On how an icon’s hometown doesn’t remember him, how it does, and how it could.
W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps my single favorite American and one about whom I’ve written a great deal in this space, spent the first seventeen years of his life in the small Berkshires town of Great Barrington. As he writes at length in the opening chapters of his most autobiographical book, Dusk of Dawn (1940), the town was deeply significant to both his multi-racial and –cultural heritage and to his own evolving late 19th century identity and perspective. But for any visitor to Great Barrington who doesn’t already know of and is not actively seeking out such connections, it would be easy to come away with no sense of Du Bois in the place. Indeed, even the Du Bois Homesite—not the home in town where he was born, but the one just outside of town where he lived for much of his childhood—is at the moment simply a walk through the woods with a couple placards; the house itself has long since been destroyed, and while UMass Amherst scholars and students have performed some interesting archaeological researches on the site, their findings are housed at the university, many miles away. (There is a long-term plan to create a historic site at the homesite, I should note.)
If the homesite is thus disappointly devoid of inspiring Du Bois details, however, Great Barrington does include, for those who either seek it out or are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, one much more compelling site of collective memory of the man. The town’s picturesque River Walk winds for a couple miles along the Housatonic; as I wrote in yesterday’s post, Du Bois’s lifelong passion for rivers was inspired by this particular one, and the riverwalk does a wonderful job highlighting that connection on two compelling and interconnected levels. It presents some of the relevant histories in a series of placards, including two that complement each other perfectly: one on the writings and work in which Du Bois reflected the Housatonic’s meanings for him; and one on the tragic and overtly racist aftermath of the 1927 Great Mississippi flood, a national shame that Du Bois catalogued at length in The Crisis. And the River Walk also includes an example of how these inspirations can be carried forward into the present: with the Du Bois River Garden Park, a publicly created and dedicated space adjacent to the river that connects the local with broader global issues in a way that Du Bois would greatly appreciate.
On those multiple levels, the River Walk certainly illustrates one potent way to better remember Du Bois in his hometown: connecting local settings and issues, and present-day visitors, to this prominent historical figure’s life, work, and perspective. If the town’s signage more overtly guided visitors to the walk, it would go a long way toward making Du Bois more a part of every Great Barrington experience; the homesite could similarly connect to the River Walk and engage in its own fuller ways with Du Bois’s identity and legacy. But on the other hand, Du Bois wrote in the opening of Dusk of Dawn that “My life had its significance and its only deep significance because it was part of a Problem,” and so I’m not sure he would want extensive commemorations of his individual life. Instead, it seems to me that he could also be remembered in Great Barrington through some kind of civic activism and action, through (for example) a center dedicated to addressing social and cultural issues in the area, in New England, in the nation or beyond. It was to dedicate his life to such efforts that Du Bois left Great Barrington—and just as he brought the town and its influences with him, so, perhaps, could the town bring his life and influences back into its 21st century future.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?
I'm fascinated by the low level of cultural awareness of Du Bois in general; he exists, for most Americans, as a blip on the screen in your local school's African American History Month programming. Reading this post leads me to wonder what Great Barrington's civic/social/educational awareness is of the man, beyond the placards. The tendency of the small, insular New England town is to "mind your own business" in that prototypical New England way. Du Bois lived his life in direct opposition to this ethos, minding the business of the entire country. Of course, this gap between the tradition and culture of the town in which he was raised, and the man and work into which he grew, defines who he was and is in many ways. Perhaps a few placards, and the understanding of the town's more educated residents, is absolutely appropriate. Would we really want to see his likeness on a billboard, Johnny Appleseed-style?ReplyDelete