W. E. B. Du Bois Center
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Letter from the Director
Du Bois's Words Offer Perspective For Complicated Times
We live in complicated times. For each national victory, there is a sobering moment to temper our celebration. This has been a summer of mourning, crying, shouting, and marching, and one also questioning why? In moments like these, I find myself reaching for the words of Dr. Du Bois from so long ago, to help with context and perspective.
"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, how does it feel to be a problem? They say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."Du Bois 1903
In the midst of today's real and unasked questions, I write this letter with a sense of inspiration and accomplishment. Through the collective work of countless students, staff, current faculty and elder scholars, the Du Bois Center has been awarded three years of funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This award brings to life our first Du Bois Center Faculty Seminar Series centering on curriculum development and scholarship in the Du Boisian tradition; it increases graduate and post-doc Du Bois Fellows, and the grant establishes a collaborative relationship with the Commonwealth Honors College and its Honors to Honors Program, specifically highlighting the work of W. E. B. Du Bois in the required course Ideas That Change the World.
There is always a reason to press forward, even in complicated times. I am looking forward to this coming year at the Du Bois Center. The occasion will require engaging with new people on and off of campus and bringing the legacy of Dr. Du Bois to a new generation of students who truly need his words right now.
The UMass Amherst Libraries are pleased to welcome the next group of Du Bois Fellows to campus.
Through a generous grant awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst Libraries, in collaboration with the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), is able to offer these post-doc fellowships to assist scholars in conducting research in the archives and collections of the Libraries.
Among the approximately 15,000 linear feet of manuscripts held by SCUA are many valuable collections for the study of social change in the United States, including the papers of the most important exponent of the politics and culture of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois. Since the arrival of the Du Bois Papers at UMass Amherst in 1973, SCUA has become the steward for a number of collections in which Du Bois is a central figure, including those of his associates James Aronson (acquired 1990), Katherine Bell Banks (2004), Lillian Hyman Katzman (2010), and Catherine A. Latimer (2015), as well as the papers of scholars who studied Du Bois, including William Strickland (2014) and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis (2014). Additionally, there are several collections in which Du Bois appears as a direct influence, including the papers of the educator Horace Mann Bond (1979) and the records of the African America Institute, an organization that for over 60 years has promoted educational and economic ties between African nations and the United States. Of these, Du Bois, Aronson, Banks, Katzman, and Bond are all fully digitized and available online free of charge.
Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center, hopes that these scholars will “build collaborative moments” together, discussing their work and learning from each other as they delve into the collections for their respective projects.
PHOTOGRAPH: Left to Right:
Front: Richard D. Benson II; Camesha Scruggs; Juliana Goés; Lisa McLeod; Josh Myers; Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptiste
Back: Phillip Luke Sinitiere; Benjamin Nolan; Marc Lorenc; Thomas MeagherRead more »
Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst, was recently appointed to serve on the Board of Directors for Mass Humanities. She was sworn in on March 26.
Dr. Battle-Baptiste is a historical archaeologist who focuses on the intersectional relationship of race, class, gender and the shaping of cultural landscapes across the African Diaspora. She is a scholar and activist who views the classroom and the university as a space to engage contemporary issues with a sensibility of the past. Her book, Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), outlines the basic tenets of Black feminist thought and research for archaeologists and shows how it can be used to improve contemporary historical archaeology as a whole.
She first came in contact with Mass Humanities through their annual public readings of Frederick Douglass' famous Fourth of July address, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" These readings take place annually across the commonwealth, with the flagship event occurring in Boston. Battle-Baptiste has participated in this program as the discussion facilitator in both Springfield and Amherst.
The mission of Mass Humanities is to conduct and support programs that use history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines to enhance and improve civic life in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and Public Policy, now simply known as Mass Humanities, was established in 1974 as the state-based affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and is an independent programming and grant-making organization that receives support from the NEH and the Massachusetts Cultural Council as well as private sources.
“I strongly believe in the work that is done by Mass Humanities and I am humbled and excited to serve the commonwealth of Massachusetts in this capacity,” says Battle-Baptiste.Read more »
Literary Du Bois
Erika Williams’s fascination with W. E. B. Du Bois began with a program for gifted students she attended in high school, during which she was introduced to The Souls of Black Folk. As Williams came to find out, while that is perhaps Du Bois’s most well-known work, it is by no means his only literary endeavor.
“I knew about The Souls of Black Folk, that he was an early Civil Rights leader, that he co-founded the NAACP…I didn’t know that he wrote literature,” Williams said.
That was a discovery she made while completing doctoral work in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania, around the time when there was a renewed interest in publishing and studying Du Bois’s novels, short stories, poems, pageants, and other fiction. These works and how Du Bois used them “to come closer to the political questions he was wrestling with” became the topic of Williams’s dissertation.
“I realized there was so much to do here,” said Williams. “[My field] could still be comparative and I could draw on the different philosophies, but I could also focus and make my dissertation and scholarship dedicated to promoting African American literature and culture.”
As Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Culture at Emerson College, Williams has done just that, teaching various courses and working on a manuscript entitled Tales from Du Bois: The Poetics and Politics of Cross-Caste Romance: the project that led her back to the W. E. B. Du Bois Center.
Williams had initially learned about the Center, as well as the extensive compilation of Du Bois’s works housed in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), through her archival work at UPenn, when “it started to become an ambition of mine to get here.”
In the many visits Williams has made to the Center since then, she has found ample evidence to support the second wave of rethinking the literary legacy of Du Bois currently influencing her field and research topic. “I couldn’t believe how much was here… The variety of genres in which he wrote surprised me. He had an incredibly creative imagination, not just political. He was interested in what narratives could do: inform about the African American people, think through debates on race and gender, and provide a way to feel and live philosophy, history, and politics.”
As a recipient of the Du Bois Fellowship, Williams was able to spend “weeks at a time” poring over the Du Bois Papers and related materials.
“The way the university and archives are run–I love that idea,” she smiled. “During my time as a Fellow, I appreciated both the immersion in the collections and the open access to the archives. Du Bois would like that too, in a way: things are open to people who want to know.”Read more »
Du Bois and German Thought
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow Michael Saman greatly enjoys studying alongside W. E. B. Du Bois – give or take a few centuries.
“Du Bois read the same stuff I do,” he explained with a smile. “He went to high school, university, undergraduate school studying the culture I’m studying from a distance of 200 years. He had it when it was still new… I have to excavate it.”
Like Du Bois, Saman has a background in German literature and intellectual history, with a special focus on the 18th and 19th centuries. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Saman spent time studying in Berlin.
“I came back to the US as a student of Germany,” he said, “but what does that mean? What do German ideas do? I was looking for answers to that – how the German culture comes across nations and continents.”
In Du Bois, Saman was surprised to find “the best answer that exists.” Although he had read Du Bois in college, Saman rediscovered him through his research on an unrelated project, and found that they were both involved in similar work regarding culture and the social sciences.
“It was not the idea I started with, but the material,” Saman said. “You pull a thread and it keeps getting bigger.”
Saman followed this thread to the Du Bois Center, where he has been researching his first book, The Voice of Time: Classical German Thought and the Ethics of Progress in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk.
Looking at the collections of Du Bois’s personal papers, particularly his extensive international correspondence, has provided Saman with surprising revelations.
“There’s a perception that Du Bois was neglected in America in many ways during his lifetime,” Saman said, “and that’s true to some degree, but the number of very esteemed German social scientists that acknowledged him as an equal and were eagerly seeking his insights and publications took on bigger dimensions than I was aware of.”
Saman believes that this regard for Du Bois’s scholarship is both continuous and timely. “Reading The Souls of Black Folk would be something anyone would do well to do…Du Bois is starting to get on people’s radar again, and I think that will increase a lot with time.”Read more »
Du Bois and the Jewish Question
James M. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi, came to the W. E. B. Du Bois Center with a fellowship and a question.
“It was a question left open in my last book…about the contributions of social sciences and racism as a disease and how Du Bois pushes back against that model,” he explained.
Thomas’s current project, Du Bois and the Jewish Question, proposes to address this query through a reexamination of Du Bois’s scholarship, “considering, whether, and to what degree, Du Bois’s concept of black double consciousness was inspired by 19th-century Western European scientific and medical discourse on Jewish pathology and difference.”
His search for answers led him to the Du Bois Center. “I was looking for ways to further my scholarship. I knew UMass had the Du Bois papers because they were digitized, and I was able to access them from my campus. It was serendipitous that I came across and applied for the fellowship… I was fortunate to be selected.”
As he worked more closely with the Special Collections and University Archives, however, Thomas found his project branching out in unexpected directions.
“I came in thinking that my focus was going to be on Du Bois during his time in Germany and before and after he had written The Souls of Black Folk,” he said. “I found myself going through his papers and I kept reading… seeing what he changed. I call it ‘Lines of Flight,’ where you start with the thing you are studying – a round object – but then these lines of flight start taking you in different trajectories to interesting places. I’ve mapped out additional questions which have emerged in the process of answering the question I started with.”
One thing that has not changed for Thomas, however, is his confidence in the timelessness of Du Bois’s lengthy and multifaceted scholarship. “[Du Bois’s writing] is over one hundred years old and still so prescient…There are many Du Boises, and scholars working with, on, and through Du Bois and his legacy have to document his many iterations.”Read more »