W. E. B. DuBois as an early environmentalist

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Up in the Berkshires where we have a second home, we have become very conscious of W. E. B. DuBois, who was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Only recently has DuBois been given the attention in his home town that he should have had all along. Great Barrington shunned its black native son until fairly recently, partly because of his race and partly because–like quite a few idealistic, progressive Americans in the 40s and 50s–he had communist sympathies; it was the era of McCarthyism. Near the end of his life, he was so disillusioned that he moved to Africa. He died in Ghana at the age of 95, on the day before Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

DuBois was an exceedingly interesting and important person by any standard, a pioneering figure who was the first African-American ever to receive a doctorate from Harvard. He was a co-founder of the NAACP and the founder of the Niagara Movement, the first significant activist organization to promote the rights of “black folk” (the name of DuBois’ most famous book, one among many trail-blazing works, is The Souls of Black Folk). A brief glance at his biographical data gives a sense of his remarkable qualities and achievements, as well as his prickly, contrarian side. I am a supporter of local efforts to promote his memory in Great Barrington, a cause which has seen significant success in the last decade. He was truly a citizen of the world, a man of remarkable sophistication and of many facets.

To illustrate: Our local online newspaper, The Berkshire Edge,  has just published a splendid, poetic speech given by DuBois on the subject of the Housatonic River, which flows through the center of Great Barrington. I read this speech  with amazement; it identifies him as an early environmentalist. It is hard to believe it was written in 1930, almost forty years before the first Earth Day of 1969 (in which, I can’t resist mentioning, I was a proud participant). There is an organization in southern Berkshire County which supports the River Walk along the Housatonic, a delightful stroll which I often take. The river has been hideously polluted for a long time, as DuBois describes (it got a lot worse after his time), and it still needs a good deal of remediation, but the work of restoring the banks of the river to its native condition has been proceeding apace–thanks, in part, to an enthusiastic group of high school students called the Greenagers. There are several spots along the walk where DuBois is remembered, particularly a rain garden in his memory, which captures runoff for the nurture of healthy native plants.

I hope that my readers will take an interest in W. E. B. DuBois after reading this remarkably prescient and moving speech that he gave about the river he loved:

The story of the struggle to gain recognition for DuBois in Great Barrington, which has required decades of work by a few brave, tireless advocates, is told in Those About Him Remained Silent, by Amy Bass (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

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