On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to a most powerful and inspiring lecture from Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois — a lecture in the language and rolling alliterative cadences of civil rights struggle which was such a pleasure and inspiration to listen to. It was wonderful to feel how language and subject can transform a space, bring a sense of history and movement to fill the air and the soul. Even better that it should be as the ‘British Journal of Sociology 2016 Annual Public Lecture’, best of all to find it in a place become as corporate as LSE.
A shame, as the LSE is no stranger to movement, and still has a number of vibrant scholars.
Aldon Morris wrote what may be my favourite book looking at the Civil Rights Movement — it’s hard to limit myself given how much good work is out there, but it may well be true. I have been working through another collection he co-edited on social movement, and I am looking forward to reading more about Du Bois (whose book on Philadelphia published in 1899 made me question everything I knew about the field of urban studies — but not deeply enough I realise) and the men and women who forged an engaged and meaningful sociology with him at Atlanta University — all highlighted in Morris’s latest work The Scholar Denied.
I will save a deep engagement with Morris’s argument for the happy time when I manage to read my newly-signed copy ( I got a hug too! As if my evening were not already awesome). I just wanted to remember the things that most remained with me from the lecture. First how it struck me that this book is not just about granting Du Bois his rightful place in the canon — important as that is. That alone would surely be too little too late. The importance of returning to Du Bois lies in his continuing significance in both the substance and method of our own thought and scholarship, primarily — and to paraphrase — in the ways he was about challenging paradigms, disrupting narratives, and illuminating truths. There was such a clarity about the ways in which the dismissal of Du Bois and the importance of his work has led to an impoverished sociology from its beginnings. This is what needs to be challenged so that it is never forgotten — and of course the challenge continues as part of the struggle to increase a diversity of background and experience within sociology — the key to avoiding similar impoverishment today.
What Du Bois did in his own time was to challenge the prevailing, and sloppy, car-window sociology and theorisations based upon the unchallenged fallacies of Jim Crow racism. He set out to challenge and prove that these unquestioned beliefs were in fact myth. I had forgotten that he was a trained historian rather than sociologist, and so he always contextualised his work within the history of the rise of racist mythologies (more and more I think this historical contextualisation is the key to understanding all injustice). To do so he chose to live and work within Black communities, to interview people to bring their voices to bear on these questions, to understand their experiences, and in that way to create a body of evidence through fieldwork to support the absolute destruction of a biological basis for white supremacy in Black inferiority.
Three of Du Bois’s many contributions:
- the theorisation of the global colour line — not just in the US but as a global phenomenon emerging out of colonialism
- Idea of double-consciousness, and a prefiguring of intersectionality
- the importance of standpoint — he turned the whole formulation of the ‘Negro’ problem (still being asked by Myrdal and others decades later) upside down, asking people ‘how does it feel to be a ‘problem?’ He worked to challenge the construction of such ideas and the privileging, the normalising, of the white viewpoint. Such unquestioned normalisation is the essence of shoddy scholarship, is it not?
Then, of course, there is his work for the NAACP, his continuing engagement in social justice movement, his support of students in radical struggle, and their right to be radical and fight as they felt called — the way he continues to be a model for scholars in how they understand and change the world.
This hardly does justice to either the content or the kind of inspiration to be gained that evening — but the podcast from LSE can be found here. The evening came as a crown to a truly lovely, if very long day, and I shared those final hours with Ules, still finishing his PhD on migrants and their relationships with charity. Both of us felt a similar happiness, I think, in hearing a Black scholar reclaim the radical righteousness of Du Bois in LSE’s Old Building. Even if we were shafted in a rather disgraceful organisational breakdown that meant the reception scheduled to take place after the lecture was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the talk.
I was tired, though. That morning had started with a few hours on the train from Bristol, then a very long coffee then lunch then pastries in Russell Square with friends-who-are-really-family, Geoffrey and Heather from The Circle Works. Some talking about space and community building and care. Then a quick walk up to the British Library to meet with the wonderful Debbie Humphrey for the first time. She was interviewing me for City‘s website and made me feel like my stories and articles had some real value, it was such an honour and a pleasure though I was incredibly long-winded. Next time, of course, I shall have to be the one interviewing her, because her photographs are spectacular and her work fascinating and full of insight on the lived experience of housing and struggle. Some of my favourite things. There is much I miss about London, if only it weren’t eating itself.