I kept silent out of respect for those who worked so hard to honor Great Barrington’s native son, W. E. B. DuBois, including the Gunns, Skip Meade and Esther Dozier. For the volunteer artists who painted the DuBois mural, not once but twice. For Carr Hardware for their generous support of the project. And Railroad Street Youth for their sponsorship.

But I’m disturbed by what seems a case of mistaken identity. A recent letter in the Eagle and Record celebrates the new DuBois mural, so very happy that we finally have “a community-friendly DuBois.”
DuBois never tolerated fools. And considering he was an Einstein-like genius, he was always surrounded by fools like you and me. And he was fired many times for his arrogance and obstinacy.

Those who fought against honoring DuBois, however much they distorted American radicalism, were closer to the truth than those who celebrate an illusion. They, at least, knew they were dealing with a radical, not some pre-Obama middle-of-the-road Democrat.

DuBois was a world-class historian, the father of sociology, the first proponent of a systematic program for black power, and a novelist. But, above all, he was a tireless revolutionary.

He wrote in 1944: “I am a socialist and have been for many years and that creed means to me that the wealth of a nation like this should be increasingly socialized; that the primary resources, the capital goods and machinery should to an increasing extent be owned by all the people and not by private persons for private profit …”

His doctoral thesis revealed how thoroughly slavery was ingrained in both the economic and social life of the American colonies. His 1915 study, “The Negro,” estimates the number of slaves brought in chains to America:

“Dunbar estimates that nearly 900,00 came to America in the sixteenth century, 2,750,00 in the seventeenth, 7,000,000 in the eighteenth, and over 4,000,000 in the nineteenth, perhaps 15,000,000 in all. Probably every slave imported represented on average five corpses in Africa or on the high seas.” That’s a holocaust of 75 million black souls.

His groundbreaking “The Philadelphia Negro” unstintingly examined the ignorance, poverty, and crime that marked the lives of his Philadelphia compatriots. Urging hard work and responsibility, he nevertheless unflinchingly put their condition into context:

“If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth – if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the twentieth century, then our civilization is in vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce.”

DuBois was always dealing with folks who wanted him to be a more compliant, “community-friendly” version of himself.

In 1910, he wrote:

“Some good friends of the cause we represent fear agitation … They add, ‘Agitation is destructive or at best, negative.’ … The function of this organization is tell this nation the crying evil of race prejudice. It is a hard duty but a necessary one … It is Pain; Pain is not good but it is necessary … Aggravation calls for Agitation in order that Remedy may be found.”

He wrote in 1914:

“I do not believe any people had so many ‘friends’ as the American Negro today. He has nothing but ‘friends’ and may God deliver him from most of them, for they are like to lynch his soul.”

You want the “community-friendly DuBois,” you’ve got the wrong dead black man. Try Booker T. Washington. Washington argued that agitating for social equality was foolish; and made alliances with powerful whites believing that gradualism would best serve his people. Washington accepted what he believed were their limitations, and called for the recognition “that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour.”

To DuBois, this policy was surrender and contributed “to the disenfranchisement of the Negro;” the legal creation of … civil inferiority for the Negro;” and “the steady withdrawal of aid” to Negro-controlled institutions, especially the black colleges.

DuBois was looking not for friends but for allies of all colors and creeds in the struggles for equality, for social and economic justice, and against all forms of colonialism. Were he alive today, he’d be fighting to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, railing against Obama’s bailout of Wall Street and agitating for the replacement of capitalism with an economic system based on equity not greed.

Like all of us, DuBois made his share of mistakes: most grievously believing the propaganda that Russia had created a socialist utopia.

Perhaps it’s time to read and study the man himself. Then honor his brilliant scholarship, accept his crankiness, and celebrate a lifetime of radical activism that led to his indictment by the U.S. government and his decision to live and die in Ghana.

The Berkshire Record, Thursday August 12, 2010. © Mickey Friedman. All rights reserved.