Skip to Main Content

Sitting Down with Our Du Bois Scholars: Andrew Grim

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.”