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Sneak peak: The legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois at center stage

More than 35 singers and dancers rehearsed a performance piece choreographed to the song “We are Here” by Alicia Keys, the oft-repeated refrain of which is a fitting tribute to the nature of Du Bois’ work: “We are here. We are all here for all of us. That’s why we are here.”

Great Barrington — “At the dawn of the 20th century [W.E.B. DuBois] was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause,” declared Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP, as he addressed a crowd of 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Wilkins’ remarks, part of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington, were particularly apropos: DuBois, a noted scholar and activist who dedicated his life to making a better future for all people, had died in Ghana, on the eve of the historic march, at the age of 95. Today, as the Great Barrington community converges upon the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of DuBois, the energy in town is nothing short of palpable.  

“We jumped at the opportunity to work with other organizations who are celebrating our community, our diversity and our future,” said Ellen Gorman and Andrea Blacklow of Moving Arts Exchange. And last night, at their new digs in White House Square, members of both the teen and adult dance companies were deep in the throes of final preparations for the bash. Gorman and Blacklow explained: “Our work with teens is especially important when it comes to building our future and working toward solving the issues that W.E.B. Du Bois spent his life advocating for, such as racial equality and social justice, health care and employment. These are all relevant issues today and we feel it is crucial that everyone works together to solve these problems.” I watched with bated breath as a sneak peek of tonight’s event at the Mahaiwe unfolded before me. First there were the dancers, clad in black garb, moving independently yet cohesively; then there was the MAX choir led by Sunhwa Reiner, singing at times unaccompanied and in beautiful harmony; then came the live drums. Ultimately more than 35 singers and dancers took to the makeshift stage to rehearse a social-justice impact performance piece choreographed to the song “We are Here” by Alicia Keys, the oft-repeated refrain of which is a fitting tribute to the timeless and transcendent nature of Du Bois’ work: “We are here. We are all here for all of us. That’s why we are here.”

Dancers from Moving Arts Exchange in Great Barrington rehearse for their performance at the Du Bois celebration. Photo: Hannah Van Sickle

DuBois, whose vision was of a world without human exploitation and with equality for all, began his life’s work in Great Barrington where he was born. He went on to co-found the NAACP in 1909, an organization with ideals that reflected DuBois’ own understanding that the struggle for equality of Black Americans was part of a larger struggle for freedom and equality for all people. Considered a modern-day Prometheus–in a nod to his bold creativity and defiant originality like the Greek Titan of the same name–DuBois’ prominence and forward-thinking ideas were often seen as threatening. As a result, the Berkshires have been considered slow to embrace him–as seen for decades beginning when protests broke out during the dedication of the homesite in 1967 spanning to more recent times, when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District needed a new name for its elementary school and Muddy Brook was chosen over the Du Bois moniker.

Reiland Rabaka, Ph.D. Photo: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

Tonight, without further ado, Du Bois will finally be center stage–quite literally. The W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series, the University of Massachusetts’ W.E.B. Du Bois Center and their partners will host tonight’s event at the Mahaiwe featuring Reiland Rabaka, Ph.D., chair of the University of Colorado Boulder’s ethnic studies department, who will deliver the keynote address. Rabaka, who will present “Du Bois and the Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement,” will share the stage with acclaimed blues musician Guy Davis. In addition, UMass professor and Du Bois Center director Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Ph.D., and Du Bois’ great-grandson Jeffrey Peck will emcee the event, which will also include a short film of the 1969 dedication of the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site featuring Ossie Davis and Julian Bond, a spoken-word performance by the Du Bois Youth Ensemble directed by Ted Thomas, and a dance piece performed by the teen and adult dance companies of Moving Arts Exchange.

Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Ph.D. Photo courtesy UMass Amherst Libraries’ W.E.B. Du Bois Center

Rabaka credits Du Bois with having a seminal influence on his thinking ever since he first read “The Souls of Black Folk” in junior high school. One of Rabaka’s major focuses has been the exploration of the influence of the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, womanism and other historical strands in African-American protest on hip hop music. Grammy Award nominee Davis, who has recorded 13 albums and performed around the world, is the son of actors and civil rights activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who were friends of Du Bois.  

Barbara Dean, a member of the Du Bois Educational Series Committee, which organized this event, spoke on its timeliness. While not a Du Bois scholar, Dean is a “great fan and admirer who understands and appreciates his significance.” She points to “the life work and writings of Dr. Du Bois [as] very relevant and significant indeed,” going on to add that the “resurgence of interest in [Du Bois’] life, his writings and his struggles” has come at a pivotal moment. “He went way beyond racial issues, as much as they were central to his life. He understood the importance of ecology and the dangers to the planet, the importance of people coming together across race, class, educational level, if we are to survive as a species; feminism; the arts, especially the important contribution to the arts of African-Americans…all things we are STILL struggling with.” In closing, Dean became passionate when concluding, “It is becoming crystal clear that we must come together and to a healthier, more just, more fair place on all of these issues, as Dr. Du Bois exhorted us to do, if we are to survive.”

Guy Davis. Photo: Joseph A. Rosen.

Widespread acceptance of Du Bois, dubbed Great Barrington’s native son, has been slow in coming. It was only in November, when the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries’ W.E.B. Du Bois Center donated framed prints of a Du Bois family photo and his birth certificate to the town that his legacy had a prominent place in the building. At present, Great Barrington is poised to become both a national and international destination that will engage the public in W.E.B. Du Bois’ life and its relevance to important issues of our time. There is the W.E.B. Du Bois River Park on the Housatonic River Walk; the Du Bois Homesite, a five-acre parcel on Route 23, was designated a National Historic landmark in 1979; and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Great Barrington. Plans are underway to repurpose the deconsecrated Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, a congregation to which Du Bois had ties, for community use in a manner that both honors and celebrates the local African-American community that includes the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. In addition, the heavily trafficked alley between Railroad Street and the Triplex Cinema parking lot will be called Du Bois Alley after young artists from Railroad Street Youth Project unveiled their new mural honoring Du Bois.

Railroad Street Youth Project intern Theresa Russell reads a statement at the unveiling of the W.E.B Du Bois mural in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Our children crave this connection, they want to make a difference,” said Gorman and Blacklow. “Connecting everyone to W.E.B. Du Bois and his work is a great step toward bringing our community together regardless of race, religion, gender, economics, belief system, or sexual orientation. We are very excited to participate and send our message,” they stressed. And then they handed it off to Keys whose lyrics say it all: “… it’s not about me. It’s about WE. Our souls were brought together so that we can love each other sister, brother. We Are Here. We are here for all of us. That’s why We Are Here.”

**This evening’s event, despite being free and open to the public, requires reservations which, at the time of publication, were sold out. To be added to a waitlist please call the Mahaiwe box office at (413) 528-0100 between noon and 6 p.m.

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