Honoring W. E. B. Du Bois, Restoring a Civil Rights Icon’s Legacy
Gwendolyn VanSant and Randy Weinstein were invited to serve as co-chairs of the Town Of Great Barrington Du Bois 150th Committee in Spring 2017. Randy extended the invitation to Gwendolyn based on her work in building Multicultural BRIDGE, a representation of Du Bois's core values. Together they decided to do three things: celebrate Du Bois, educate the public about Du Bois’s work, and create legacy projects in partnership with community members.
Randy, a historian and Du Bois expert, has worked diligently to create exhibits and galleries of Du Bois's work in collaboration with UMASS. Gwendolyn has brought her expertise of equity, justice, and cultural competence to the overall Festival programming and engagement of scholars. Together, they curated a course to dig deep into the legacy of Du Bois, and they are amplifying the work of organizations and individuals that embody his legacy. From photos of Du Bois's family and birth certificate in the town hall to repairing family tombstones, “restoring legacy” is the central shared vision. The pole banners that fly (reflecting Du Bois's core principles of racial equality, progressive education, civil rights, and economic justice) represent the Town embracing their leader. Gwendolyn is proud to share that her community-building and advocacy skills were necessary to accomplish this beautiful honoring.
On Monday, January 15th, my small, but mighty town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts will kick off its W. E. B. Du Bois 150th Festival. Poles throughout the downtown area are now decorated with banners of Du Bois and messages of racial justice and civil rights, and a calendar of events will run through February 28th to honor and educate the public about this great Civil Rights icon.
As co-chair and co-curator of this legacy effort, I have never been so fulfilled by a project. It is the culmination of nine months of work, and 100+ years of a community working through an activist’s complex legacy. It is evidence as well of how a single activist’s work lives on in powerful ways. The ripples of one’s work (and resolve) feed into future movements in ways we can never predict.
I first discovered Du Bois’s work at 15 while applying to college at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Reading The Souls of of Black Folk, first published in 1903, and learning about the concepts of “the veil” and “double consciousness”—this was the first time I felt I had words for the split experience I was living as a Black scholar in my first college English course.
Du Bois was a man before his time. He was thinking, writing, and acting boldly on gender, race, poverty, and the complexities of identity and consciousness when nearly everyone and everything would have him do otherwise. He was a leader of the Niagara Movement, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Pan-African Congresses. By 35, he had written The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, The Philadelphia Negro, and The Souls of Black Folk. While Du Bois maintained dual citizenship at the end of his life, and chose to be buried in Ghana, he stood for what we should all believe in here in the United States: good, accessible, and progressive education; racial awareness and equality; civil rights for all; and later in his life, economic justice.
I was delighted to learn that Du Bois was born in Great Barrington in 1868. If I hadn’t been introduced to his work, my personal journey would not have been the same. I realize now just how much everything I do has been influenced by Du Bois. As an activist, I am inspired by how he approached activism with a spirit of discovery. He was never afraid to expose contradictions. He used his incredible scholarly intellect to advance progressive education and to honor the work of Black women. In his written works, he inquired about the nature of activism itself. This approach should inspire a similar courage and curiosity in us all.
I first worked with Festival co-chair, Randy Weinstein, of The Du Bois Center almost 30 years ago as a research intern. I was proud to share our progress on this project with my mentor Dr. Homer “Skip” Meade, a Du Bois scholar and fellow activist. The seeds that these relationships have planted in my justice work are priceless, and all of them were inspired by Du Bois. (Skip reminds me that our efforts with this festival will assist future program planning statewide, nationwide, and internationally. I know he is right).
I also have to wonder what would Great Barrington be without Du Bois. He paved the way for the activism our town is known for. Great Barrington rightly chooses to claim their native son as I claim him as a sage ancestor. Du Bois serves as a beacon not just for me, but for generations of Black scholars to come. This is why I am always so excited to share his important work with others. I know that celebrating Du Bois for his 150th is what our nation needs at this time. We must herald the wisdom and clarity as well as the courage and steadfastness of his work.
As we reflect on how to bring our nation to the point of living its ideals (liberty, equality, and justice for all), we can look to Du Bois for clear vision, heart, and guidance. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote:
“Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?”
As I sit two days before the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, to help us digest these words from Du Bois, I want to share these words from King from his essay, “Honoring Dr. Du Bois”:
“It would be well to remind white America of its debt to Dr. Du Bois. When they corrupted Negro history they distorted American history, because Negroes are too big a part of the building of this nation to be written out of it without destroying scientific history. White America, drenched with lies about Negroes, has lived too long in a fog of ignorance. Dr. Du Bois gave them a gift of truth for which they should eternally be indebted to him.”
King encourages us to thank Du Bois for telling our true history and honoring the contributions of all American people. We must teach our children this history. The only America that we can build is a country that claims, learns, and evolves from our history. King and Du Bois, like others, give us a roadmap through their work, words, and resolve.
In 1912, in “I Am Resolved,” Du Bois so beautifully declared:
“I am resolved in this New Year to play the man — to stand straight, look the world squarely in the eye, and walk to my work with no shuffle or slouch
I am resolved to be satisfied with no treatment which ignores my manhood and my right to be counted as one among men…
I am resolved to defend and assert the absolute equality of the Negro race with any and all other human races and its divine right to equal and just treatment.
I am resolved to be ready at all times and in all places to bear witness with pen, voice, money and deed against the horrible crime of lynching and of Jim Crow legislation, the injustice of all color discrimination, the wrong of disfranchisement for race for sex, the iniquity of war under any circumstances and the deep damnation of present methods of distributing the world’s work and wealth.
I am resolved to defend the poor and the weak of every race and hue, and especially to guard my mother, my wife, my daughter and all my darker sisters from the insults and aggressions of white men and black, with the last strength of my body and the last suffering of my soul.”
Few people know that it was congregants of the First Congregational Church and St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington who gathered the funds to send Du Bois to college. With this action, we see how Du Bois inspired reparations as he wrote, thought, and fought for us all. At the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois started a conversation about reparations that we are only returning to now in an intentional way. And for the past nine months, in supporting this celebration, as more people learn about Du Bois’s life, I am seeing Du Bois's impact grow. Du Bois chose to call Great Barrington home and lay his family to rest here, and we should be extremely proud that in turn, Great Barrington is choosing to love and honor him for his 150th.
Just earlier this week, as I sat with my colleagues looking at one of our legacy accomplishments —a Du Bois family photo in Great Barrington’s Town Hall—I felt Du Bois smiling upon us. Through his legacy, he continues to change the tide… restoring, repairing, and helping us all forge ahead. After a year like 2017, in which we discussed what statues and figures we need to take down as a nation dedicated to equality and justice, we must also ask ourselves who we choose to lift up.
I am so proud that we have come together to lift up the legacy of one courageous African American man, Dr. W. E . B. Du Bois. May we continue to lift him up, celebrate his life, and make him proud.
Gwendolyn VanSant is a well-recognized thought leader in diversity leadership and community organizing for racial justice. She is the Founding Director ofMulticultural BRIDGE and the Equity and Inclusion Team Lead at Imagine Philanthropy. In addition to providing award-winning cultural competence trainings, Gwendolyn is a frequent speaker and long-time activist. In spring 2017, Gwendolyn spearheaded the county-wide campaign and coalition "Not in the Berkshires" and helped craft and pass her town’s Trust Policy, a step towards a statewide Safe Community Act. In 2016, Gwendolyn served as the Founding Director of Equity and Inclusion at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. In 2015/2016 she was recognized as a “Berkshire Trendsetter” and was named one of her county’s most dedicated and creative social entrepreneurs. She serves on the board of UU Mass Action Network.