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Sitting Down with Our Du Bois Scholars: Michael Saman

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.”