David Levering Lewis inaugurated the W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series – Great Barrington, on April 28, 2016. The event was held at Monument Mountain Regional High School. Fittingly, Great Barrington’s public school system had once educated W.E.B. Du Bois. In the spirit of the town’s famous native son, the Education Series aims to heighten awareness of societal maladies such as gender and economic inequality, modern slavery, and racism. Dr. Lewis was awarded Pulitzer Prizes for his monumental two-volume biography, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (Henry Holt, 1993) and W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (Henry Holt, 2000). A frequent visitor to the Berkshires, Dr. Lewis serves on the Advisory Board of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center – Great Barrington.
“W.E.B. Du Bois’s Long Road Back to Great Barrington” – David Levering Lewis
A decade after my Du Bois biography said its peace, I happened upon an insightful, lively, small book about the question that has time and again fiercely—if civilly—divided Great Barringtonians of how best or how best NOT TO to honor the memory of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, your most famous or infamous native son. Many of you will know that book well—Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois, by Amy Bass. As aware as I believed I had been of the deep racial, political, parochial tremors periodically causing deep fault lines under the people of this pleasant, still somewhat insular town in the lee of the Berkshires, Professor Bass’s investigation of the long, insensate animus involving any enlightened appreciation of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was still a considerable revelation.
By the time Amy Bass’s book appeared in 2009, Du Bois had lain venerated in the soil of Ghana almost fifty years, his international reputation as a major progressive intellectual globally admired or conceded—depending on the color of one’s politics—his nine decades of principled agitation regarded as book ends to the 20th century American civil liberties narrative, and his great tag line about the centrality of the color-line incorporated into the conventional understanding of our democracy’s imperfections. The world outside Great Barrington had already pretty much moved on after Ronald Reagan tore down Mr. Gorbachev’s Berlin Wall, after the Soviet Union imploded taking the Cold War with it, and after winds of sexual, racial, cultural changes swept over the land. But not yet in the town of Du Bois’s birth, as Professor Bass describes Great Barrington’s long, fraught relationship with her subject
“People in the Berkshires,” she writes, “have been unable to decide upon Du Bois’s place in local history, choosing to focus largely on his Communist Party membership and eventual Ghanaian residency rather than his local, national, and Pan-African achievements and legacies, and,” she continues, “choosing to vilify one of the region’s most notable native sons, as well as those who tried to pay tribute to him.”[xiv]There is in this book a cast of varied, valiant Du Boisians: Walter Wilson, the biographically complex Berkshire real estate mogul, writer manquee, and card-carrying socialist who, together with that exceptional scholar Edward Gordon and with the dedication of Ruth Jones and Elaine Gunn, brought forth, against fierce opposition, the delayed Du Bois memorial ceremony on Egremont Plain on a bright October Saturday in 1969. “We simply gathered in the field and did our thing and left,” Ed Gordon recalled.
Ed Gordon’s summing up of that event was a model of self-effacement, however. While much of Great Barrington deplored the sympathetic attention accorded the memorial ceremony by the Miller family’s Berkshire Eagle, there were several prominent Berkshire residents—such as Norman Rockwell in nearby Stockbridge and historian-journalist William Shirer in Lenox—whose sentiments served well to legitimize Du Bois as an estimable local son. Farther afield were US Senator Edward Brooke and Governor John Volpe whose signatures on Wilson and Gordon’s commemoration petition materially advanced the cause. Well over 800 people came to hear Ossie Davis and the 20-year-old Georgia legislator Julian Bond dedicate a park to the memory of W.E.B. Du Bois on what had once been the family property upon which he once dreamed of building a retirement designed by a local architect. Two days later, the town selectmen banned further use of the park as a zoning violation and retroactively brought charges against the organizers, later dropped.
I came to Great Barrington to speak about the life and times of my biographical subject almost forty years later. By then, the Du Bois homesite had been a National Historic Landmark since 1979, and a very determined visitor to it could find the National Park Service’s metal marker lying somewhere in the weeds, invariably uprooted by some mean-spirited local. Nowadays, thanks to the ongoing oversight of the University of Massachusetts, the homesite aspires to honor Du Bois’s dream. As we Ruth and I arrived forty years ago, were impressed, at first, by the spirit of earnest conciliation that seemed to pervade Great Barrington. Indeed, a newly placed sign announcing that Great Barrington was the birthplace of Du Bois, greeted us at the approach to Main Street. The sign was there, but as I learned soon thereafter, it was neither permanent nor much longer to remain in place. Then, too, notwithstanding the optics of community solidarity, I soon realized that the actual situation in the town was more like an armistice declared after a war.
The time was an early February day in 2006, the month of presidents and of Willie Du Bois’s birth on the 23rd, a Sunday. The occasion was the formal opening of the town’s W.E.B. Du Bois Center—the dream of its irrepressible founding director, Randy Weinstein. I had been invited by Randy to join historians David Blight and John Y. Simon on a panel contextualizing the significance of the Center at St. James Episcopal Church. But it was already obvious to us that an unresolved issue of the immediate past simmered below the surface, that the perennial problem of what to do about their most famous son had resulted in genteel evasions of several proposals to name one or the other of the new public schools (either the elementary or the consolidated high school) after Dr. Du Bois. Thanks to Amy Bass, I recall with satisfaction what I felt compelled to say about the simmering controversy, that I deemed it “‘passing strange’ that Barringtonians chose to name one of their schools after a geological formation rather than Du Bois who was ‘a mountain of a man’ in his own right.’”
I ventured that opinion ten years ago, and it seems to me today that the rejection by the selectmen and the majority of the citizenry of the school-naming efforts of the Berkshire Eagle’s Derek Gentile, Rachel Fletcher, Randy Weinstein, Bernard Drew, and others must now be broadly acknowledged as the missed symbolic opportunity [travesty] it was. As Rachel Fletcher’s eleventh-hour appeal to the school committee observed, Du Bois, “more than any other alumnus of this school district exhibits the promise of public education.” “Willie” Du Bois’s coming of age in this town is to capture an existential symbiosis that much of the literate world has come to know and appreciate.
The Du Bois family reality was far from the sunny portrayal of its most successful member. The Burghardt’s of Great Barrington were in a downward spiral, with his partially paralyzed mother deserted by her enigmatic octoroon husband, and their means of sustenance almost hand-to-mouth. But if the rising tide of mainstream prosperity threatened some with drowning, in the crucial area of public education it promised a lift for all those with enough motivation. Before Du Bois’s first birthday, Barringtonians voted two thousand dollars to create a public high school. A plain, rectangular building went up next to the old wooden elementary schoolhouse in 1869, the town’s second brick structure after the Episcopal Church. It would be W.E.B. Du Bois’s salvation.
Young Willie Du Bois told himself that race, in the large sense of generalized and congealed attitudes about his people, had played no part in his elementary school experience. Had he not been cheered on by the leading citizens as he advanced year after year—the sole black boy in the school—more quickly than most of his white classmates? In the early, innocent, Horatio Alger years, Du Bois believed that the differences between people were the result of industry or ability—and sometimes physical courage. “Trounced” once by a burly white lad during recess, “honor” had been preserved by fighting and suffering manfully before on-looking classmates. Secure in his playground sociology, in which class and race had more to do with character than with economics, the future Marxist theorist acquired a rugged New England individualist’s understanding of social mobility until he reached the threshold of adolescence.
But race was to find a place. With that flare for drama in language in which he has few equals, Du Bois pinpoints for the first time in The Souls of Black Folk, the exact moment in his ten-year-old life, a spring day in 1878, when the theorems of playground sociology were, supposedly, forever shattered: Here we have one of the best instances of the race, place, milieu dynamic at work in the American canon of memoir:
I remember well when the shadow swept across me . . . .
In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’
heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards . . . and
exchange them. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer,
refused my card, refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then
dawned upon me with a certain suddeness that I was different from
the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life, and longing, but
shut out from their world by a vast veil.
A permanent, anchoring sense of Du Bois’s racial identity could have come from a single such traumatic rebuff in the “wee wooden schoolhouse.” The incident must have occurred, and his account of it is certainly psychologically plausible. Often, the truth is not in the facts but in the conceptual or moral validity behind them. In the case of the sweeping shadow and separating veil, there are several versions and equivalents. Another account seems to place the conversion experience of the cards in the new brick high school. Whenever the veil descended upon him, Du Bois left Great Barrington High School in 1884 with highest honors, Principal Frank Hosmer’s blessings, a scholarship purse from wealthy citizens, and a dawning consciousness of race.
If Du Bois seemed more than a match for William Cullen Bryant who served as town clerk in the early part of the 19th century, I remember well what Lila Parrish, one of this town’s most prominent dwellers and chapter president of the local DAR, told me in the early days of my research for volume one: that one local son had achieved minor prominence in the late 18th century after being hanged by the British as a counterfeiter, and that Du Bois scandalized the community in the late 20th by espousing Marxism. So much for notable locals, she offered wryly. She might have added that his expatriation and acceptance of Ghanaian citizenship were unforgivable to hardcore Birchers, VFW spokesmen, and angry letter-writers in the local newspapers who opined that honoring him was tantamount to venerating Mussolini, Stalin, or Quisling.
As the decades passed as Willie became Dr. Du Bois path-breaking sociologist, co-founder of the nation’s oldest Civil Rights organization, investigative journalist sans pareille, progressive critic of the uneven playing field upon which the opportunities of millions of poor black and white lives were squandered, and in his final decade, the grand scold of American democracy’s domestic and international shortcomings, which he finally came to regard as inherent in its capitalist DNA. And, may I say so from a sampled reading of 50 years of reproachful letters from Great Barringtonians—perhaps his most unforgivable offense was to be perceived to feel scant gratitude for all that a poor black boy owed to this pleasant community—even though to his way of thinking, to bury his beloved son, wife, and daughter in Mahaiwe Cemetery said a great deal about his esteem for the place.
Fair to say, what most of his fellow Americans remember is the early Du Bois of The Souls of Black Folk and the late Du Bois who enrolled in the CPUSA as he left the United States for permanent residency in Ghana. Yet between 1903 and 1962 are five decades of intellectual professional, literary, organizational, political and ideological engagement that have almost no peer. Uniquely, perhaps, one finds a different Du Bois at the forefront of each decade, a ‘Willie’ complementing virtually every Barringtonian preference and prejudice. Du Bois was no Benedict Arnold, Quisling, or Stalin. He was truly Great Barrington’s Leonardo Da Vinci of the humanities. Sixty-odd years ago, in the preface to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk, an octogenarian Du Bois rendered his definitive assessment of the inherent limitations not only of American democracy but of the world order assembled in the American 20thCentury. “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century,” he wrote: “But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellow men; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.”
What he had come to understand much more clearly was that the fundamental problem of the age was not so much color but unregulated capital: the exploitation of the great majority of humankind by the kleptocratic minority.
Yet and still, Du Bois retained the saliency of race as indispensable to an understanding of the way America would long be constituted. Writing my biography of Martin Luther King forty-five years ago, I found scant reason to hope that Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community would triumph over the Du Boisian axiom of the color-line, even though one could reasonably foresee that the complexities of the American 21st century would beggar those of the 20th. Du Bois’s famous color-line problem was actually a problem without color, for it was starkly black and white. Our 21st century, however, is manifestly not piebald, but brown and yellow as well as white and black—and, if the demographic projections hold, minority white in the next twenty years. To concede that a historic racial dyad has been displaced by a polychrome present, does not mean, Du Bois might well argue, were he among us to assess the meaning of Tea Party ferment and GOP legislative obstructionism, that race has been transcended as a potent and perdurable force in our national life. Rather, he could remind us that he predicted that race would remain the predicate of exceptionalist ideology long after the formal dismantling of segregation.
As the Obama presidency ends, and with many achievements to its credit, the vision of a national postracial reorientation seems fatally undermined by worsening racial conflicts—by Supreme Court majorities restricting African-American and Latino voting rights, by a reborn nativism exemplified by Donald Trump that in many instances appears more virulent than its mid-19th-century version and by questions about the criminal justice system raised by cases like the ones in Ferguson and Staten Island, which were perceived as outrageous enough to prompt nationwide demonstrations. It is certainly possible that when this decade ends it will have confirmed the relevance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s grim prophecy about America’s everlasting racism.
But for Du Bois, racism and classism were two faces on the same coin of economics. In one of his most prescient essays, “Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the United States,” written ten years before his death, he left a diagnostic of the contemporary, omnivorous turbo-capitalism that now assails the planet, admonishing that “the organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history. . . .
From the use of psychology to spread truth has come the use of
organized gathering of news to guide public opinion then deliberately to
mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda. . . . Mass capitalistic
control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio,
cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible
and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.
Nor, I think, would Du Bois regard the potential of the internet and the phenomena of social media to be the panacea of democratic enablement some continue to prophesy.
One would wish not to be wrong in believing that today’s Barringtonians are able to see that Du Bois’s unmasking of the primal motives for injustice and war trump their erstwhile jingoistic fixations and dogmatic embrace of our creed of exceptionalism—because so many of them have felt the “Bern” and inscribed themselves under the banner of an admitted socialist candidate for the Presidency whose radical mandate for the economic restructuring of America astonishingly approximates the ideas and commitments of W.E.B. Du Bois’s last two decades. May I say, for what it’s worth, that Senator Sanders’ omission of any reference I know of to Du Bois is puzzling and I believe cost him dearly. His campaign might not have stumbled into the South blindsided by the force of Black Lives Matter had the Senator refreshed his Du Bois racial politics—Du Bois’s understanding of the primacy of economics soldered to the of fundamentals of identity politics. Before the Atlantic Monthly’s T’a Nahishi Coates there was the National Guardian’s Du Bois.
No one in this audience remains unaffected by the astonishing history she is now experiencing. The center no longer holds. The politics of radical protest threaten either to plunge the nation into atavistic demagoguery or to challenge the electorate to embrace tax policies that fund substantial reform of our public education, national healthcare, immigration policy, environmental policy and, above all, of our obscene maldistribution of wealth in which the top 1 percent own 90 percent of the wealth. Because this is a time of unprecedented crisis, I dare to believe that the time has finally arrived for Du Bois be welcomed in his home town, warts and all, as its most prized historic exemplar. True enough, with Russia now ravaged by a phase of toxic capitalism that would repel Jay Gould and communism seemingly headed for history’s curiosity shop of failed religions, Du Bois’s pronouncements may ring so oddly now as to cause doubt as to his standing as one of the twentieth-century’s intellectual heavyweights.
Few would commend the ideological and geographical resting places of his final years. What has befallen his beloved continent of Africa would dismay Du Bois, although it would probably not disillusion him. It should be understood that it is by far the significance of Du Bois’s protest and of his gradual alienation, rather than the solutions he proposed, that are instructive. For he was an intellectual in the purest sense of the word—a thinker whose obligation was to be dissatisfied continually with his own thoughts and those of others. No doubt he was precipitous in totally writing off the market economy. Even so, it may be suggested that Du Bois was right to insist that to leave the solution of systemic social problems exclusively to the market is an agenda guaranteeing obscene economic inequality in the short run and irresolvable political calamity in the long run.
In the course of his long, turbulent career, then, Great Barrington’s prodigy attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of 20th century racial injustice and economic exploitation. An extraordinary mind of color in a racialized century, Du Bois’s principled impatience with what he saw as the egregious failings of American democracy drove him, decade by decade, to the paradox of defending totalitarianism in the service of a global ideal of economic and social justice. Surely, it is time both to forgive his flaws and to prize his genius. My discovery this afternoon that three handsome road signs announce that Great Barrington is Du Bois’s birth place assure me that that time has all but arrived.