W. E. B. Du Bois: All signs indicate it’s time to forgive the great man’s flaws

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By Friday, Apr 29 News  4 Comments
Scott Christianson
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis delivering the first W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series lecture Thursday (April 28) at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Great Barrington Great Barrington’s longstanding quandary over how to regard its most famous and most complex native son took another step forward Thursday (April 28) when Monument Mountain Regional High School launched the W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series featuring a keynote address by one of the nation’s leading historians.

David Levering Lewis, a distinguished professor of history at New York University and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his massive biography of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), said it’s time for his hometown to recognize Du Bois as “its Leonardo Da Vinci,” and get past the enmity of the McCarthy era when he was persecuted for his communist sympathies and driven out of the country to self-imposed exile in Ghana.

W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.

W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.

Born here, five years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to a mother who became disabled after his father deserted the family, young Willie Du Bois somehow rose above his impoverished roots as one of the town’s few black residents to become a star pupil in the new public school and beyond. He went on to win glory as a scholar, published many noted works, became one of America’s towering public intellectuals, and was a key founder of the modern civil rights movement and the Pan African movement. His success story represents one of one of the great testaments to the promise of public education in American history. Yet his independent nature and relentless criticism of racism and capitalist exploitation often put him at odds with the established order.

Speaking before an audience of about 200 persons, Dr. Lewis said he found it passing strange that the town had chosen to name its public schools on a muddy brook and “a geological formation rather than on Du Bois, who was a mountain of a man in his own right.”

He also remarked that with the first black President in office and a self-proclaimed socialist running strong for the Democratic nomination — and all of the road signs announcing Great Barrington as the birthplace of Du Bois, maybe the Cold War unease toward the old man has thawed a bit.

Thursday’s program was inaugurated by discussions between students and faculty at the high school, and an exhibit highlighting the life and works of Du Bois, on loan from W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst, was displayed in the school’s lobby. The evening events included students from Monument Mountain and Pittsfield High School reciting passages and reading their own poems, supervised by the principal and an English teacher. The title of the keynote address was “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Long Road Back to Great Barrington.”

School officials said they plan to present more public events in the educational series.


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ann Getsinger says:

    I couldn’t agree more- except I wouldn’t call them flaws.

  2. Antonia Grumbach says:

    I agree entirely about Du Bois and find it sad that Great Barrington seems unable to respect and feel proud of him. He was a remarkable man who rose above tough odds and was an important figure in the country. In retrospect, falling afoul of McCarthy should be a badge of honor. I am very glad that Monument High School is studying his legacy.

  3. Luz Bravo Gleicher says:

    I agree with both ms Getsinger and ms Grumbach. Falling afoul of Senator McCarthy and his committee puts DuBois in good company, and I’m sure that company was honored to be named with him. Those were not good times to stand for equity.

  4. Sage Radachowsky says:

    The headline reifies “The great man’s flaws” in a way that i think is not right, unless it’s meant tongue-in-cheek, and that is not clear.

    It’s not a flaw to be on McCarthy’s list, except insofar as it was a flaw that McCarthyism existed in the U.S. to demonize and destroy dissent.

    I’m sure the W.E.B. Du Bois like everyone had flaws, but the ones that seem to be framed as flaws in the essay are not them.

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