Well-attended Tribute Features New Document Comments on `Philadelphia Negro’ Reissue
PHILADELPHIA — Some 500 persons gathered recently at the University of Pennsylvania to celebrate the life and scholarship of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, and to view a new film chronicling his contributions to American scholarship. Du Bois, connection to the university is a notable one. It was there, in 1896, where he was commissioned to gather data for a study that resulted in the classic work, “The Philadelphia Negro.”
The new documentary, “W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography In Four Voices,” served as the centerpiece of the meeting. it is comprised of archival film footage, audio recordings and photographs about Du Bois’ long and active life as a leading figure in 20th-century American history.
After viewing the film, University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier said, “The film was a beautiful and moving epic — not only about the life of a brilliant and important figure, but about the struggle of a people in the 20th century.”
A Life in Four Acts
The film is divided into four short stories, each written and narrated by a contemporary writer. Author Wesley Brown writes and narrates the first section, which covers the years 1895 through 1915, and examines the emergence of Du Bois as a political figure through his opposition to the powerful Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute.
AuthorThulani Davis narrates the second section, from 1919 to 1929, which uses the Harlem Renaissance as a backdrop for the period when Du Bois edited Crisis magazine and led the international Pan-Africanist movement.
In section three, Toni Cade Bambara examines the period from 1934 through 1948 when Du Bois returned to Atlanta University. And Amiri Baraka speaks of his later life, up to the day Du Bois died at the age of 95 in Accra, Ghana, where he was compiling the massive Encyclopedia Africana.
Guinier said she was “personally inspired” by the second half of the film and intrigued by the relationship between Du Bois and the NAACP. I would like to explore that further,” she said. “Because it suggests that there are many tensions within the civil rights struggle that continue to reemerge that we haven’t really come to with honesty.”
She said the film would make “a wonderful teaching tool.” Louis Massiah, producer and director the film, said that he believes Du Bois of represents “our feet.”
“You need your feet to move forward,” said Massiah, who has. made several other historical films that include such as “Eyes On The Prize II” and “The Bombing Of Osage Avenue.”
The symposium was organized by Dr. Anthony Monteiro, assistant professor of sociology at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.
“The idea occurred to me when `The Philadelphia Negro’ was re-published by the University of Pennsylvania… that a symposium should be held bringing together scholars, educators, activists, journalists and ordinary community [people] to consider, not just `The Philadelphia Negro,’ but as much as possible of Du Bois’ sociological and historiographic work.”
Du Bois’ landmark work, originally published in 1899, has been acclaimed as the premier urban-sociological study of one of America’s oldest African-American communities. Maghan Kieta, associate professor of history and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Villanova University, said, “What Du Bois does in “The Philadelphia Negro” is to give an empirical base to his theory that ‘class is a vehicle for the construction of race.'”
Kieta said that Du Bois argued that “within the framework of a conscience striving for the ideals of life … one had to, in fact, conscientiously embrace the finer principles of race.”
Kieta said that within the shared history of these ideals “is in fact a shared interpretation of historical value. The deliberate and conscious embrace of these notions meant that history could, in fact, be equated with consciousness. And consciousness, of course, becomes race.”
Dr. Elijah Anderson, professor of social science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the introduction to the new edition of “The Philadelphia Negro,” said Du Bois is “arguably a founding father of American sociology.”
The reissuing of this book “will help to set the record straight [and] encourage scholars and students to review his works and pay attention to the issues that he raised,” said Anderson.
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