Excavating History and a Homeplace: An Interview on W. E. B. Du Bois’s Impact, Influence, and Legacy
Phillip Luke Sinitiere: When did you initially encounter the work and ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois? What of his books or writings first influenced your thinking? How has your own work and scholarship on Du Bois changed over time?
Whitney Battle-Baptiste: I grew up in a family where my mom was a teacher, so education was always front and center. As a young girl I knew who Du Bois was. I knew what W. E. B. stood for. I knew of his work at the NAACP on The Crisis, and I knew of The Souls of Black Folk, which was probably the first book I read. Darkwater was also accessible to me growing up. My mom completed graduate school when I was 5 years old or so. Her specialty was China so as a part of her graduate studies, she took the opportunity to teach abroad at the University of Taipei, so we lived in Taiwan for a year. I don’t remember if I encountered Du Bois’s work in Taiwan; however, my mother’s decision to focus on China studies was a mark of how Du Bois’s work influenced my family. But I also don’t remember that communism wasn’t a reason not to know who Du Bois was; his radical phase wasn’t something I knew much about, but communism was never a bad word. I also grew up in a household sympathetic to black nationalism.
Once I got to UMass in 2007 I began to understand much more about Du Bois, not just the more popularly known facts about his earlier work with the NAACP, the Talented Tenth, and The Souls of Black Folk. As I started to uncover his family life in western Massachusetts at the homesite in Great Barrington and engage in more archaeological work, I began to learn more about him as a human being. The more I read the more I understood that he came from a family of service workers and farmers—farmers that often worked other people’s land—and despite not being large landowners, held a small tract of land that was passed along generation after generation. I came to see that his mother Mary Silvinia pushed him towards education as a way to get away from an uncertain future in Great Barrington. I started to understand that at the core of his being he believed that education was the way to overcome his experience of the Berkshires. Then he went to Fisk and found his life’s calling and purpose. The Talented Tenth was thus only the beginning of the process of uplift.
There’s an interesting centrality of kinship experience both in the U. S. and internationally that has shaped my conceptualization of Du Bois up to this point. For me to understand Du Bois as a human I need to understand his family. As a black feminist archeologist studying Du Bois I am trying to understand from the domestic space outward.
Based on these experiences, in my 2011 book Black Feminist Archaeology I wrote, “Du Bois is now in my system for good. So, as I believe in the power of the past, the importance of ancestors and the significance of place, I want to bring Du Bois back home, forever.”1 Part of this emerged from my work on what I call his “homeplace”2 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Conducting fieldwork in western Massachusetts I not only found Du Bois himself, but I was also able to excavate the larger kinship networks of which he was a part, in other words the House of the Black Burghardts. It contextualizes both Du Bois’s background and what he became. It’s one of the places that he felt most comfortable. The homeplace idea—the kinship relations, the cultural and familial networks with which he engaged throughout the entirely of his career, his grandmother Sally Burghardt, his mother Mary, his cousin Lena Wooster, for example—helped to flesh out and inform my concept of black feminist archaeology. For me, the House of the Black Burghardts is at the center of the story, and the idea of extended kinship is the story of Great Barrington, and to some extent the neglected story of Du Bois’s life. In these ways, the work that I do touches on his early life when he’s still in Great Barrington, moves through his mid-career in the 1920s when he receives the Great Barrington property as a gift of the NAACP, and figures into his later years when he buries Nina there in 1950 and his daughter Yolande in 1961. Throughout Du Bois’s life there’s evidence of a kind of perpetual longing for homeplace.
In terms of my scholarship, working on aspects of Du Bois’ works has helped me to think more critically about the ways that archaeological inquiry and interpretation can push the dialogues around race and racism, sexism (and heteronormativity), classism, bi-partisanism, economic and social exclusion (read flawed immigration policies here), etc. to a level grounded in historical context as well as how all of these issues bring us back to the materiality in our lives. In the past, there were many methods that pushed a hopeful lower class (of immigrants and African Americans) to see how the accumulation of material would be akin to economic, and hopefully social, capital. It is through material that success is possible—through material there is liberation. Yet, it is the very material that is often the means for social and economic exclusion. The inability to fully participate in the capitalist system is not based on how much material you accumulate, because it does not produce wealth, it does not facilitate generational movement, but maintains the myth of “material liberation.” These dimensions of material culture come from the direct engagement of being at the Du Bois Center. Being around scholars, reading more intensely the ways in which history and archaeology intersect has moved my work to a more contemporary archaeological practice. My work on black materiality came from this engagement.
There’s also a sense in which my work on black materiality has a bearing on how I analyze Du Bois’s production of scientific knowledge. In a book co-edited with my UMass colleague Dr. Britt Russert, we examine the “data portraits” Du Bois made in conjunction with his students that depicted statistical and analytical measures of black progress, survival, and history for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. His act of publicizing knowledge of this kind on a world stage materialized black American life diasporically at a particular moment of modernity. This kind of scholarly and popular production—using history, data, and cultural resources to speak to the historical present—is something that my scholarship attempts to do and what I envision the Du Bois Center doing on campus and in the wider community. The fact that these data portraits are also available online at the Library of Congress means that Du Bois’s digital legacy is increasing the reach and understanding of his work to a new generation of scholars and intellectuals.3
Sinitiere: Please discuss the origins of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst.
Battle-Baptiste: When I first arrived at UMass Amherst in 2007 I immediately became a part of the existing Du Bois Steering Coming. This group consisted of faculty from UMass departments such as history, anthropology, Afro American Studies, and community partners from Great Barrington and what was then a group called “Friends of the Du Bois Homesite.” At that time, most of the efforts of the Du Bois Steering Committee were to maintain the annual Du Bois birthday lecture and a small Du Bois fellowship. The goals in those years were to create the Du Bois Center and expand programming, etc. The Du Bois Center was created in 2009. First under the direction of visiting postdoctoral fellow Dr. Maurice Hobson (now at Georgia State University), the Du Bois Center expanded the reach of the annual lectures, and hosted prominent scholars such as Dr. Lonnie Bunch, Dr. Evelyn Higginbotham, and Dr. Derrick Aldridge. After the first year, Springfield native Brooks Fitch stepped in for a year to help with our community outreach. When I became director in 2014, I was able to expand on the foundation that both Hobson and Fitch had laid. In 2016 we applied for and received a generous three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund the expansion of our postdoctoral and graduate fellowship programs.
Sinitiere: The physical space of the Du Bois Center is important. While we could discuss its location on the 22nd floor of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library on the campus of UMass Amherst, and its proximity to the Du Bois Papers on the 25th floor, I’m particularly interested in the “material memory” of Du Bois that inhabits the Center in the form of photographs, images, and material traces of his life.4 Can you discuss how your sensibility as an archaeologist shaped how you framed the Du Bois Center, which hosts roundtables, forums, discussions, and scholars conducting research. Take us “inside” the Du Bois Center, as it were.
Battle-Baptiste: The process of creating the physical space of the Center took place over time and materialized in relation to cultivating institutional collaborations in connection to building up the homesite in Great Barrington (e.g., building a parking lot, creating interpretive signs, clearing pathways, etc.). Attaining the physical space of the Center in 2014 and getting it cleared and claimed opened up a new set of possibilities and questions—Who are we? Why are we? I was concerned to make a space associated with Du Bois that was comfortable for black and brown students. One year, ironically, exchange students from China used the Du Bois Center as a meeting space. Also, we’ve hosted Sankofa meetings here because members of the group saw Du Bois as a Pan-Africanist. In addition, we are in the process of beginning the Irma Mclaurin Black Feminist Archive, the first of its kind at a public university. We host a variety of groups at the Du Bois Center, including Upward Bound from UMass Amherst, charter schools in the area, as well as undergraduate classes on campus. Upward Bound students gather at the Center, as do local charter schools. The Graduate Students of Color Association hold monthly writing sessions in the Center, so it’s becoming a place, a haven that welcomes a broad cross-section of people and groups.
With the images I chose for the Center’s interior walls I wanted to reflect Du Bois’s presence at different stages of his life. There’s the family photo of Du Bois, Nina, and Burghardt from the late 19th century that faces a photo of him and Shirley from the 1950s. Images from his play The Star of Ethiopia reflect artistic sensibilities. An image of Du Bois and contemporaries in the Niagara Movement document some of his earlier political work. A photo of Du Bois with Horace Mann Bond and a young Julian Bond display his commitments to black education as well as the residence of Horace Mann Bond’s Papers at UMass. Other images from his latter years, including his time in Ghana, present Du Bois’s radical period as a communist which is central to understanding who he was and what he means for today. But there’s more I want to do visually in the Center by drawing from the talents of black artists to create Du Bois murals. I want to bring more art to the Center. I also want to include more artifacts to fill our space and our walls. By fleshing out parts of the material memory of Du Bois, I want visitors to the Center to feel his presence here.
Sinitiere: As Director, what role does the Center serve on campus? And off-campus within Amherst, and greater Massachusetts community? Put another way, how might you describe its academic, activist, and cultural missions? In what ways do these missions connect to the history and practice of socialism and democracy?
Battle-Baptiste: This question has shifted since we spoke this summer. A lot has changed on a number of levels during the fall 2018 semester. First, we have had a few “racial” incidents on campus at UMass. The first was an anonymous caller describing an agitated black man entering the administration building. In turn, the police shut the building down and then questioned the man. He was a long-time employee going to work after working out in the gym. Racial profiling was the culprit here, not the police. Our police chief, also a black man, trained his officers to assess the situation, not escalate it. We still do not know who the anonymous woman caller is. Incident number two, in a dormitory housing a program called “Emerging Scholars”—usually students of color and first-generation students—there was very prominent graffiti on the wall that read “Hang Niggers.”5
On campus there will be a forum hosted by the W. E. B. Du Bois Center and the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro American Studies titled, “The Problem of the Color Line: A Discussion of Racism & Racial Profiling on Campus.” We understand that students have a voice, but we, as scholars, want to help to put a historical context onto these incidents and to not get lost in the fleeting nature of instant news; this has a foundation across time.
The students are not happy. They are also not happy because the current university campaign is about “Building a Community of Dignity & Respect,” and many of the students I have spoken to do not see the university’s response as strong enough. For the first time, and with a new Chair of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, Stephanie Shonekan, the Du Bois Department and the Du Bois Center are the “go to” places for results and to have these difficult conversations. It is what my vision for the Du Bois Center has always been. I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of the safety and comfort of our students.
The campus profile of the Center is not just narrowly seen as a space for intellectuals to gather and talk through ideas and write papers and articles and books. We are starting to be seen as a voice and a place for expression and real talk. I know we have a long way to go, but this place is starting to reflect more and more the central spirit of Dr. Du Bois.
Sinitiere: As you think about the juncture of the present historical moment and the sesquicentennial of Du Bois’s birth, how might his publications, unpublished writings, and intellectual, political, and cultural legacy in concert with your own archaeological work on him and his history inform contemporary struggles for socialism and democracy?
Battle-Baptiste: This question resonates with me. In one of my earliest conversations with Bernard Jaffe, a radical Jewish lawyer to the core who was a friend, comrade, and confidante of W. E. B. and Shirley, he said to me through the tears of intensity and memory, Du Bois lived at a moment where this country could have gone a different way. In some ways Jaffe believed that Du Bois probably had an unhealthy faith that it wasn’t all written in stone that it was inevitable that capitalism was going to be the way that we would go. Jaffe was talking about the evolution of Du Bois’s consciousness over time. How the idea of socialism could materialize from the circumstances of Du Bois’s birth, responding to the idea of advancement through progress and the myth of meritocracy. Jaffe conveyed to me that as Du Bois’s radicalism increased during the 1950s and early 1960s, the belief that there was another possible world beyond capitalism was beginning to wane. After the most recent 2016 election, I began to think about Jaffe’s words and thoughts again, and what this this very moment means when a CEO becomes President. Studying Du Bois and his life and times gives me perspective on the kind of fear that having a black President stoked, and how Trump is in part a response to that. I feel empathy for people who still believe in capitalism as a future possibility in the sense that when they realize it’s not, I’ll be here to help them understand the disappointment they feel about the system and with the United States. Du Bois felt that disappointment, and we can channel his work at this very moment to make sense of today’s conditions.
Du Bois has given me the ability to have some steel in my back about being unapologetically consistent in my positions in support of socialism and democracy, which is why his work touches so many genres. He understood the long term nature of justice work. He was a man of all times. His work was timeless because he saw what was happening in front of him. He didn’t ignore it. He used the tool that he had—the pen—to work through the ideas and put it out there, sometimes to the masses, sometimes to specific people.
In this moment, it is not difficult to share the words of Du Bois in a number of settings. Time after time, when I give talks about the work of Du Bois or the events at the Du Bois Center, I realize how unfamiliar most people are to the broad range of his scholarship. From The Crisis, to the Niagara Movement, too often being labeled one of the founding fathers of the Civil Rights Era, many of those I encounter are unfamiliar with the radical Du Bois. The Du Bois that championed understanding the wealth gap between black and white, a system of universal health care, the ability of women to make their own choices with their lives and be poets and writers and scholars and more, the direct connection between capitalism and poverty. This is the work that I offer to my audiences—just bringing attention to the ways in which the language of Du Bois is a direct reflection of the path our country, where our society is headed. Fake news, Russian manipulation, the divisiveness of a two-party system, a businessman President and a flawed electoral college. It is not a stretch to engage students, activists, disbelievers, elders, and young folks—they all listen at some point and at some level.
1 Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Black Feminist Archaeology (New York: Left Coast Press/Routledge, 2011), 135-162.
2 bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 41-50.
3 Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, eds., W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). For the data portraits, see the Library of Congress’s digital archive of the African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/anedub/.
4 The term “material memory” is from Laurence Olivier, trans. Arthur Greenspan, The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2011), 34.
5 For local and national stories about these events see, for example, Scott Jaschik, “Walking on Campus…While Black,” Inside Higher Ed, September 18, 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/09/18/incident-umass-latest-whi... Hayley Johnson, “Anonymous tip sent to UMPD about claims of an ‘agitated Black male;’ University employee was walking to work,” Daily Collegian, September 15, 2018, https://dailycollegian.com/2018/09/anonymous-tip-sent-to-umpd-about-clai... Spencer Buell, “Someone Called the Police on a Black UMass Amherst Employee for No Reason,” Boston Magazine, September 17, 2018, https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2018/09/17/black-umass-amherst-emplo... Hayley Johnson, “Racist message written in Melville bathroom,” Daily Collegian, September 24, 2018, https://dailycollegian.com/2018/09/racist-message-written-in-melville-ba... Michael Connors and Rithika Senthilkumar, SGA holds forum to address racial injustice on campus, Daily Collegian, September 28, 2018, https://dailycollegian.com/2018/09/sga-holds-forum-to-address-racial-inj....