Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching W. E. B. Du Bois with Amy Bass

If you follow me on twitter (@edwardjblum) or on Facebook, you know that I am a huge fan of the work of Dr. Amy Bass. A historian of race, sports, culture, and twentieth-century America and the Director of the Honors Program at the College of New Rochelle, she has written two fantastic books. We’re going to feature both at the blog, today her work on how Great Barrington, Massachusetts, struggled to honor its most famous son – W. E. B. Du Bois. My questions are based on reading Dr. Bass’s book, Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W. E. B. Du Bois.
1) When we teach US history, we almost always mention Du Bois in the early 20th century. Perhaps it is his opposition to Booker T. Washington; perhaps it is him as a progressive with The Souls of Black Folk. How can he easily be incorporated into the middle part of the 20th century when the the Cold War and civil rights movements get the lion's share of attention?
AB: There is part of me that is always really excited when someone asks me a question at a reading or a lecture about Booker T., even though it really has nothing to do with what I focus on in my work on Du Bois, because it speaks to the fact that the Booker T. versus Du Bois opposition is part of the standard historical canon.  Du Bois doesn't really appear a whole lot in, for example, history text books:  the NAACP and Booker T. are where he is located.  So when someone asks that question -- and someone always does -- it reminds me to never take for granted that people understand the enormity of Du Bois's importance across the 20th century, and also to be heartened that they know who he is at all.  That said:  there is a reason civil rights organizers took pause on the eve of the March on Washington when news of Du Bois's death in Ghana surfaced.  All that lay before them, he laid foundations for.  But he was far more complex than that, which is why he is such a fascinating figure in terms of postwar culture and politics.  I spent a lot of time with his autobiographies, which really mark how living a long life of thinking and writing becomes a way of documenting the past in and of itself.  The subtitle of the final memoir piece, "A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century," speaks volumes to this, I think.  From his travels throughout the South in his college days to his travels to the Soviet Union in the decade after the Russian Revolution , from his leadership in the Niagara Movement to what Manning Marable has called his "political assassination" by the State Department, there are few transitions in the 20th century that cannot be scoped through Du Bois.  Think of it:  pan-Africanism, pacifism, McCarthyism, socialism and Communism, and so on.  Further, much can be learned about how difficult political operation can be -- his problems with the NAACP, especially with Walter White, his power at The Crisis, the lack of support he received from so many longtime colleagues in the wake of the Peace Information Center investigation.  In so many ways, his life IS the 20th century, even -- perhaps especially -- after his death, with the radicalization of civil rights movements and then, as I have found, the struggle over his legacy, writ large.
2) In Those About Him Remained Silent, you emphasize the local history of such a global figure. If you had to use one primary document from that local story, what would it be and how does it exemplify main themes in your book.
AB: There's a letter to the editor of the local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, written in 2004 about the debate engulfing Du Bois's hometown, Great Barrington, over whether or not to name the new school after him.  This debate arose as I (foolishly) thought I was finishing the book.  It delayed my timeline, as I realized that the 21st century debate over Du Bois almost exactly mirrored the late 1960s controversies I had devoted so much research and writing to.  I was in awe, which is funny, because as a historian, I know that change and progress are not the same thing, and the latter -- indeed - does not exist.  In this one letter, the writer made all the same points that those who had come some forty years before had, condemning Du Bois for his expatriation and, even more importantly, his communism.  But then she brought it right into the present, likening the naming of a school for Du Bois to doing for "Mussolini, Stalin or Hussein."  That last one really hit me, demonstrating how easily the past racist musings of a small town could be translated into the current moment, and even add a new shade to it.  It was the moment that I fully realized that the post-911 moment of the so-called War on Terror was nothing new.  This isn't to say I didn't think that before, but there was something about her letter that really hit home for me, perhaps particularly because my New England self has lived in New York for a long time now.  When I found the statement by a member of a local VFW in the late 1960s comparing Du Bois to Hitler, I was gleeful, almost, in how well I saw my project coming together.  But there was something about the letter some forty years later comparing him to Hussein that just really hit, well, home.
3) Can you think of any research assignments that students could do themselves that would follow your approach?
AB: I think finding the local in the global, and the global in the local, is a fantastic way for students to begin their research.  One of the things I have them do in one of my lower level courses is go into the New York Times archives and find their birthday, any year that they want, and figure out a research topic based on it.  It's not exactly the same thing, but I think that when the personal investment in your subject is that upfront, you can really be motivated to sink your teeth in.  Finding this stuff in your backyard, as I did, literally, works the same way.  The recent "This American Life" piece about the mass execution of Native Americans in 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota is a great example.  No one ever talked about it, but John Biewen, who grew up there, went and got the story.  When I was first working on the Du Bois project, which came about in a similar way, I had just read Diane McWhorter's "Carry Me Home," a very personal take of Birmingham in the civil rights era, but also a really well-written and well-researched one.  Her own memories of key events in that period, without question, offer an important take on the national scene.  These stories are everywhere.  You just have to make sure you keep looking for the big picture.





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