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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 »
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 offering post-doc fellowships to assist scholars in conduct research at SCUA in the W. E. B. Du Bois Library. Full-time faculty or independent scholars (with a PhD) are eligible to apply. Fellows will receive a stipend of $4,500 for an eight-week library residency with a housing allowance of $2,500 as well as a research allowance of $600. The deadline for applications is March 16, 2018.
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.
Fellows may come from any field and any perspective, and they may work on any topic, but their research should explore the major themes that characterize Du Bois’s scholarship and activism. This includes the history and meaning of racial, social, and economic justice; the problems of democracy and political inclusion; the role of capitalism in world affairs; and the global influence of African cultures. Comprehensive, searchable guides and finding aids to SCUA’s collections are available online.
Fellows will be selected on a competitive basis from applicants interested in conducting original research in the Du Bois Papers and other SCUA collections. In addition to the two-month residency, Du Bois Scholars will be invited back to campus to give a public talk to the “Five College Community,” involving UMass Faculty, graduate student fellows, and community college faculty in the humanities and social sciences. The criteria for selection will include the potential of the proposal to contribute to scholarship; the need for the use of SCUA’s collections; and a letter of support. The application will consist of a brief (up to three pages) description of the research project, curriculum vitae, and the letter of support.
For more information, contact the Special Collections and University Archives at email@example.com, or (413) 545-2780.Read more »
Du Bois and Criminal Justice
Although he had read The Souls of Black Folk as an undergraduate, Andrew Grim ’14, G’22 gives credit for his renewed interest in the works of W. E. B. Du Bois to activist Angela Davis.
“She is an inspiring scholar to me,” Grim said. “In her writing on criminal justice and prison abolition, she points to Du Bois as a seminal figure for her who inspired her ideas about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and how prison abolition could be pursued.”
Once Grim began looking at Du Bois’s work for himself, he quickly realized why Davis cited his scholarship so fervently.
“I’m interested in the history of mass incarceration from the 60s onward…in what it looks like for activists as they try to counter the rapidly expanding prison system,” Grim explained. “Du Bois is one of the earliest and most incisive critics of the American criminal justice system…his critiques from the early 20th century still apply, not only in the ’70s and ’80s, but today as well.”
Through his advisor in the UMass Amherst Department of History, Grim learned about and applied for a fellowship from the Du Bois Center, where he has been working on a project entitled Prison Abolition and Criminal Justice Reform in the Era of Mass Incarceration.
In combing through the Du Bois collection, Grim was surprised to discover the multitude of personal connections Du Bois made with prisoners.
“He received a lot of mail from prisoners seeking out help of various kinds,” Grim said, “asking for advice on how to turn their lives around, for him to donate his books to the prison where they were, to write a letter to the prison officials to seek a transfer for a prisoner who could not see his family. The prisoners saw him as an ally; he almost always responded. It surprised me to look at how he was sought out in this way and how he acted in any small way he could to help out incarcerated folks reaching out to him.”
With the current social and political climate in the United States, Grim noted that Du Bois’s work with and on criminal justice couldn’t be timelier. “Du Bois’s critiques of the criminal justice system resonate so much today – and they are equally applied to the current system as the time he was writing.”Read more »