Du Bois, the Work, and What the World Needs: An Earth Day Reflection

Posted on April 24th, 2017 by  |  Filed under Community News and Greetings

Most of the labors that complicate my life aren’t assigned by oracles, Delphic or otherwise. Typically, they crowd about me because I happened to open my mouth.

For instance, last month there was talk that our local UU church should have an Earth Day service. A good, passionate woman with a weighty understanding of the pickle we’re in volunteered to lead it. I was concerned that a likely outcome was that after a fifteen minute litany of the mortal threats facing our spherical little spaceship, everyone would go home under a cloud of doom and, at high noon on Sunday, there’d be a mass self-inflicted extinction of Unitarian Universalists in our little corner of Maine and New Hampshire. Seeking to avoid that, I volunteered to say a few words of homiletic hope.

Fortunately, as I cast about last week for something uplifting to say, I was in the midst of a little private study about the movement against lynching in this country and the role of W.E.B. Du Bois. Now, before you protest “but Andy, W.E.B. Du Bois seems a bit off-topic, and the words ‘lynching’ and ‘hopeful’ don’t go very well together,” hear me out.

Du Bois was one of the towering social scientists, public intellectuals and justice advocates of his age; the extent of his impact on the times in which he lived can’t really be overstated. First, there’s his longevity. He was born in 1868, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson, and he died in 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington. He began his body of work early, and continued until the very end. He initially thought his calling was simply as an educator and a writer but one day in April, 1899, circumstance propelled him into another role.

Lynchings were appallingly commonplace in those days, but his world was rocked by the fresh news of one very close to his home city of Atlanta. So he left his house that morning with the intention of meeting with Joel Chandler Harris, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Du Bois’s idea was to educate the influential white editor about the ideological underpinning of lynching as a terrorist system of social control of black people. But he never got there.

As he walked toward the newspaper office, someone waylaid him and told him that the lynching victim, Sam Hose, had been roasted alive, and his knuckles were on display like cuts of meat in a grocer’s window that Du Bois was about to pass by. Du Bois stopped in his tracks and turned around to walk back to the university where he worked and reconsider the work that he was called to do. The horrifying details of the case and how it had saturated every aspect of the culture of the whole Atlanta area for 11 days impressed upon him that lynching wasn’t an aberration of southern culture, but rather a central feature, representative of a desperation at all levels of white society to maintain black people in terrorized subjugation, whatever it took.

DuBois later reflected on the limits of his academic studies and his earlier attempts to raise consciousness about the lives of black folk. His work was known around the world, but it dawned on him that “it didn’t have much effect on what people were doing and thinking in the South.” In the last of three autobiographies, he wrote that this brought him to the realization that “one could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.” The next step was to accept that “the cure wasn’t simply telling people the truth; it was inducing them to act on the truth.”

Early this month I attended a memorial service in Beacon, New York. Henry “Stretch” Jacobs, the dear, departed friend we were honoring, was an long-time World Fellowship stalwart (among other roles, for many years he coordinated our Jewish History and Culture Week.) with whom I’d had rollicking conversations over the years about all manner of things, including race relations. Among his obsessions were labor history and African-American history, and he was a huge admirer of Du Bois; his second son, Paul, bears Du Bois as his middle name. So, passing through Great Barrington, Massachusetts on that cold, grey not-quite-spring morning, before I made the last leg of the trip to the funeral, I pulled to the side of the road at a bright red sign that said “WEB Du Bois Boyhood Homesite.” It seemed fitting to pause for a few minutes, to honor Stretch and to satisfy my own curiosity.

Du Bois’s grandparents’ house is no longer there. What you see is essentially five acres of woods and the ruins of the chimney and fireplace. There are informative signs along a woods walk tracing his origins, his early scholarly work, his involvement in the founding of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, and going on to mention his socialist and Pan African convictions, his troubles during the McCarthy Era and his eventual emigration to Ghana during his tenth decade of life.

Although I was disappointed when I discovered that the house wasn’t even there, the spareness of the memorial allowed me to meditate on what really survives us, without getting distracted by a pair of spectacles on a desk, or shelves of books, or family portraits. To me, it was satisfying that at least the hearth remained, the hearth at which he heard the stories of his family and his people that gave him the depth and power he carried out into the world.

Du Bois and other anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells were on my mind as I thought about Earth Day, because I draw inspiration from the fact that after decades in which lynching was an inescapable feature of the United States that poisoned the quality of life for people of color everywhere and compromised the integrity of our national moral fabric, now it’s gone. Vestiges of it remain, of course, in systems of fear and social control, but it has essentially disappeared.

The task before us in addressing the current ecological crisis is daunting because, in the same way that lynching in its time wasn’t an aberration of southern white culture but central to it, environmental degradation is not an aberration of capitalism, but central to it. And once the necessary conditions are in place, as with lynching, the old ways of thinking will be swept away. Eventually.

The current job of humans who seek to be awake is to adapt ourselves and, inasmuch as we can, help each other adapt, so as to be part of the evolution of our species and create the pre-conditions that will make this paradigmatic shift possible. (That’s all.) We just need to band together in strong, cohesive community networks, be open to the new models that are out there, do the work in front of our noses, and prepare. Here’s the good news: engaging in positive, forward-looking action with decent, bright-eyed people who just want a fair, sustainable planet is just about the most fun you can possibly have with your clothes on! And check out these eight words of wisdom and consolation from the writer Anne Lamott: “A hundred years from now? All new people.” We only have to do this part as long as we’re alive, which isn’t so very long, and then the new people take over!

In March of 1958, 2000 friends and family gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to help Du Bois celebrate his ninetieth birthday. Du Bois dedicated the gathering to his great grandson, who had been born on Christmas, not even three months before, but was in attendance at the party. He directed his remarks to the little boy.

“As men go, I have had a reasonably happy and successful life, I have had enough to eat and drink, have been suitably clothed and…have had many friends. But the thing which has been the secret of whatever I have done is the fact that I have been able to earn a living by doing the work which I wanted to do and work that the world needed done. And now comes the word of warning: the satisfaction with your work even at best will never be complete, since nothing on earth can be perfect. The forward pace of the world which you are pushing will be painfully slow. But what of that: the difference between a hundred and a thousand years is less than you now think.”

So, as Wendell Berry tells us, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” As I told my UU community, let’s make a party of it. And let’s make our great-grandchildren…or our greatgreatgreatgreatgreat grandchildren, the honored guests at the party.

–Andy Davis



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