Another Side of W.E.B. Du Bois Has Been Presented

By Miranda Reale

NEW PALTZ – At the core of his most acclaimed work “The Soul of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ first foray into his family history and own genealogy is not immediately apparent, but can be traced by the skilled reader. In Dr. Kendra Taira Field’s exploration into his lifelong genealogical work, she focused on letters and private writings that garnered little interest from others. Stumbling upon his intimate vulnerabilities and his yearning for family and familial belonging, she came to understand the essential role that family and family history played in Du Bois’ studies of race, as well as her own. In a virtual presentation hosted by Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz: “W.E.B. Du Bois’ Huguenot Lineage and the Work of Family History,” Dr. Field explained her work in family history and genealogy alongside Du Bois’.

As a child in the 1970s and ‘80s, she said that she loved nothing more than listening to her grandmother’s stories about growing up African American and Creek Indian in 1920s Oklahoma. Drawing upon these stories and sources, Dr. Field wrote a dissertation and later a book about what she called Freedom’s First Generation, a generation of women and men who were born enslaved and grew up during the time of Emancipation, and together navigated the rise and fall of Reconstruction in the United States. In a trajectory not unlike Du Bois’, Dr. Field’s interest in her family’s history eventually amounted to something greater, developing into an expanding conversation about race in America; but this trajectory was not immediately clear to her when first becoming acquainted with him.

Great Barrington, Mass. High School graduating class, June 1884. W.E.B. Du Bois “Willie,” far left. Photo provided by the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
Great Barrington, Mass. High School graduating class, June 1884. W.E.B. Du Bois “Willie,” far left. Photo provided by the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

It was at her father’s bedside at Jersey City’s Christ Hospital that David Levering Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize winning biography of W.E.B. Du Bois was gifted to her. The last book her father would give her, it was inscribed “I cannot choose the best, the best chooses me,” a quote from the Bengali poet Tagore. In the days and then the years that followed, “I would visit the places he once traveled, retell the stories he once told,” she said. At the time her father gave her the Du Bois biography, she did not see a connection. He was a man of a different time, a man surrounded by women, a man in a top hat, and so self assured making history across the globe it seemed. But a year later, that book with her when starting her graduate degree at NYU, she landed an opportunity at a research position with David Levering Lewis who was working on what would become the second volume of the W.E.B. Du Bois biography.

She spent years pouring over Du Bois’ writings, travels, studies, protests, and scholarship. While discovering all of the details of his life, it occurred to her later that Du Bois was in fact searching for himself. “I was reminded that before he was Du Bois, he was William. Like the rest of us he was afraid. He was searching for a home, yearning for a place to belong. And where one did not exist, William Du Bois used his growing resources to create such a place,” Dr. Field said.

Throughout the presentation last Thursday, the origins of what Du Bois is known for today was set against a background of compulsive self discovery; from adolescence into middle age, he scattered and sketched his imagined familial heritage. He typed up family trees, identified unknown forebears, and obsessed over grave sites. “In spite of this scale and scope of this work, we have yet to fully engage with him as a family historian and genealogist. He did this work privately and he did this work reflexively, as if his life depended on it,” Dr. Field said.

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