All Motion is not Progress
My favorite picture of The Doctor
I wonder what witticism provoked such merriment.
“I would have been hailed with approval had I died at fifty, at seventy-five my death was practically requested.”
— W.E.B. Dubois, on or around his seventy-fifth birthday
Exactly one hundred and forty five years ago (1868) a mere five years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation (and in splendid historical coincidence, the year of the ratification of the 15th amendment which established that no American could be excluded from the fundamental democratic right to vote by reason of “color, race or previous condition of servitude.”), in a small western Massachusetts mountain town—as the crow flies no more than thirty-five miles from where I write this—a manchild was born into a family of black artisans and small farmers. His mother was of the black Burghardts, whose antecedents were, as the name suggests, once the property of a Dutch landowner. His father was light skinned, from a Haitian Creole family of more recent American arrival hence the infant’s impressive array of names William Edward Burghart DuBois.
Soon after his birth the Haitian father would abandon the marriage and his mother’s economic circumstances would become very straitened indeed and would remain so for the rest of her life. (She would die in his 17th year a few months before he left for college in the South.) In the small-town New England of his birth secondary education was class—hence race-based—and very elitist, the province only of the children of families sufficiently affluent to afford the fees of private academies. Consequently few working people, of any race, received more than a few years of elementary education, and in all likelihood saw no practical need for it. They may well have been right.
Dr. DuBois Mother with Little Willie in Tow
Dr. DuBois’ Father: A Soldier Against Slavery
It was the advent of public education in the 1870s with the establishment of the Great Barrington High School that made the youth’s education at all possible. There—the sole brown face among the students—driven by his mother’s pride and ambition for him, as by the encouragement of two kindly and perceptive women teachers who were impressed by “Little Willie’s” uncommon and precocious intelligence and industry, the youth flourished despite the regimen of odd jobs necessary to help his mother cope. He would later credit Mr. Hosmer, the principal with guiding his intellectual development and steering him into the college preparatory curriculum heavy with Latin, Greek and the canonical western “classics” of the time. Providentially, during the high school years, the arrival of a small community of southern black folk, who promptly founded an AME Zion church, where the black Burghardts faithfully attended services, would provide him with at least an introduction to the religious culture of his people.
By his graduation in 1884 at the age of sixteen, young “Willie’s” academic accomplishments had made him something of a local prodigy among the townsfolk. The graduation class consisted of seven boys and six girls and young “Willie” delivered an apparently well-received oration on the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. The local Berkshire Courier reported that, “William E DuBois, a colored lad who has had good standing gave an excellent oration and provoked repeated applause.”
The graduate’s ambition was to attend Harvard but for reasons as much financial as social i.e. racial, this was not to be… at that time. A disappointment which would prove most fortunate for his real education. His principal Mr. Hosmer joined by the principal of the local private academy and two congregational ministers, persuaded four congregational churches to underwrite his education at Fisk University, a Congregational school for Blacks in Tennessee. He was seventeen years old when he left New England for the South in 1885. He would later recall this as a “great adventure” into the “south of slavery, rebellion and black folk” where at last, he would be surrounded by other people of color.
He was, he professed, delighted to go South because, consequence of the New England upbringing he in fact knew very little about the real life of Black folk. In Tennessee he would be immersed in the Africa-inflected culture of rural, post slavery southern black communities while teaching “out in the rural”. Here his true education would begin. As was to be expected his New England small town sensibilities were appalled by the prevailing, “ignorance”, squalor and poverty that surrounded him but there was more.
But he would also perceive, as though “through a glass darkly”, something else, something real if elusive, for which nothing in his education, experience, or the prevailing discourses of the day had prepared him, or given him any language to articulate or fully process. All around him he detected many signs of a distinctive black culture only dimly perceived, but tantalizingly indicative of something real, present and consequential which he would later refer to as “the soul of black folk”.
He struggled for a language in which to process these perceptions because in the New England of his youth “culture” was euro-focused, a consequence of America’s much deplored colonial complex. A “cultured” person spoke French or German, read Latin or Greek, listened to European classical music and understood—enjoyed was quite another question—Opera. That was “culture”. Anything black was “primitive” and uncivilized. So what could this be that he was now seeing and listening to?
A Southern Ring Shout!
The kind of black Religious Ritual DuBois Saw
The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Young DuBois heard their voices in the stones of Jubilee Hall
Indeed much of his early writing would be devoted to the attempt, not at first entirely successful, to create a vocabulary capable of accurately conveying and defining—in its own terms—black cultural truths free from the crude and “unscientific” language of condescension or denigration of all things “Negro” which permeated the literary and academic discourses of the time. The struggle to liberate discussions of black reality from the ignorance driven, reductive racialist formulations of white establishment “scholars” would remain an enduring mission of his life’s work.
The Fisk Graduating Class of 1888
Willie Dubois is Center Left
Harvard: Class of 1891
Arming himself for Battle!
After graduation from Fisk there would be Harvard (where he would be befriended by William James) for a second undergraduate degree, then a Master’s in History and ultimately a doctorate, the dissertation for which –“the Suppression of the Slave Trade to America” would inaugurate a Harvard series of historical monographs. However, the disciplined intellectual effort which resulted in such spectacular academic achievement, formidable though it must have been, paled into insignificance against the grinding necessity of a struggle at every stage, simply to convince white academic admission committees or funding agencies that a young black man was capable and deserving of education at this level. That the said young man succeeded in doing so while conducting himself with dignity rather than the fawning self-abasement from Negroes which these “Grandees” understood to be the natural order, is as worthy of respect as are the formidable accomplishments which resulted.
For example, how DuBois secured support to pursue advanced study in the new discipline of sociology at University of Berlin is wondrously instructive, both of DuBois’ character and of the times. An enormously endowed and influential body, “The John F. Slater Fund for the Education of the Negro” run by a former American president had conceded that “the principle of higher education” was the province of all regardless of race. To which end they welcomed, but had been quite unable to attract any suitably “qualified” black candidates. (Has a curiously contemporary ring does it not?)
This announcement apparently provoked so fierce a confederate backlash that the Fund retreated to mumblings about “industrial education of heart and hand” the mantra which would so endear Booker T. Washington to the South and northern philanthropists. The Fund made no awards to Blacks and DuBois’ application for a stipend was ignored, as were a few others. When he inquired he was informed by the Fund’s director that the news reports had been exaggerated, and in any event the “plan had been given up”. However DuBois could take comfort that had this not been the case, his candidacy might otherwise have “deserved attention.”
Evidently the young DuBois was sufficiently comforted as to reply to the Fund‘s president, none other than one Rutherford B. Hayes lately president (if a strongly disputed one) of the United States.
Did he beg, importune and plead his case as a deserving darkey was expected to do? No, indeed, he confronted them. With admirable audacity the twenty two year old addressed Hayes as an equal, first unequivocally declaring “As for my case I personally care little, I am perfectly capable of fighting alone for an education if the trustees do not care to help me.” However, the Fund’s behavior confirmed his suspicion that their claim to searching in vain for suitable (Negro) candidates had been less than sincere. Then he proceeded to school the former President, to wit:
“… the injury you have—unwittingly I trust—done the race I represent and am not ashamed of, is almost irreparable. You went before a number of keenly observant men who regard you as an authority on the matter and told them in substance that the Negroes of the United States either couldn’t or wouldn’t embrace a more liberal opportunity for advancement when presented.”
Dubois’ missive concluded, “…from the above facts I think you owe an apology to the Negro people.”
I have no idea exactly how Hayes and his cohorts received that scolding. One would have expected the uppity Negro to be summarily dispatched to the outer reaches of philanthropic darkness, “there”, like Lucifer upon his expulsion from Heaven, “to dwell in adamantine chains and penal fire”. This time however—which would not always prove the case—his impudence was not punished. Instead, to the Trust’s credit he was able to convince them of the long-term social benefit of his being able to explore the new discipline of Sociology in Germany.
Later, however his letter,(along with those of two distinguished German professors) explaining that its support for just one more term in residence would enable him the prestige of a German doctorate proved beyond the Fund’s tolerance or resources. There is speculation that it was the prospect of having the first such degree to be earned by an American going to a Negro which proved the last straw.
I tell this not merely for what it reveals of the young Dubois’ character, determination and talent, but because it prefigures an enduring conundrum of his long and extraordinarily productive professional life. Combining the necessity of constantly having to seek support for necessary, important and groundbreaking work—invariably on his peoples behalf—with a steadfast refusal—or inability—to prostrate his or his people’s dignity, interests or rights, compromise political principle, professional standards or intellectual integrity before the altars of powerful, ignorant, ill-informed even when well-intended, plutocrats.
(Anyone having taught Black Studies at white universities can readily sympathize with having to justify ones purposes to people not as intelligent as oneself and who entertain not the foggiest notion of the meaning or importance of what it is one does.)
Soon enough, his German sojourn coming to a close, the young man on his twenty-fifth birthday took a glass or two of wine and repaired to his room for an exercise in quiet introspection. What emerges, once stripped of the fruit of his education,—a ponderous overlay of classic conceptual language and reference adorned with heavy doses of German romanticism, is not just revelatory but prophetic and powerfully affecting. On the one hand it is typical of youth: the musings of any sensitive and thoughtful young person on the unknowable: the meaning of life, the uncertainty of the future, the goals worthy of one’s life while reaching for terms and principles; those values upon which one might stand to honorably engage an indifferent if not hostile world.
…in the long, dark winter of northern Germany, I felt a little lonesome and far away from home… I arose at eight and took coffee and oranges, read letters, thought of my dead parents, and was sorry.
I will in this second quarter century of my life, enter the dark forest of the unknown world for which I have so many years served my apprenticeship. In the chart and compass, which the world has given me, I have little faith yet I have nothing better. I will seek till I find and die.
I began to feel that dichotomy which all my life has characterized my thought:
How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?
And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?
The hot, dark blood of a black forefather is beating at my heart, and
I know that I am either a genius or a fool. I wonder if life is worth the
Sturm. I do not know-perhaps I never shall know: But this I do know,
be the Truth what it may I will seek it on the pure assumption that
It is worth seeking-and Heaven nor Hell, neither God nor Devil- shall turn me
from my purpose till I die…
This represents my attitude toward the world. I am striving to
make my life all that life may be-and I am limiting that
strife only in so far as that strife is incompatible with others
of my brothers and sisters making their lives similar. The
crucial question now is where that limit comes. I am too often puzzled to know.
…I therefore take the world that the Unknown [God] lay in my hands and work for
the rise of the Negro people, taking for granted that their best development
means the best development of the world . . .”
Let the church say, “Ahmen and Selah.”
* * * *************
It would be hard not to be touched by the evident idealism as by the ambition and indeed, the bravery of the forgoing. Or was that simply the arrogance of youth? Inevitably and very soon to be dissipated by reality: the cold winds of time and the ‘hard school’ of experience from which none us are spared. Unavoidable, even were the author some over-privileged, upper-class European princeling, unquestioned beneficiary of the world as constituted in the closing decade of the 19th Century. But for a young Negro American without affluent and influential family connections, the issue of a people but one generation removed from bondage? And, at the time of writing, without a job or even the prospects of one?
At twenty five DuBois proposed to take the world (and what a world) in his hands and work to ensure the rise of his people. Driven, in his words by “pride of race, lineage and self” and armed, as his best biographer wrote, “only with a brain, a pen and audacity”? One can add to that an almost superhuman determination, discipline and focus, tireless effort and uncommon longevity. Even so give it five years, ten at the most. Then we shall see how much of that high-minded vision and noble commitment survives. What in this is truly astonishing is the remarkable early self-knowledge it displays and the way it prefigures an extraordinary life with an uncanny prophetic accuracy.
The America to which the twenty-five year old DuBois would return from Europe sans the doctorate which, but for a technicality he had fully earned, was for his people no hopeful land of opportunity. The South having lost the war and their former slaves ramped up a campaign, (the baleful effects of which haunt the society to this day), that would succeed magnificently in winning and disfiguring the peace; ultimately coming to dominate national congressional politics and damn near making the mind of the South the mind of the Nation.
Dr. DuBois after College in Berlin
Well Armed for Intellectual Combat
Over the next half-century, the rancorous confederate resurgence would succeed in subverting democracy; rewriting history, disfranchising the third of its population that was black; reducing the southern black population to economic near-slavery by a system of peonage called sharecropping; establishing white supremacy and legalizing “Jim Crow” apartheid (“A place for everah Niggah an’ evrah Niggah in his place) by utilizing the violence of the mob and when necessary the state.
The Klu Klux Klan would become for a time a national organization, the lynching of Negroes accepted social practice among the “lower classes”, (and apparently, given their voting record, the national congress). In the academy “scientific” studies projecting the mental, moral and genetic inferiority of “the black race” became an accepted means to professional advancement. “Coonery”, the caricaturing of our physical features and the parodying of our speech and manners became a regular fixture of the national press.
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Demonstrating their power to the Politicians
The rise of a commercial popular culture would be launched out of Blackface Minstrelsy—the first of many crude commercial appropriations for profit of our people’s culture—while reducing it to a racist instrument of mockery, ridicule and painful insult to the culture they were hijacking and its creators. Significantly enough, this genre, an invidious, overtly racist attack on our people’s humanity, would become the first transnational popular culture export of the United States. An early excursion into world cultural leadership in which post-racial America can retrospectively take appropriate pride?
White America’s Favorite Entertainments!
True American Exceptionalism
Eddie Cantor: Jews and Gentiles “Blacked Up!
Assassinating the Character of a Race
Worldwide, our peoples’ circumstances were faring no better. All of Africa, north and south with the exception of Ethiopia, was being subjected to a particularly rapacious European colonization and all its attendant ills. While colonialism’s most obvious and visible effects were always political and economic, its most enduring destructive effects (particularly in black Africa, DuBois’ ancestral homeland) being of a cultural, religious and psychological nature, were at their worst.
Worse because this entailed the systematic assault on, and dismantlement of, those native institutions which ordered human affairs. This was nothing less than the systematic disparagement and dismissal of all conventions of indigenous culture and thought by which people articulated their values, defined their universe, organized their societies and understood and passed on the meaning and consequence of their presence and place in the world.
The White Man’s Burden?
Everywhere Mighty Whitey Was In Charge
Condition Were Horrendous in Caribbean and South America too!
In the Diaspora a different version of the same dynamic was at work. The Caribbean labored under colonization and there, as in Central America, their African populations —DuBois’ kinsmen and his father’s side—struggled in societies informed by economic arrangements as well as social attitudes and practices deriving directly from their histories of plantation slavery.
Here I have been, however briefly, at considerable pains to sketch out something very like a report on the dismaying “State of the Race” across the world. Why so? Because there is, quite literally, not a single aspect of any of all this which DuBois would not fearlessly confront with determination, tireless political activism and rigorous intellectual discipline during a public and scholarly career over some seventy years. Generations would come and go, intellectual fashions ebb and flow, ideological certitudes discredited or abandoned, war would follow wars, powerfully transformative new analytical systems would make their mark, as this country went from a former slave holding, largely agrarian nation to a world leading industrial society, and the modern world emerged, slouching like Yeats’ “rough beast” towards nuclear annihilation.
Throughout all of which DuBois was not still. He observed and thought, grew, changed and evolved with the times but purposefully so, always from an unchanging, centered set of concerns sustained through every advance and the many reversals of his people’s fortunes. What did this development mean for his people’s interests and progress? What did this one portend for the possibility of true democracy in this country, in the world? In these he never wavered, never deviated and apparently never tired. In this he was not simply the preeminent and most effective American public intellectual since perhaps only Jefferson (a distant second), he was the very model and contemporary archetype of the species.
In the smithy of his art he did indeed “forge the consciousness of a race” and summoned the ancestors to struggle. As even Roy Wilkins, his longtime opponent in the fierce NAACP insider wars, finally had to concede. As a very young man at the March on Washington, I vividly remember sitting in the headquarters tent and watching on T.V. as Wilkins announced the Doctor’s death in Ghana and told the suddenly hushed multitudes that despite recent historical ironies,
“… It is incontrovertible that at the dawn of the twentieth century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause.”
Dr. King Greets Crowd at Great March on Washington
Dr. DuBois died in Ghana the night before the March
The Funeral of Dr. Dubois In Ghana
An Affair of State
Madame Dubois is Escorted by President Nkrumah
“A Mighty Tree Has Fallen in Africa”
Laying Hands on the Casket
The Doctor Danced and Joined the Ancestors
Which is why our most recent confederacy of dunces is such a travesty. This being the rabblement (of certain but by no means all, as folk like the admirable Michelle Alexander, Robin G. Kelley and—on his better days—Reverend Brother Cornel demonstrate), black, self-proclaimed “public intellectuals” who apparently answer to no principle visible to the naked eye, political, intellectual or moral. Either from cowardice or self-advancement, these careerists never risk engaging the doctrinal absurdities of global capitalist establishment propaganda. Instead they are content to prostrate themselves before every successive quasi-theoretical cult and pseudo-intellectual fad proceeding out of the entrails of post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern, post-structural, post-intelligence, post-coital, post-language, “post-racial” America.
Instead of being instructed by the rigor, courage, integrity and consequence of the DuBoisian example, personal and professional, they pick over the corpus of the oeuvre tearing away fragments and minutiae, from which—devoid of any context—they hope to “deconstruct under color of theory” the “intellectual mystique” of DuBois. They need to abandon that effort as well as that self appropriated term by which apparently they hope in vain to imply equivalence. Please, DuBois was a public intellectual; these are public embarrassments.
The Public Intellectual at Work
Editor of the Crisis, Afro-America’s most influential Magazine
The Best of black America on Review
Langston Hughes said his Grandmother Kept it beside her Bible
That is the public and professional DuBois, but what of the remarkable personality of the man? In appearance and deportment he displayed a style and affect that was distinctly European rather than American or indeed “Negro” as that was then understood. This persona was sufficiently striking as to invite caricature and accusations of foppish self-regard and overweening vanity from his many detractors. But for their own reasons they preferred to look only at surfaces.
He was not a physically imposing figure being on the short side and almost slightly built. However, he was of robust constitution, well coordinated and physically adept, a strong swimmer, a devoted and skillful dancer and excellent tennis player. (One student at Fisk remembers him cutting so fine a figure in his tennis clothes that a group of young ladies would regularly congregate at the courts for the pleasure of admiring his legs.) The length of his life and the variety, volume and demanding nature of his work and popular intellectual leadership attest to an uncommon physical constitution.
Always Sharp as a Tack!
At the Paris Exhibition circa 1900
And size notwithstanding, he certainly had presence, and to spare. As a young student in Germany he had affected a Van Dyke and moustache inspired by that of the young Kaiser, which he maintained all his life. In public he was always formally attired in the manner of a Victorian gentleman or “Dandy” if one prefers: well-tailored vested suits, a pocket watch on a gold chain, a hat (frequently a homburg), and occasionally even spats along with an elegant cane, which invariably he flourished as he walked. If, as detractors scoffed, the style was not “Negro”, the impulse certainly was Black enough. “In yo’face cracker”, Black. That clearly was deliberate on his part, as his untaught, simple folk would have easily recognized, “Bless mah soul, that doctah do be styling. Yes indeedy, he styling lak a big dowg.”
At a time when the preferred—indeed required—and most widely and sentimentally celebrated quality in Negroes (among white folk) was our natural “humility,” DuBois carried himself always with an evident pride, which naturally was seen as haughtiness. While courtly and formally correct, he did not suffer fools of any race or status gladly, making him that bane of white male sensibilities and affront to the natural order, “an arrogant Negro”.
People emerged from interviews or public addresses remarking on the “frosty”, “cold”, “intimidating formality” of his aspect, while others were disposed to see something “leonine”, “noble” or even “regal” in his bearing. Or, as novelist Henry Miller would write after seeing him control a potentially rowdy crowd during the McCarthyite hysteria, “The very majesty of the man silenced any would-be demonstration.” During this period one black editor observing his manner and deportment before a hostile investigating House committee, emerged personally and racially validated. “No one seeing him”, he exulted, “can ever again see me as inferior.”
Yet the apparent “contradictions” seemed endless. He was denounced as ‘elitist’ but his deeply democratic instincts and abiding commitment to the interests of, and faith in the abilities of the masses of black folk was unrivalled. He was said to be self-absorbed and like Caesar, personally “ambitious,” yet he never sought self-promotion on the back of other black folk or the expense of his people’s interests. An “ambitious intellectual” who never succumbed to the temptation to disguise his contempt for the received wisdom and fashionable consensus in the establishment on race, class and capitalist cupidity? Derided as “Eurocentric” even as he launched into the colonial capitals then ruling the world, the offensive that would lead to the movement for African independence some fifty years later?
Then too, this “stiff, frosty” and allegedly “patriarchal” prototype was deeply and unwaveringly committed, counter to expectation, to the struggle for the rights of women and especially those of his race. From his undergraduate days at Fisk he became a profound admirer of the beauty and sensuality of black women, though not exclusively so. More than that, he was genuinely a friend to women, recognizing their hidden strengths, insight and value.
He liked and respected independent women who in turn, admired his politics, were attracted to him and sought his company. He fostered their careers wherever he could, worked with them politically, encouraged their ambitions in literature and the arts and in return fairly gloried in the admiration, loyalty and love of a number of intellectually accomplished and artistic women. Evidently beneath the surface of that stiff, cold “Victorian” formality there lurked deep reservoirs of passion, warmth, sensuality and fun. How could he possibly have found the time? But indeed he had. Clearly in the idiom of his folk, the Doctor was a “nachral man”. Or in the argot of the Black street, “Ohwiie, wid dem ladies Li’l ‘Dab O’ Sugar Willie’s got him some game, Jack. Oh yes he do.”
Sometime in the early seventies I was in Great Barrington at an event connected to the University’s undertaking the development of the Dubois family home site. The location of this site had been painstakingly researched and brought to the university’s attention by an admirer of DuBois’s. This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, was white, a workingman, as I recall a carpenter by trade, and a man of profound insight and, as I would discover when I thoughtlessly sought to thank him, few but eloquent words. I needn’t think to thank him he said because,
“…The Doctor lived a good life. He fought all the right fights and he made the correct enemies. He was a great man.”
Which, come to think of it, summarizes all I have been laboring at such length to say. Let the Church say, “Ahmen an’ Selah”.
* * * * ******************
What follows is a narrative of a series of apparently discrete events, which in consequence however, can be seen to account for the evolution of the relationship between Dr. Dubois (or at least his legacy and family) and this University, where his papers reside and the main library bears his name. In a graphic reversal of the law of unintended consequence, we will see a chain of causality in which each apparently, separate event would lead to and fortuitously influence the next one and the next, on and on, to a most happy if unpredictable conclusion.
The first step in this process begun in early 1969 with a group of us who were putting the finishing touches on a proposal for the establishment of a department of African-American studies here. During the prior couple years this notion of “Black Studies” new, innovative and controversial, clearly a spin-off from the Black Power phase of the civil rights movement, had been roiling the academic waters across the nation.
In Amherst we anticipated no serious problem. This was to be no surprise suddenly sprung without warning on the Administration. There had been some preliminary discussions with a group of uncommonly able and intelligent leaders of the upper administration—Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean of Humanities Seymour Shapiro. We’d had very civil and substantive discussions in which we explained that what was envisioned was a corrective expansion of the entire curriculum in the liberal arts to take into accurate and rigorous account the role, effect and consequences of the African presence in the evolution of the society.
They appeared to agree that the continued exclusion of this element of the national experience from the national curriculum rendered it not just incomplete, but resulted in a falsification of history and a denial of reality, which the nation could no longer afford. This would not be a gesture to placate the expected influx of Black students. Rather, as we all agreed, any failure to fill this gaping lacuna in American scholarship would simply continue the impoverishment of the education that all our students had been receiving.
This was not—as seemed the case at a great many other institutions—an entirely new discussion. At the university, Professor Sidney Kaplan in particular had been raising such questions continuously, eloquently and effectively for many years. The previous year, Professor Jules Chametzky had organized a discussion of the subject in the Massachusetts Review, for which he secured contributions from leading figures—black scholars and activists—prominent in the national debate.
Jules Chemetzky: Professor of English
Co- Founder of Mass Review with Sid Kaplan
That Mass Review forum had become the authoritative text across academe. Both these colleagues were serving in an advisory capacity on the committee for Black studies. So the ground had been pretty well prepared. We had an agreement in principle and all that was left was for the proposal to articulate the practical means by which these goals might best be accomplished here.
Which was not then as easy a question as it might now appear. This, you must remember, was something unprecedented in any American university’s experience. There were a host of questions for which there were no ready answers. What form should the new entity take: college, department or program? Depending on that answer would it grant degrees, offer majors or simply an academic “concentration”. What would its effect and reception by faculty in existing departments be? Who would teach in it? Where was “qualified” faculty to come from? On what scholarship would it be based? And even, believe it or not, whether white students would be admitted to Black Studies courses.
What would student, (here read white) and their parents’ reaction be? And above, all how was it to be afforded? It was the exceeding good fortune of the enterprise that the University was then in the middle of its expansion from Agricultural College to Flagship University. Consequently there were far more new space and resources (imagine one hundred new faculty positions every year for a decade?) to be deployed than otherwise would have been the case. Absent this reality none of what follows would have been even remotely possible.
The proposal addressed all said questions in clear and, (if I dare say so) practical and persuasive terms and we were days from submitting it to the governance processes of the University. There was among us complete unanimity only on its most politically sensitive proposition. This we made clear was not negotiable—the form which the new entity had to take. This would be that of a Department rather than a program, which had been the strategic ploy common to most universities.
A program could offer no discrete major and hire no faculty: all incoming faculty being joint appointments, would require agreement from the pre-existing (read white) departments in that discipline, as would any courses it defined. This would in effect give pre-existing departments veto power over appointments and courses, an insulting colonial arrangement of overseer-ship, which on no account was acceptable. We were to have a department, freestanding and independent, which could hire its own faculty and define an organic, logically articulated curriculum, or nothing.
On that we were agreed. So that a literally last minute inspiration that the new department bear the name of the native son of Western Massachusetts who was the unquestioned intellectual progenitor of the field, met some not unreasonable resistance. Academic departments are never named after people so why this one? The political fight is likely to be uphill enough as is, so why add the burden of DuBois’s political baggage? (the Doctor made all the correct enemies…) What do we gain? All good questions.
First of all, it’s an appropriate act of homage and respect to the man without whose pioneering advocacy for black higher education none of us would be here. And yes, he was born here in Western Massachusetts, but that is much more than empty geographic symbolism. Have we not said that our emphasis is going to be on education for service, community responsibility and struggle? That is his legacy.
Second of all, what other (white) departments do or have done is beyond irrelevant. What we are about is something unprecedented, sui generis, quite literally something that has never before existed, a Black Studies Department. What we do, is what we decide to do. That being so, how can there be any precedents which can apply?
It would be several months after this discussion that I would discover unassailable proof the accuracy of our choice. I discovered a remarkably prophetic speech at Fisk from 1933, in which DuBois talking about “The Negro University”, and cutting against the grain of prevailing educational philosophy then and now, would anticipate the central tenets of our black studies agenda forty years in the future. “A Negro university begins with Negroes. It uses that variety of the English idiom which is indigenous to them; and most of all, it is founded on a knowledge of the history and culture of their people in Africa and the United State, and of their present condition.” Enough said!
In any event, the name was duly affixed to the top and the document sent off into the labyrinthine processes of university governance where the name elicited few questions and no real objections. Some nine months later (April 23rd, 1970) the W.E.B. Dubois Department of Afro-American Studies came into official existence.
Which is somewhat misleading because, in truth and in fact, it had been—as kind of a phantom entity—completely functional that previous year. Even while having no official existence we had recruited and hired a splendid faculty but …into the English Department. In this, that department (home to Sidney Kaplan and Jules Chametzky) had been splendidly cooperative. Thus the university acquired a collection of unlikely “English professors” of high intellectual quality, very diverse experience and unconventional academic provenance.
There was for example Playthell G. Benjamin an autodidact “historian” with one year of college, Ivanhoe Donaldson in Political Science with an undergraduate degree from Michigan State and Cherif Guelal whose academic credentials were unclear because he had dropped out of the Sorbonne sans degree.
Prof Sidney Kaplan: An Authority on Blacks during the American Revolution
A Staunch Intellectual Comrade and Ally of the Dubois Department
Presenting a Lecture at U Mass
Benjamin was a captivating lecturer with an encyclopedic knowledge of African and Afro-American history and a photographic memory. (Soon enough, for their own excellent reasons—I shan’t speculate as to what extent, concern for “eroding standards” had played any role)—the History Department invited him to present a lecture on the scholarship in black history. I remember with still undiminished pleasure, sitting in the back of that room while Benjamin conducted an audience of mostly skeptical white historians on a tour through the historical scholarship from ancient Africa to the contemporary United States.
Speaking without notes for over three hours, he cited the important works—author, title and date, giving astute and witty capsule analyses of the contribution (or lack thereof) of each historian to the evolution of the field. I distinctly recall (I was watching closely) that no one left the room before he finished. I watched as the astonishment and growing respect of the audience would erupt at the end in a hearty standing ovation. I was not at all surprised, because it had been just such a virtuoso performance after we had nearly come to blows at a conference where we met, that had led to his recruitment.
Ivanhoe Donaldson, the political scientist with merely an undergraduate education, was the legendary SNCC field organizer immortalized in the documentary film, “Ivanhoe, the Story of a SNCC Field Secretary”. A shrewd and canny political strategist, Ivanhoe had guided several successful racially groundbreaking electoral campaigns: first that of Julian Bond, to the Georgia House of representatives; Andrew Young, first to the US Congress then the Atlanta mayoralty; Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of Cleveland, Ohio as well as that of our former SNCC ally, the misfortunate Marion Barry in the Nation’s Capitol. While in the department he would be architect of the historic National Black Power Conference in Cleveland. Though I had known Ivanhoe since we were both twelve years old, it was only in Amherst that I would discover that he was far and away one of the smartest people politically I have ever known.
Ivanhoe speaking at the 50th Anniversary of SNCC Founding
A Political Mastermind who guided the elections of many important politicians
Cherif, actually Ambassador Cherif Guelal, was revolutionary Algeria’s first ambassador to the United States, a close friend and intellectual collaborator with Franz Fanon. The reason for his terminating his Sorbonne studies had been to serve in the Government in Exile of the FNLA (Front for the National Liberation of Algeria) during the Algerian war of independence. Subsequently it was the overthrow of Ben Bella which had cost him his diplomatic posting and made him available to our department. His courses “Revolution in The Third World” and “The Writings of Franz Fanon” were not only popular with students here but were a true innovation in the American academic curriculum of the time.
Cherif Guellal: A solder on the battlefield, class room and boardroom
A Comrade of Dr. Franz Fanon Cheirf gave students an inside view of Revolution
He would leave our department for the presidency of what was said to be at that time, the world’s largest corporation when the Algerian government decided to nationalize and incorporate all its petroleum reserves and wisely called Cherif back to engineer that process and manage the result. Another “English” instructor was Ben Wagara a Kenyan graduate student who taught Swahili.
The other “English” professors in Afro-Am—Esther Terry and myself—were not at all academically esoteric having been trained in “English” right here. Esther would be the Department’s longest serving chairman, a vice chancellor of the university and go on to the Presidency of Bennett College, her Alma Mater.
This discussion is crucially important in understanding the next chapter. In the proposal we had written that the shortage of conventionally trained academics for our purposes would dictate that most initial faculty would have to be drawn from the ranks of “intellectual activists” in the black world. Why should conventionally trained academics not be available? Because for many years graduate committees across the nation, for their own good to be sure, had been strenuously advising doctoral candidates in no uncertain terms, that any dissertation addressing any aspect their own people would not be permitted since professionally “there simply is no future in it”.
Which explains our nonconventional appointments. However, these had been celebrated in the student community, and more important, seen by the administration as so successful, that I guess we were encouraged to push the envelope a bit further in the direction of “unconventional appointments “on the next round.
Once the trustees consummated the deal, (April 23rd, 1970) our papers were transferred from Bartlett Hall to New Africa House and we all officially became Black Studies professors. But even from our position of bureaucratic limbo the search for faculty had gone forward to excellent effect. So that by the time I left the country that spring, ostensibly to write a (yet unwritten novel) about Nat Turner, four files for new appointments were ready to be sent forward to the Administration. My return for the fall semester was delayed by certain unexpected difficulties. (“Mr. Thelwell, travel to the united states is not a right it is a privilege, over which I have total discretion.” Consular Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kingston, Ja.).
These difficulties were only resolved by the intervention of the University and a successful expedition into the federal bureaucracy in D.C. by three members of the upper administration.
(That story merits telling because it illustrates perfectly an unusual spirit of intolerance for arrogance, red tape and bureaucratic inanity in the administration of the day that I came to so greatly admire. However, in retrospect I can see clearly that this problem was almost entirely of my own creation. My great mistake being to behave in my native land (at least in the American embassy there) as though I were in Amherst.
See, when I moved from foreign student to fulltime university employee my visa status had to be changed. Dean Shapiro, who handled that, had an ironic, mischievous glint in his eye when he told me that the most convenient way of affecting that change was for the administration to apply on my behalf for a class of visa reserved for “distinguished aliens rendering invaluable service to the national interest.” I modestly accepted the designation, the application was duly submitted and I took off for home.
September and the new school year was approaching when Dean Shapiro called to say that I was officially “a distinguished alien” and should expect a call from the embassy to that effect. Sure ‘nuff, said call came from a consular officer informing me that my visa having been approved, I should bring in my passport to the embassy to have it affixed. I should ask for him, Mr. Keeshan.
Then in rapid succession, my three foolish mistakes. First was to attire myself in a flowing Yoruba agbada. The second, in my haste and excitement, was to forget to take with me my passport. The third was that when asked my business I did not mention the officer’s name but merely said that I was there about a visa. Consequently I was curtly directed to the appropriate place for people seeking the greatly coveted American visa.
Ekueme Michael Thelwell
Working with longtime comrade Stokely Carimichal In SNCC
This turned out to be a long, dim and extremely crowded room. Poor black folk were crammed together on long wooden benches. My people looked hot, anxious, uncomfortable and ill at ease. There was no conversation, which is not usual with Jamaicans. It was as though everyone was trying to hide hopelessness beneath a desperate but transparent show of optimism. It was a depressing scene. Which quickly became offensive when a woman employee entered, wrinkling her face in ill-disguised distaste, while moving down the line with a can from which she sprayed bursts of pungent air freshener just above the peoples’ heads. And none of the people so disrespected said a mumbling word! They looked off into space and avoided eye contact as though pretending they had not noticed the insult. Again, totally out of character for my proud, self-respecting people.
In the circumstances I thought my restraint admirable. I merely inquired of the lady very calmly, politely, and even diffidently, whether it had not occurred to her that the people might perceive her action as perhaps…just the slightest bit disrespectful? She seemed astonished that anyone there would dare to so address her. But I don’t recall that she made any answer before stalking off.
I have never been able to decide whether she was an Afro-American or a low level local employee relegated to that distasteful duty and anxious to keep her job with the Americans even at the expense of her peoples’ dignity? I tend to think the latter to be the more likely. It seems unthinkable, in the charged racial climate at home during those times, that any white bureaucrat would so direct an African American. Or that she would meekly accept so demeaning an assignment. But one never knows does one? In any event I have no idea what, if anything, may have been reported upstairs about my mild intervention.
Once I explained that my mission there was not to apply for a visa, but to pick up an already approved one, I was somewhat more respectfully conducted to the right place. There Mr. K., a young white man slightly older than I, seemed not pleased. Perhaps my appearance—my age, the large Afro, beard and African attire—was entirely wrong either for his image of a Jamaican and especially of a “distinguished alien”. I’ll never know. But my feeble attempts at polite small talk failed dismally. He was having none of it, “Just hand me your passport, Mr. Thelwell, I’ll stamp in the visa.” That’s how close I came.
For when I could not produce said document his face reddened. “What? You, you’re not telling me that you… forgot it?” “I’m sorry, Sir. This is so embarrassing… in a hurry… my apologies…but I’ll just bring it in… early Monday morning.” I have since been told that my forgetfulness was for him the final straw compounding the other errors. On what should have been the single most important day of my life, forgetting a passport was entirely too casual, not the overwhelming gratitude he was accustomed to from such as I.
On Monday he brushed aside the fateful passport, “Oh, it turns out we shan’t be needing that after all.”
“But on Friday you said…”
“Yes, quite so, but you see, since this visa is not going to be issued, it won’t be needed…”
“Not to be issued? But, I don’t understand? Hasn’t it been already approved in Washington? The State department… this part’s a mere formality is it not? How can anyone here over rule them?” That’s when I got the little speech about how mistaken I had been and the difference between travel rights and privileges to folk like me. For the first, and as it would turn out the only time, Mr. K could not disguise his palpable satisfaction in a conversation between us Slowly and clearly, he savored every word of what could have been a rehearsed little speech..
“What you fail to understand, Mr. Thelwell is that while authorization to issue does originate in Washington, the final decision rests with people like me. Here on the ground, “in country” so to speak. That is policy. So that your travel to the US is a privilege over which I have full and complete discretion. A privilege, which I either bestow or withhold. And I can assure you that you will never again….(Fifty years later these are his almost exact words which have been etched into my memory)
Mr. K must have worked his ass off over the weekend, searching files and wracking his brain to formulate some rationale to justify overturning the DC decision. Of course this was never shown me, but I’ve since come to gather that in his version I am described as both an “undesirable” and a “subversive” whose best service to national interests was exclusion. Quite a comedown, what? Needless to say I’ve never since ‘forgotten” a passport.
Enter UMass, fighting mad.
On the phone Dean Shapiro’s indignation was comforting. “He said that did he? The arrogant little shmuck! Don’t worry Mike, we’ll see about that. Hold tight.” Hearing that I did not feel so isolated and vulnerable.
The Good Dean sprang into action. Letters and phone calls to Foggy Bottom, no result. Mobilizing the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Sen. Kennedy and such notables, still no result. Finally, all other options being exhausted, a delegation consisting of Mssrs Gluckstern, Shapiro and Bromery was dispatched to the nation’s Capitol.
A long, frustrating meeting with the head of the Latin American section who patently un-impressed with a group of academics from the rustic hinterlands of New England dug in his bureaucratic heels. So same result. “As we have repeatedly told you “the man in country” has final jurisdiction. You must accept that this case is not going to be reversed, no precedent. So there is nothing to be done. Sorry.” Total defeat? But be of good cheer, here come to best part.
Bill Bromery To The Rescue… Go Bill Bromery, Go, Go, Go!
Thoroughly disgruntled and at the end of their options our people were heading back to the airport in frustration when Bro Bromery, who if you recall, had some experience with the turf rivalries within Beltway Bureaucracy sat up.
“Turn the cab around,” he commanded, “we ain’t licked yet.” I tell you turn the cab round. We’re going to Bill Scranton’s outfit.” To the uninformed, recall that the previous year any number of American universities had been shut down by thousands of angry students protesting the war and the Kent State massacre. Former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton had been drafted by Pres. Nixon to head the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest to study the issue, but more importantly to anticipate and head off further outbreaks where possible. “Look diplomats don’t share our interests; to them we’re just academics.” The Brother explained. “But is there an operation within the Beltway that does? Course there is, and that’s where we should’ve gone first.”
Received by the Governor, the pitch was perfect, indeed inspired. First they established “common ground.” What’s with this government, Governor? Seems like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? Absolute Cross purposes here it seems.”
“Whatever are you talking about? Best you explain.” Or words to that effect from the Governor.
“Well Governor, it’s like this: here you are doing your best to curb campus unrest across the nation. Here we are concerned with averting eruptions on our campus. That’s what brings us all the way to DC. We are desperate, at our wits end. Yet the government seems almost schizophrenic. Because across town at State, some knucklehead is taking a position guaranteed to have our Black students burn down the university come September.” Well, to coin a phrase, a little exaggeration in pursuit of (my) liberation is no vice. Our students were no more incendiary than I distinguished, but whatever works. And this did. Notice how deftly the brother played the two notes calculated to get Scranton’s attention? Not just campus unrest, but race driven campus unrest. After hearing the story the Governor got on the phone.
Next day or so Dean Shapiro was on the phone. “Mike get out your passport, within the hour your phone will ring. It will be your Mr. Keeshan and …”
“Wow, Dean Shapiro, I can’t believe…thank you…But how do you know it will be him…”
“No, it will be him, I promise. Just wait for the call, O K.”
Sure enough the call came and it was indeed himself. It was now my turn to enjoy our conversation.
“Mr. Thelwell, bring your passport down to the Embassy…”
“Oh Mr. Keeshan,” I wailed. “This is such a cruel joke. Much too cruel, quite unworthy of you. Have you not told me, in no uncertain terms, that I would never again travel to…”
“Just bring the goddamned passport,” he snarled and hung up.
I think I was there before the phone settled on the hook, but in his office Mr. K was nowhere in evidence. I was met by his secretary. “He’s been called away”. “But he told me to…” “Just hand me the passport”, she said, “I’ll stamp it.”)
Too long I know, but the telling just got too good to me.
Feeling inordinately “privileged” and grateful for the administration’s loyalty, I returned to find classes underway and three new faculty settling in nicely. These were Josephus Vidal Olufemi Richards of Sierra Leone, an amazingly erudite African Art historian and fabric designer; Dovi Afesi, a young African historian from Ghana (in his high school graduating class his chief rival for top academic honors had been a bright young man named Kofi Annan); and Johnnetta Cole an anthropologist who went on to the presidency of Spellman College and is now director of the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Johnetta Cole
Anthropologist, and Director of Musem of African Art
In the prevailing excitement of arrival after the narrow escape, it took me a few days to realize that something, the fourth appointment, which was of an historian on American Slavery, was missing.
“Wait a minute,” I asked, “what happened to the Aptheker appointment?”
“Waal”, drawled Bernie Bell who been interim Chair in my absence, “that’s something the administration been wanting to talk to you about.”
Dr. Bernard Bell
Distinguished Scholar on the Afro-American Novel
Dr. Herbert Aptheker: Historian and Custodian of DuBois Papers
With Madame Signing for University Purchase of DuBois Papers
This was an appointment we had thoroughly discussed among ourselves. Dr Aptheker, a serious scholar of slavery and as I was to discover, something of a disciple of DuBois, had written a book, “American Negro Slave Revolts” which had excited the ire of a cabal of establishment southern historians particularly C. Van Woodward of Yale. According to this group, Aptheker’s work was inferior if not spurious scholarship.
We were convinced that the real issue was that the book definitively refuted the long since discredited “Sambo theory” of slavery, which was at that time curiously influential. This version of our ancestor’s experience held—in total contravention of the preponderance of evidence—that Africans had been so traumatized by the institution that they had been reduced, like Zombies, to a state of psychological paralysis and utter dependence so severe as to foreclose any possibility of resistance.
This was the so-called “Sambo Personality” theory advanced by Stanley M. Elkins, a professor of history at Smith College, just down the road in North Hampton. In an essay titled “Slavery and the Sambo Personality,” Elkins compares the behavior of Jews in Nazi concentration camps with that of African slaves on American plantations, and comes up with something akin to an American version of the Stockholm Syndrome in black and white. The “Elkin’s Thesis” has since been widely debunked, most notably by Professor Sterling Stuckey in his book “Slave Culture.”
Resume edit – Our friend and mentor Professor Kaplan (a founder of the Massachusetts Review) had repeatedly challenged these gentlemen in print to produce evidence of error, even a single instance of omission, carelessness, or falsification of evidence in Aptheker’s work. None were ever forthcoming. Nevertheless Dr. Aptheker, despite impressive publication, had never received appointment to the faculty of any university in the country. Whenever this possibility arose it was always dismissed by reason of “dubious” scholarship though we suspected that the real reason might just possibly have been Dr Aptheker’s prominently held position as “chief theoretician” of the Communist Party, USA. But, of course, we could have been wrong. (I often wondered, but was afraid to ask, just exactly what were the duties of a “Chief Theoretician”?)
However we concluded that since the “poor” scholarship charges seemed clearly a canard, denying a fine scholar employment because of political beliefs was an equally scandalous violation of fundamental principles of academic freedom of which the Academy should be ashamed. And oddly enough, when we had approached Dr. Aptheker he had not discussed ideology nor had he tried to convert much less “brainwash” us. The names Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin never arose in our discussions though those of David Walker, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass had. We discussed black history and found that our positions on that subject were in strong agreement. Which was the basis on which the nomination was made. Now the administration, for which we had complete respect, wanted to discuss it further?
The meeting was to prove very consequential. The top administration was in place when we arrived. Chancellor Tippo, Provost Gluckstern and Dean Shapiro looked real serious. In fact so serious and so bristling with gravitas, that it actually occurred to me to greet them with a bow and the opening words of Othello’s greeting to the Venetian senate, “Most Potent, Grave and Reverend Seigneurs, My most Noble and assured Good Masters,” as Esther, Johnnetta and Ivanhoe seated themselves. But unsure how this might be received, I restrained myself but often wondered what might have happened had I not.
Of the many good qualities I appreciated about Chancellor Oswald Tippo, his principled, directness and a guileless, blunt honesty stand out. He came, as always, straight to the point. They’d looked into Aptheker and everything we said about his scholarship appeared accurate. He agreed that the denigration of his work simply wasn’t fair, and was in fact disgraceful. His work seemed to fit the Department’s mission so on that score it would be a sensible appointment. And, he agreed, in a just world a fine scholar would not be kept out of the Academy because of his political ideas and commitments.
But, that said, there was absolutely no way he was gonna make this appointment. And let’s be quite clear. This is not about scholarship; it’s the communist thing. His administration appointing one of the leading figures in the Communist Party to the faculty? No way. Forget it. As Chancellor he had to be responsible for the interests of the entire University. This appointment would be an utter and complete political disaster. Quite simply it could not be done.
Our side understood, sympathized and expressed measured disappointment. But would it really be such a disaster after all? Assorted importunings were uttered evoking “… the high road… correcting historical injustice… institutional pride… courageous leadership… setting an example… affirming fundamental principle… doing the right thing… leading the way in higher education… Academic freedom.. Yaya, yaya, on and on.
They listened patiently. Look it will not, and simply cannot happen they said. This university has real enemies in the Legislature. Someone, I think Dean Shapiro said,
“Jesus, can’t you just see what Blackie Burke would do with something this?” Looks of genuine horror crossed their faces. “We’d be giving that bastard the knife he’s been looking for to cut the university’s throat.”
Senator Burke, the loud, abrasive and very conservative chairman of the committee out of which the university’s appropriation came, was not a friend of public higher education. At least not in Western Massachusetts anyway.
So we cannot appoint Aktheker but there are things we can do. We can invite him to give a series of eight well-remunerated lectures next year, one each month of the academic year, on the life of Dr DuBois. Further we can assign the department four new positions for which searches can begin immediately. What do you think? Of course what did not need saying was that in return, the department would not publicly raise the issue of academic freedom in connection with the Aptheker appointment. It would not, as in the climate of those times, we were perfectly capable of doing, mobilize some kind of national movement around the issue.
“We appreciate that this is a very thoughtful proposal Gentlemen. But of course, you understand that we shall have to caucus?”
Outside, strange as it might sound today, I actually was torn. There were real principles, important issues of fairness and justice at play. My SNCC instincts were towards riding principle wherever it might lead. On the other hand, I deeply admired the men in that room and, only recently had excellent reason to have been grateful for their support with that arrogant and vindictive consul in Kingston. Also they clearly had respected, perhaps even shared our feelings, about the seriousness of the issue.
I had gotten the distinct impression that they—particularly Chancellor Tippo—would have liked to be able to redress the injustice to Aptheker. But they had to do what they had to do, period… These were not bureaucratic careerists but honorable and intelligent men. Men who shared a thoroughly admirable view, to which I subscribed completely, about the role and possibilities of public higher education. And a truly inspiring vision of the kind of university they intended to build here. Embarrassing them or in any way damaging their mission at the University was the last thing I wanted to do… but principle was principle and standing on principle was easy only when it didn’t cost anything.
In the caucus I suppose we all knew what we had to do but we had to go through the radical motions anyway. Ways to “heighten the contradictions”, or” “bringing pressure to bear” were tossed around. Then Ivanhoe cut to the chase incontrovertibly.
“Who y’awl kidding? What will any of that get us—one national press conference, two at the most, and after that what?” Whereupon good sense was immediately restored.
Back in the meeting the administrators had the grace to pretend relief as though they had not known that we had no sensible other choice. We affected that we were making a painful concession only out of loyalty. Of course we would have to consult Aptheker on the offer but we believed we had achieved common ground. The tension broken, the gathering relaxed and an administrator, Dean Shapiro I think it was, entertained us with the story below about the bush league provincialism that oft-times characterized state politics.
One of those new positions went to John Henry Bracey—now serving his second term as chairman—as it were, trading one fine historian for another. Two were used for Chester Davis and Bill Strickland from The Institute of the Black World in Atlanta and the fourth went to the inimitable and unforgettable Acklyn Lynch. (Bill Belichek never did better with his draft picks, but as he would be the first to tell you, it always is a bit of a gamble.)
The Dean’s Story. Statehouse scuttlebutt on exactly how petty Massachusetts politics can be. Turns out Senator “Blackie” Burke had an ally on the committee even more vocal and relentless in his opposition to the University’s interests. But, as it turns out, this opposition was not primarily a matter of policy but of deep personal grievance, very, very personal. Seems this gentleman, from the southeastern part of the state had, so to say, a close enemy, his next-door neighbor. This was no casual disagreement between neighbors. This was open, mutual hostility. Their relationship had long since deteriorated to the point described in an expressive Igbo phrase translated as “Fight to the knife, knife to the hilt.” Hell, one or both men could simply have moved away, no? But neither would.
So, what has this got to do with the university’s budget you may well ask? Well, both had sons. The time came for college. The senator’s son was accepted at Tufts and he proudly enrolled him there, all the while sneering at the neighbor’s son who had “settled” for Umass, Amherst. However, when school opened that Fall, the neighbor’s son set out for Amherst ostentatiously driving a shiny, brand new car. The senator was aghast to hear the neighbor crowing that while certain idiots were paying in the region of 30K to Tufts, his son’s fees in Amherst were around 13K. The kid’s snazzy new car represented just one year’s savings. A reasonable man might have concluded that the thing to do was to have his son transfer to Umass, but not the Senator. That cheapskate next door can laugh now, he comforted himself, but he’ll very soon see which education is the superior value.
So that when, upon graduation, both young men gained admission to the same prestigious law school (somewhere in the eastern part of the state), the Senator was way beyond outraged. As much, one imagines by the financial injustice as by his neighbor’s insufferable self-satisfaction. The use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize educational welfare to such riff raff was just what was wrong with “Taxachussetts”. This was a political scandal. A misuse of taxpayer money, which it was his clear duty to do everything in his power to end, beginning for precisely that purpose, with a seat on that budget committee …
Looking today at the dramatic downward arc of legislative appropriations to the University and the upward swing of tuition costs to working families in the Commonwealth since then, one really has to wonder… But Senator, I can assure you that tuition still costs a hell of a lot more at Tufts, so sorry! Since this was in 1970 this excellent public servant must have long left the political stage and gone to his well deserved rest. But alas, his legacy survives him.)
Dr Aptheker seemed unsurprised by our news, thanked us for our efforts and reassured us that we were right, building the department had to be our priority and he would be delighted to offer the lectures on DuBois. In the event, the Five College community was treated to a truly extraordinary educational experience. Nothing could have better justified to the community our reason for the association of that name with the department. Aptheker’s evident devotion, combined with his historian’s attention to detail, his intimate acquaintance from working with Dr. DuBois over many years and the respectful care which he obviously devoted to preparing each lecture was a revelation.
DuBois the man was presented all his complex, admirable quirky and enigmatic humanity and the remarkable career of struggle, endurance and accomplishment was situated in the context of history. I had heard Dr. Aptheker speak while at Howard and had not thought him capable of such affecting eloquence. I attribute it to his reverence for the subject. I don’t know whether Dr. Aptheker ever published these lectures, but they certainly, certainly, certainly Lord, deserve to be.
* * * * *********
One afternoon towards the end of the first year of the Department’s official existence my phone in New Africa House rang. It was Vincent Harding, Director of the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, and his voice fairly quivered with excitement. “Mike I can hardly believe what I’ve just this minute discovered,” he burst out. “… This house, the one where we have the Institute, turns out to be one in which DuBois actually lived while at Atlanta University!” His excitement was infectious; this really was beyond coincidence, though not being the Christian minister Vincent is, I was not prepared to attribute it to intelligent design so I said something like,
“Wow. Really? That can’t be an accident my Brother. Truly the ancestors do not sleep, nor do they slumber. But how’d you find this out?”
Well, I’m here talking to Madame DuBois and…”
“Madame? … You, you can’t mean Shirley Graham Dubois can you?”
“None other. That’s exactly who I mean”, he said. “Matter of fact she’s sitting across the room from me right now.”
It was my turn to be flabbergasted. Tell the truth, I hadn’t been entirely sure whether Mrs. DuBois was still alive. I knew that Gamal Abdul Nasser (peace be unto him), had sent a plane for Nkrumah’s wife and family at the time of the coup that overthrew Osageyfo. I’d assumed that his protection would have extended to DuBois’s widow since I had heard that she had moved to Cairo sometime after. But I hadn’t really had reason to think about her. So it was kind’ve a shock to hear that she was actually in the country. My excitement matched Vincent’s, “Oh Man, tell her she’s gotta come to Amherst. Please Brother, you gotta persuade her. Please.”
Vincent left the line then came back to report that Madme. Dubois said that a visit to Amherst, intriguing as it was, simply was not going to be possible this trip. Of course she’d like to come but perhaps next time. I asked to speak with her and explained how great an honor and inspiration it would be if she could come to see what was being done in her husband’s name here at the University of Massachusetts.
She was very gracious. Said that Vincent had said as much but she explained why it simply wasn’t possible. The trip had been a year in the planning. The scheduling was in the hands of organizers who’d had to decline a great many important and attractive invitations that she’d have loved to be able accept. And now the visit was coming to its end. She couldn’t see how another stop could possibly be fitted in.
I begged, pleaded, cajoled, flattered (subtly, to be sure,) and exaggerated shamelessly all in about three minutes.
“You really are most persuasive, young man. Tell you what. I can’t promise anything because it really is out my hands. But I will take the matter to the organizers, old friends whose judgments I respect, and then we’ll see. But don’t get your hopes up.”
I had my fingers crossed but had no way of knowing exactly what those trusted “old friends”, among whom I’m sure Herbert Aptheker would have been prominent, might have said of us… But within a week Madam DuBois called. It was possible for her to be in Amherst for three days after all.
The administration shared our excitement. If there is a university equivalent of a state visit that is what was rolled out for the occasion. Madam DuBois was received onto the Campus by the top leadership. Among us she was impressive and business-like. She spent much time in New Africa House, met the faculty and the students, scrutinized the department proposal and asked really astute and probing questions about everything.
She was a petite lady with a strong face, a no-nonsense demeanor and very alert eyes, which appeared to miss nothing. By the second day, I suspected that she had satisfied herself and reached her conclusions because she visibly relaxed and became expansive. She answered our eager questions about the Doctor, shared their experiences of Ghana and China as well as impressing us with her candid impressions of people like Nkrumah and Nasser and their replacements in office. Before her departure she paid a “courtesy call” on the Chancellor and his close associates, which seemed to go on much longer than mere courtesy would seem to have required. But I thought nothing of it at the time.
My recollection is that although I’d gotten a strong impression that Madam DuBois looked favorably on our efforts, it never would have occurred to me to be so presumptuous as to invite her to join our faculty. I came to suspect though, that such an invitation may have been issued during that unduly lengthy, last courtesy call. In any event Mrs. D did indeed join the department for the 1974—75 academic year. A few years later her son David Graham DuBois would join the faculty and return as a visiting professor in Journalism until his death at the turn of this century.
Shirley Graham DuBois
An intellectual, Writer and Teacher
Dr. and Mrs DuBois at State Function in Ghana
Dr. and Madam DuBois With Ghana President and First Lady
North, South and the American Diaspora
A Widowed Shirley Strolling with Malcolm X
Black Revolutionaries from everywhere visited Ghana
With President Nkrumah and Stokely Carmichael
She Embraced and Instructed Revolutionary Youths
With Dr. DuBois in China
The author of a number of books, Ms D. taught courses in literature for us. In the manner of many of those old time black teachers of our youth she was exemplary and very disciplined. She devoted great care to her teaching preparation and enormous time and concern to her students. In the department’s early days faculty meetings were of necessity much more frequent and one of my most enduring images of her comes from those meetings. As Chair I had to be punctual. But every time I’d arrive exactly on time for a meeting Mrs. Dubois would’ve beaten me there, a solitary, business-like presence sitting erect in the front of the room alert, pen in hand, notebook at the ready.
I’d sit with that elderly lady and, over the next half hour or so, watch the rest of the faculty everyone at least twenty-years her junior, casually straggle in. I grew to admire Mrs. DuBois very much and I was able to spend time in her company. From our conversations I learned a great deal, as much from what she did not say as from what she did but especially from the way she conducted herself always. And in retrospect it is possible to see that certain things, which she did not share, had been perhaps her greatest lesson.
At the end of the year she meticulously completed all her duties, took her leave and departed for China, there to die of cancer in what seemed a very short time. All year she had neither requested nor accepted any special treatment based on age or status. Yet as seems quite evident, she had to have known at least for a considerable portion of that year; that she was terminally ill and may very well have been in some pain. And so far as I know, she never breathed a word to anyone in Amherst.
One day Mrs. DuBois came into my office so angry that she could not sit still nor get her words out. She paced back and forth fuming and unable to control some very strong emotions. Never having seen this dignified lady in such a state this was totally out of character. I was quite concerned and tried to calm her. When she was able to speak it was apparent that she was having difficulty suppressing tears of anger.
“I’m just back from Harvard and I simply can’t remember being as angry. The arrogance…”
Wishing to lighten her mood I attempted quite unsuccessfully a bit of humor.
“Oh, Harvard Mrs. D? Well, that explains everything. Remember what someone said about ‘Harvard, a place where fake pearls are tossed before real swine’?” The lady was in no mood to be distracted or amused.
“No that doesn’t explain anything.” She gestured impatiently; “Now this is serious, you listen …” She had gone there to finalize discussions about Harvard’s acquiring the DuBois papers. DuBois having earned his doctorate there, they felt his papers were theirs as a matter of right, institutional prestige and previous condition of (his)… Really, it was quite unthinkable they could possibly rest anywhere else but the Widener.
On the value and price of the papers there was complete agreement. And once acquired the University would oversee and undertake their appropriate publication by the University’s press. Mrs. D. agreed and pointed out that obvious editor for that project would be the historian who had figured significantly in gathering the collection and consequently best understood them. This was of course Dr. Herbert Aptheker.
Mrs. DuBois was then made to understand in no uncertain terms that once the papers were Harvard’s property only the university would determine their disposition. And she should understand that there was absolutely no possibility of Harvard University’s entering into any such professional relationship with Aptheker. I can only speculate as to what, if any reasons were presented in justification but I’m pretty sure apprehension of the dread “Blackie” Burke was not one of them.
From the intensity of Mrs. D’s outrage and repeated mention of “arrogance”, I suspect that slanders of Aptheker’s scholarly integrity and competence, which had ossified into received wisdom among a certain coterie of academics, may have entered the conversation. They watched her end the discussion and storm out, probably entirely too confident that inevitably she must “come to her senses” and be back cap in hand. What alternative did she have? What alternative for those papers could there be to Harvard? Well, that they were soon to discover.
(To the extent that the Harvard grandees had been surprised by Mrs. DuBois’s indignation they really should not have been. It was pretty common knowledge that Aptheker had for many years done yeoman work tracking down and collecting as many of Dubois’ papers as he was able. And, so the grapevine went, he had done so entirely at personal expense, free from the contamination of a dime of the institutional or philanthropic monies usually awarded as a matter of course to collections of this historical, literary and intellectual significance.
It was the department’s resident historian John Bracey who had given me the sharpest, most enduring image I retain concerning this, “Yeah man, it was nobody but Herbert and Faye Aptheker by themselves, working long nights in their basement organizing, annotating and coordinating that mountain of documents, which is why these papers even exist in their current form at all.”)
Listening to Mrs. DuBois I was relieved to see that recounting the experience seemed to calm her down appreciably.
“Oh Mrs. D don’t distress yourself. Calm yourself; this ain’t the end of the world. In fact, it just might be the best thing that could have happened.” She appeared startled and looked at me as though contemplating the possibility that I had taken leave of my senses.
“No Ma’am, I’m serious. Harvard isn’t the center of the universe, they only think they are. Look over there,” I pointed west out the window; “we can almost see Great Barrington from here. And this university plans to build a great new library. Maybe this is the place where the ancestors intend those papers to find a home, why on earth not?”
Mrs. D was silent and thoughtful for a long minute or two. Then suddenly and completely her face brightened into a radiant smile,
“Yes,” she said with excitement, “yes. That is so right. And this, this is the State University of Massachusetts, isn’t it? It will always be here. At least as long as there is a state.” Mrs. D. was a socialist so that misconception was understandable, and I felt that wasn’t the best moment to enlighten her about the politics of the “Blackie” Burkes of the world or its implications for the university’s permanence.
By then Chancellor Tippo had been succeeded by Randolph “Bill” Bromery a truly extraordinary black man. After flying with the legendary Tuskegee Airman, Bromery had availed himself of the GI bill to become a geologist, worked in government in DC then come to Amherst as Chair of the Geology Department and within a decade had risen to the Chancellorship. From which you might assume, and quite correctly so, that Bro. Bill was uncommonly politically astute and effective.
“Brother Chancellor, Mike Thelwell. Guess who I have in my office? Mrs. DuBois and there’s something important she wishes to discuss with you. No, no. I think it best you hear it from her. But I’m sure this is something that could redound to the great credit of the University and, of course, of your administration. Interested? Of course, I’ll drive her right over.” The rest, to coin a phrase, is history.
Dr. Randolph “Bill” Bromery
Geo-Physicist and Chancellor U-Mass
Bill Bromery: Fighter Pilot
A Tuskegee Airman
But how Chancellor Bromery accomplished it is worth some attention. I have no idea how the papers were evaluated financially. But within a week of their talk the brother began the process to secure the necessary funds to acquire them without recourse to a penny of state funds. He called up the president of “The Friends of the Library”, an alumnus named William Manchester, author of the first published biography of the recently martyred John F. Kennedy which had been a runaway bestseller, an American book of the year, and brought its author extremely high literary visibility. To Manchester’s enthusiastic efforts in those circles, Bromery added chips he could call in from executives of oil companies who had excellent reason to be grateful for the lucrative oil fields his geological expertise had been able to help them locate.
Next came the Aptheker question. He was appointed editor. To allay the long-standing canards re scholarship, an advisory committee of prominent, i.e. “respectable” American historians, chaired by Professor Sidney Kaplan was established to “oversee” publication by the University press. Sid had carefully selected all the members of this committee with the clear understanding that the work would not be onerous. Sid was nothing if not a man of his word, so much so in fact that I cannot recall this supervisory group’s ever having met. So much for oversight. Each of the volumes published have won high critical acclaim for the intelligence brought to the selections and the probity and editorial judgment displayed in their presentation. As I said, Bromery was a man of uncommon resourcefulness and political dexterity.
The next significant event in this “history’ is the naming of the Library. This came in 1994, almost exactly two decades after the events just recounted. This initiative is something for which neither the W.E.B. DuBois department nor the general faculty can take any credit beyond perhaps, having signed a student-generated petition.
All credit belongs entirely to a determined group of progressive graduate students and the leadership of the undergraduate student government who created a campus-wide alliance called the W.E.B. Dubois Petition Coalition to advance a number of issues. In University histories student contributions are accorded obligatory lip service but only rarely the credit that the students sometimes actually deserve. In this case there are two leaders of the Graduate Student Senate without whose devotion, energy and skill there would be no library with the name DuBois on this campus.
Shamala Ivatury, a grad student in Chemistry and Colin S. Cavell, (Polsci) are the students who generally did the heavy lifting. These two organized the coalition, devised the petition and planned and ran a long campaign which ultimately was successful at least in one area, that of the naming of the library. The full petition was testament either to unrealistic student idealism or to deft strategic planning on their part. It challenged the administration to increase Alana student enrollment to 20 percent; minority faculty appointments also to 20 percent; to ensure scholarship availability to all economically challenged students as well as to name the Tower Library for Dr. DuBois. It is not hard to imagine that faced with that list, the university leadership may have arrived at the DuBois Library demand with some considerable relief.
To his great credit the Chancellor David Scott publicly endorsed that element of the student initiative. Presumably against the advice of the more fiscally pragmatic of his advisors who felt the library’s name to be a valuable commodity that could profitably be “branded”, for example perhaps, The Goldman Sachs Research Center or The Kentucky Fried Chicken Library at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
I must have signed the petition, difficult imagine that I wouldn’t have, but I do not remember when or where. What I do remember was a number of phone calls from journalists with questions about DuBois’ joining the communist party, which I was happy to discuss. “That was not on Dr DuBois’ part, an act neither of political naiveté, senility or as your question seems to suggest, “disloyalty to America”. It was at the age of 93 an act of immense courage in affirmation of the most “American” of values, which the Supreme Court had failed to do by refusing to disqualify the McCarran Act.
This now discredited legislation required American citizens—and certain parties suspected of communist sympathies—to register themselves as foreign agents with the government. As an affirmation of every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of thought and association, Dr. DuBois made public application for party membership. And this during what Lillian Hellman had famously called “scoundrel time” because of the cowardice of many progressives in the face of the McCarthyist hysteria of the period.” If I wondered about the source of this sudden flurry of press inquiries the answer was not long in coming.
As we are constantly and painfully reminded, all motion is not progress. In the two decades since the acquisition of the papers, a particularly extreme brand of student conservatism, ideologically nurtured and amply funded by forces outside the universities, had made an appearance on campuses across the country. This university was not spared so that March the local rightwing student paper had sounded the alarm, urgently appealing to the President and Board of trustees to save the library and the university community from itself.
“There’s a radical movement sweeping across the U-mass campus,” it thundered, “attempting to impose a twisted ideology upon an unsuspecting student body. A few misguided individuals here on campus are in the process of immortalizing an admitted communist and racial separatist.”
Nonetheless that same month university President Michael J. Hooker announced the decision of the Board on the students’ petition and the W.E.B DuBois Library of the University of Massachusetts came quietly into existence. In announcing their decision the Trustees were uncommonly eloquent in finding especially appropriate language from the great man himself,
“In 1903 W.E.B.DuBois wrote, a university is a human invention for the transmission of knowledge and culture from generation to generation through the training of quick minds and pure hearts, and for this work no other human invention will suffice…”
Then in their conclusion the Trustees outdid themselves by working in elements of DuBois’ more famous quote from 1903.
“As we march into the twenty-first century, we feel that it is time to go beyond the color line and appropriately name the tower library in honor of one of the finest heroes, not only of Massachusetts but of the world –William Edward Burghardt DuBois.”
Sometimes institutions do make really good decisions, and for right and honorable reasons. “Give praise and thanks. Let the Church say, Ahmen.”
Ekwueme Michael Thelwell,
Pelham, Ma. September 26, 2013
Editor’s Note: The WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American studies was also the first department to successfully include Jazz – Afro-american classical music – into the curriculum when we appointed the master musicians Max Roach – drummer/composer/bandleader – and Saxophonist/composer/ bandleader Archie Shepp to the faculty. Max roach was one of the most influential percussionist in the world with generations of musicians studyin his innovations. Professor Roach was a giant of the Bop and Post-Bop periods and Professor Shepp innovator of the 1960’s avant Garde.
Double click to see Max Perform
With the Virtuosso South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim
Double Click to see Professor Shepp Perform
With the Great Afro-Cuban Pianist Chucho Valdez