Friday, April 26, 2013
April 26, 2013: Reading Du Bois, Part Five
[I’ve written a good deal in this space on W.E.B. Du Bois, but I’ve got yet another reason to keep doing so—this fall I’ll be teaching a Major Author course on Du Bois! So this week I’ll be sharing a handful of the many amazing works that make Du Bois such an impressive American author and voice, leading up to a special guest post this weekend.]
On three texts that reveal how much Du Bois valued the mostly lost art of letter-writing.
In 1905, Du Bois wrote a letter to Vernealia Fareira, a Pennsylvania high schooler who had, Du Bios had apparently learned, been neglecting her education. In this missive, which Du Bois pointedly drafted on the back of a questionnaire on “School Children and the Law,” he pulled no punches, noting sternly that for a young woman living in her era, and an African American young woman at that, “her bitterness amounts to a crime.” But he also expressed his characteristic optimism about the opportunities and life that lay before her, and did so, despite his by-this-time significant professional successes and prestige, in an intimate and humble voice: “I wonder if you will let a stranger say a word to you about yourself?” The letter is a truly unique and amazing American primary source.
In March 1913, Du Bois took to the pages of The Crisis to write an open letter to the newly inaugurated president, Woodrow Wilson. While this text could be read as an editorial, which of course an open letter from a magazine’s editor undoubtedly is, I would nonetheless argue that Du Bois hoped and intended that the letter would reach Wilson, and directly influence his administration as a result. Certainly his tone is in many ways just as direct and intimate as in the letter to Ms. Fareira, as in his closing appeal: “In the name then of that common country for which your fathers and ours have bled and toiled, be not untrue, President Wilson, to the highest ideals of American Democracy.” The letter thus reflects not only the uncertain but hopeful questions of how this new president would address the crises in American racial and social life, but also and even more tellingly how much Du Bois embodied a generation of African Americans unafraid to add their voices to such political and national conversations.
In October 1914, Du Bois wrote a letter to his 14 year-old daughter Yolande, who was then studying across the pond in England. As an AmericanStudier, as a father, and as a person, there’s not much I can say about the specifics of this letter, other than to beg you to read it. It’s one of the most beautiful and perfect American texts I know, and illustrates just how much Du Bois was struggling and engaging with, and represents in his voice and writing, the most shared and universal and human questions and themes, as well as all the more specific historical and social and political and cultural and philosophical and pedagogical ones. It’s quite literally the case that on every issue that matters to me (outside of ones about which he couldn’t be expected to write, such as the influence of Springsteen or The Wire), Du Bois had something meaningful, complex, and beautiful to say. I look forward to introducing him and his voice to my students this fall.
Special guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?