W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington on February 23, 1868. He would become a figure of international importance—the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a tireless advocate for the rights of marginalized people everywhere, a founder of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, and the author of countless influential works of scholarship. In that sense, he was a cosmopolitan intellectual who belonged, and belongs, to the whole world. But he always understood himself as a product of western Massachusetts. “In general thought and conduct I became quite thoroughly New England,” he wrote in Dusk of Dawn. “It was not good form in Great Barrington to express one’s thought volubly, or to give way to excessive emotion… The Negroes in the South, when I came to know them, could never understand why I did not naturally greet everyone I passed on the street or slap my friends on the back.”
He never lost this sense of himself as a black New Englander, and the experience would shape his understanding of racial dynamics in the United States. Unlike Booker T. Washington, Du Bois was born free into a family that had been free for generations. The circumstances of his birth and upbringing therefore set him apart from black Americans in the South, but the color of his skin set him apart from his white neighbors in the North, even if his childhood was a happy one. His writing is full of a sense of that double-ness: “[The] Negro is a sort of seventh son,” he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He believed that this “double-consciousness” could ultimately be a source of strength, and he advocated neither assimilation nor segregation but a “proud, enduring hyphenation” in which one could be both black and American at the same time.
Du Bois is a particular hero to the Schumacher Center because he understood that social justice was inseparable from economic justice and that economic inequality was the engine and not simply the consequence of a deeper social inequality. Like British economist E. F. Schumacher, he believed intensely in the value of satisfying work that needed to be done. He considered industrial wage slavery a kind of hell on earth. But more than anything, he articulated a vision of a just and pluralist America:
“The equality in political, industrial and social life which modern men must have in order to live, is not to be confounded with sameness. On the contrary, in our case, it is rather insistence upon the right of diversity; upon the right of a human being to be a man even if he does not wear the same cut of vest, the same curl of hair or the same color of skin. Human equality does not even entail, as it is sometimes said, absolute equality of opportunity; for certainly the natural inequalities of inherent genius and varying gift make this a dubious phrase. But there is more and more clearly recognized minimum of opportunity and maximum of freedom to be, to move and to think, which the modern world denies to no being which it recognizes as a real man.” (The Souls of Black Folk)
This year, we celebrate the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Du Bois’s birth. It is a year of confusion and alarm—a year in which that issue of “proud, enduring hyphenation” is once again a source of acrimonious dispute—and his pragmatic vision is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple and Mr. Eternity, which was a finalist for the James Thurber Prize for American Humor. His third novel, The World is a Narrow Bridge, will be published in July. He lives in the Berkshires and serves on the board of BerkShares, Inc.
On Friday, February 23rd, the staff of the Schumacher Center will join with others in Great Barrington to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Du Bois’ birth. Videos of the day’s events will be posted online: stay tuned to the Du Bois 150th Festival website.