture the kind of politics that was implicit in pronouncing his name in the French way, when he was in fact of hyphenated Haitian origin. It was a lesson well taken for me, and perhaps for some others too.

Anshul Kumar, the student, repeatedly pronounced the name Du Bois differently from the way Spivak had explained it should be pronounced, emphasising that it was important for us to pronounce it correctly, which was not for the elite but for anti-elite practice. Twice Anshul Kumar said, “If we are done with trivialities now…”, which appeared to rile up Spivak, who then said, “I am an 82-year-old-woman and you cannot insult me when I have been invited to your university to speak.” Or words to that effect.

The questioner went on to name one Bihari Lal Bhaduri as Spivak’s “great grandfather” and, from what I understood, questioned her right to talk about Black slavery or herself as “middle class” when she came from such a lineage of privilege. (In an interview to The Hindu published on 25 May, Spivak stated, "I am not Bihari Lal Bhaduri’s great granddaughter." Elsewhere, however, she has referred to Bhaduri as the father of Barahini Devi, whom she described as "“my mother's grandmother”.) It was in reply to this that she said “No…", and insisted again that the student give Du Bois his due by pronouncing his name in the non-elite way he himself had urged. When the student persisted in repeating the French pronunciation, she said she would move on to others’ questions.

My reason for detailing the events at Spivak’s lecture is this. There are two dangers I can identify in what happened in the internet blitz that has erupted since the lecture. First, the propensity to jump to quick judgements without actually witnessing or knowing what happened, simply to be first off the mark on the “correct” side of a story in a pitched battle of identities. In fact, when Spivak spoke of Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), I recalled her mentioning the same text with reference to Du Bois’s politics and hyphenated identity in her book Harlem (2012) – “Du Bois’s call for a state where ‘the crankiest, humblest, and poorest… people are the… key to the consent of the governed’, seeking to redress Marx’s regret at the end of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that the lumpenproletariat could not “represent themselves”, is now being claimed by the moral entrepreneurs of the international civil society who would represent the world’s minorities without a democratic mandate.” (38-39, 2012) The method she enacts in Harlem is that of teleopoiesis, reaching out to “the other” by empathy and imagination. Presciently, she had adumbrated in 2012 what actually transpired on May 21, 2024, in JNU.

The second danger that I can see is that such social media trolling exacerbates the polarisation that Spivak was warning against, of thinking in binaries – us and them, right and wrong, good and evil. This is guilt-ridden bad conscience on the part of trolls (however benign and/or righteous their tales of corroboration, and emoticons of support are) that goes against the very spirit of democracy – and those who have indulged in it should take responsibility for fanning anti-democratic values at a critical political juncture in the country. It is not a battle of the right versus the left, finally: it is a battle between being cynically judgemental and being politically and critically democratic.

We come then to a difficult question for ourselves here: What is the purpose of the social media outrage that followed a series of complicated thoughts from Spivak about the subjective intervention in democratic praxis, with Du Bois as a touchstone? I am struck, most of all, by the irony of it, that what happened following the exchanges and interventions in that overheated, overflowing auditorium was exactly the opposite of what she was urging all of us in the audience to think about – our own complicity in various pulls of polity and society, the unverifiability of many events, and how not to be arrogant about “I am Right, You are Wrong” as we envision our democracies; and perhaps to consider using certain methods of the Humanities to think about resonances with one’s own and others’ lives.

Spivak was arguing against polarisation, and offering imaginative ways of crafting democratic ideas and ideals through a fitful, engrossed reading of Du Bois in tandem with ourselves in the world today. And now social and news media has led this polarisation, and this failure of the imagination, joyfully and precariously down the garden path to what can be a very fascist politics of its own.

Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article stated, based on Spivak's interview to The Hindu, that Bihari Lal Bhaduri was not related to her. This version has been edited to provide additional information.