Sitting Down with our Du Bois Scholars: Erika Williams
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.”