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Teaching Du Bois at the Right Moment

Teaching Du Bois at the Right Moment
By Dr. Caroline Maun

This has been a deliberate semester. I teach an honors freshman English course at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where there has been a semester-long celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. The text is an outstanding choice for this class for many reasons, regardless of the anniversary: Du Bois uses interdisciplinary approaches in exploring the many facets of race in America; he models the catholicity of thought and approach that leads to new insights; and he is rigorously honest and self-revelatory, making the truths he tells both personal and universal.

My students, mostly middle-class 19-year-old African Americans from urban centers on the East Coast, were thrown into the world in and around 1984. Many of them are children or grandchildren of people who migrated to these areas from the Carolinas or Georgia. I was thrown into the world in 1968. I’m White, southern, middle class and female. For them, as for me, many of the legacies of both slavery and Jim Crow are part of our mental landscape, but the particulars that Du Bois outlines are somewhat academic. We understand discrimination; we understand in an intellectual sense what it must have been like to be threatened and inconvenienced by Jim Crow, but we, for the most part, have not had to confront institutionalized, condoned, organized racism at the levels that Du Bois describes.

My students, separated from Du Bois by a hundred years, found him sometimes to be puzzling and inaccessible. The opinion raised by one of my students that has haunted me all semester was, “We already know this.” At first, I found it callously and conveniently dismissive of the text. It is not easy to read Du Bois; perhaps this was an avoidance strategy. He is often negotiating in painful ways between Black and White audiences in order to make the text do what it must do — inspire a social revolution. Yes, many of the most egregious racial discriminatory practices are mere vestiges now. But what did my student mean by “know” and “already?” In a sense, yes, we know the truths in Du Bois. But, I argued, it is intrinsically important to experience the expression of these seminal ideas in their historic moment. Reading Du Bois and recognizing the truth of what he says is not the same thing as already knowing what he said. It was one of my goals that we experience the urgency of Du Bois.

Ultimately, the question that lies at the heart of Du Bois is, what is it to be free? Education, social equality, political equality, and the opportunity to reach one’s potential — whatever it may be — are all important facets of the answer he provides. That he approaches the question of freedom from so many perspectives, and with the necessity evident on every page, influenced the class in more ways than one might imagine. It was crucial that we find the relevance, confront the evidence before us, and digest the implications in ways that mirrored Du Bois’ process. There is much to push against in Du Bois, but there is also a great deal to emulate. His sentimentality sometimes rankled students. They were uncomfortable with his dismissal of Marcus Garvey. However, Du Bois took the risks he did in order to achieve a definitive and Herculean goal. He provided education about African Americans to Blacks and Whites, pressed the point that justice delayed is no justice at all, clarified an agenda for Black leadership and education, and brought keen insights of psychology and philosophy to bear on a situation that had not been outlined before.

Du Bois, as the sorrow songs he speaks so insightfully about, taught us how to feel about race in America. Feeling about race — directly, honestly, and fully — can be a demanding and painful task, but part of Du Bois’ message is that it is the only sure path toward social change. n

— Dr. Caroline Maun is an assistant professor of English and director of the writing center at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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