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A Chat with DuBois

My personal copy of The Soul of Black Folk (W.E.B. DuBois)
A Chat with DuBois
Rev. Jaron S. Green


In reading W.E.B. DuBois’s, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, the first sentence captivated me.  It was in this first chapter of the author’s classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, written in 1903, that this intense mental engagement began for me.  This treasure was written just one year after the birth of my maternal grandmother, Alberta Skinner, who lived just a very few years shy of a century. Of the many conversations we had when I was a child, there are so many more questions that I want to ask her now as an adult.  I would love to hear her summation of the decades of the twentieth century, the 1900s, 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.  She lived through them all.  I would ask her what she knew and thought of author and activist, W.E.B. DuBois, as he was absolutely integral to the advancement of colored people.  As I deliberate on the questions that I would ask of her, I also consider what were the questions, those silent, unasked questions of her time.

For DuBois, his question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” is one that I imagine would have resonated loud and clear with his audience.  His audience then consisted of other African Americans of his time, post-slavery era (DuBois lived from 1868-1963), those educated enough to interpret his genius writings, and those listening, less formally educated but fully experienced in the shade of difference that he referred to.  His audience today is history and truth reflectors; sociologists, educators, and students.  Additionally, his audience today consists of those who may experience feelings of inner division, as if they were torn between two worlds.  For example, the confident underdog, or those refugees seeking to assimilate, or those seeking peace from internal struggles with gender and sexuality might find an unexpected resonance in his articulation of the struggle and double-awareness or double-consciousness of the American Negro experience.
DuBois’s positionality informed his work as a civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist.  His early experiences as an African American child in an integrated school began to shape his worldview.  DuBois sought to motivate himself to take on the challenge of racial inequity and rise above the veil, in order to beat his opposition in academics, athleticism, and brute strength.  With words and phrases like ‘cursed, poverty-stricken, weakness, ashamed, lowly tasks, and ignorance’ DuBois described the experiences that shaped his life and perspective.
Such descriptions of lived experiences throughout history continue to resonate and describe the present day plight of the African American experience for many.  Even for those who have power, education, fame, or wealth, such powers do not remove the consciousness of the shared Black experience in America.  Through media, the distinct racial differences that exist in our present era are now broadcasted and amplified for the nation and the world to see, and to face “so vast a prejudice.
So then, if ever the honor were bestowed to engage with DuBois in conversation, more listening would take place than speaking from these lips.  I would listen as comparisons were made of present to past issues of racial inequity, questions of patriotism, voter rights, culture-borrowing, and lackluster racial reconciliation exercises.  Through his writings, however, I can imagine DuBois simply saying, “I told you so.
Truth seekers, reflectors, sociologists, educators, students: Since, I have the honor of conversing with you, I will answer you this. Why do I constantly refer to the past?  History lights the path of destiny. It’s because – History is the fuel that keeps lighting the long path of justice.  So. Here’s that first masterful sentence of DuBois: “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it.”  Truth seekers, reflectors, sociologists, educators, students – humans – How will we advance society?
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