What Would WEB Du Bois Tell Henry Jenkins and Soulja Boy?

The Criteria for Negro Art in the Age of Computational Media

In June, 2008, I attended a presentation in which Henry Jenkins, then Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, contemplated the lessons of Soulja Boy Tellem’s use of what he calls “participatory culture” to create a career as a hip-hop star. Jenkins described how teenager DeAndre Ramone Way (Soulja Boy)  built a fan base by posting the music and a home video of his song, “Crank Dat,” and encouraging listeners to remix it, make video responses to it, and share it freely. (The presentation video is only available to members of the New Media Consortium.)

The process illustrates Jenkins’ concept of “spreadable” culture — a term that he argues is more accurate than the  “viral”   model, since viruses proliferate by attacking their hosts, while “spreadable” culture invites voluntary participation. He showed examples of fan videos of “Crank Dat,” including produced by his MIT grad students. Then Jenkins paralleled Soulja Boy’s encouragement of artistic appropriation and the cultural borrowing employed by Herman Melville in crafting Moby Dick.

In his blog, Jenkins mused about Soulja Boy’s precocity:

I can’t decide what fascinates me the most about this story: the fact that this teenager broke into the front ranks of the entertainment industry by using tools and processes which in theory are accessible to every other person of his generation or the fact that he has recognized intuitively the value in spreading his content and engaging his audience as an active part of his promotional process.

Jenkins did not address the actual lyrical content of Soulja Boy’s music, and the actual ideas being packaged in the catchy beat and the playful dance steps. The content wasn’t the point of the presentation. The lyrics offer the kind of  puerile vulgarity one might expect from a boy who is trying to impress his peers with stories about his sexual prowess and toughness.  “Crank Dat” includes such lines as:

“Soulja boy off on this hoe…

“Then Superman that hoe…”

“I’m jocking on your bitch ass
And if we get the fighting
Then I’m cocking on your bitch ass…”

The lyrics reflect the cliches associated with the worst of hip-hop:  degrading women while  declaring dominance over other males by feminizing and threatening them.  When Soulja Boy released “Crank Dat,” he was a 16-year-old high school student, and the song was spread largely by other teenagers.  The character that Way portrays in the video is the stereotypical black male hip-hopper: hypersexual, prone to violence, gaudily attired. But the implausibility of the lyrics suggest that, like most amateur writers, Way is imitating what he has heard or gleaned from listening to others, not writing from life experience.

Jenkins showed videos of smiling teenagers and young adults bouncing on one foot, cranking their arms and lunging forward to make the “Superman” gesture.

In conversations with other conference participants, I seemed to have been the only person who was profoundly disturbed by the content that Way, AKA Soulja Boy, his minions, and ultimately, his record company were spreading. In part, I later learned, that was because many of my colleagues weren’t familiar with the lyrics. There was also the fact that “Crank Dat” was only another in a long list of songs, cartoons, games and other media content that they knew kids were exposed too. It wasn’t the worst thing most kids would be exposed to. And after all, it’s not as if vulgar or even racially stereotypical music originated with remix culture.

I probably sounded like the scolds of the 1950s yelling about rock and roll, or the highbrows at the beginning of the 20th century inveighing against comic books and “pulp” novels. The Republic was still standing. I’m sure some thought I needed to smooth out that bunch in my panties and move on.

Or maybe not. The practice of analyzing form and distribution apart form content sits well within the tradition of media studies, going back to Marshall McLuhan’s declaration that “The Medium is the message,” and in rhetorical terms, “The medium is the massage.” However, I find Kathleen Welch persuasive when she argues that rhetorical analysis of both content and delivery is important to understanding the social justice implications of modern communications. If one follows the history of remixing trail of “Crank Dat,” one finds that its commercial success, facilitated by social media, led to the song being played in venues that would have been unimaginable in earlier times.

For example, a few months earlier, I had been sent a link to another performance of the song by a frustrated colleague and fellow member of the National Association of Black Journalists. It seemed that someone thought it would be fun to liven up a New York local morning traffic report with a performance of the song. The traffic reporter, Jill Nicolini, was part of the morning news “happy talk” format. A former Playboy bunny and occasional reality TV star, she routinely drafted men to dance with her after detailing the morning’s jams, delays, and alternate side-of-the-street parking rules. On this particular morning, she summoned Craig Treadway, the co-anchor, as her dance partner.

The Dancing Weather Girl – Watch more Funny Videos

The most telling moment for me was when Treadway broke into a tap dance.  What was Treadway’s shuffle? And what do we make of the black male crew member bunny-hopping in the background?

I don’t know Mr. Treadway, Nicolini or any of the other members of that newscast, and I have hesitated for more than a year about writing this post because I’m not trying to cast aspersions on him or any other cast member of the show. If this post does that, I apologize in advance.  They were doing their jobs, and perhaps they even had some fun. What I am trying to probe, as delicately as possible, is the meaning of the moment for journalistic norms in the age of remix culture.

Of course, the packaging of local television news as entertainment has been going on for a long time. A quarter-century ago, Neil Postman demonstrated the emerging parallels between the television news show and a television show designed as entertainment in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Entertainment (Penguin, 1985.):

“If you were the producer of a television news show for a commercial station, you would not have the option of defying television’s requirements…. You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters…. You would have a weatherman [sic] as comic relief, and a sportscaster who is a touch uncouth (as a way to relate to the beer-drinking common man.)  You would package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business.

“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the world….” (p. 106)

I came of age professionally during the early 1980s, so as a news consumer and media professional, I understand the pecking order of news shows. The anchor might smile and exchange some banter, but the anchor stayed dignified. I wasn’t thrilled at Nicolini’s shtick, but I understood it for the reasons, Postman described. What I wasn’t ready for was an anchorman to be drawn into the clowning. It is very likely that what stuck in my craw was the sight of Treadway, who probably had to endure a great deal to attain an anchor desk in a major market, pulled out of the role on which, traditionally, his credibility rested.

There is one sense in which the problem is entirely mine, because it represents a collapsing of norms my generation of media professionals can’t quite stomach. It has become clear in recent years that there is a great deal of skepticism about the kinds of conventions that journalists traditionally adopt, whether it be certain standards of decorum, or a studied modesty about stating their political views.  Even a growing number of journalists reject that last standard.

Then, too, there is the shifting calculus of racial symbolism to consider. Surely, the sight of a black man dancing alongside a young white female in 2008 does not mean what it meant in my childhood during the 1960s. In those days, such a sight was restricted to Shirley Temple movies. Treadway and Nicolini’s performance occurred the same year that a man with an African father and a wife descended from slaves won the White House.

It’s unlikely that WEB Du Bois would have approved of SouljaBoyTellem’s art, or much of hip-hop, for that matter. The pioneering scholar, editor and activist hoped that those African Americans who gained access to the instruments of culture making would infuse high culture with the gifts of Africa. For him that meant spirituals (delivered Jubilee-style, of course) the vibrancy of traditional African art and artisanship, the nuanced poesy of a Jessie Fauset or Countee Cullen, with the occasional swinging riff from the deceptively accessible Langston Hughes. In his definitive essay on aesthetics, The Criteria of Negro Art, he implored:

“If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; — what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?

“Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that — but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.”

Part of Jenkins’ point is that participatory media expands the ranks of the tastemakers beyond Hollywood elites, intellectuals, and activists. Jay Rosen has been saying similar things about the shift to participatory journalism in essays such as The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” But when the ethos from which these new media products emerge can be tainted by values that are corrosive, a critical perspective is necessary.

In her essay, “Learning the 5 Lessons of Youtube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype,” Alexandra Juhasz makes the argument that corporate dominance of this major media sharing site has turned do-it-yourself culture into a tool for replicating ideas and values that are fundamentally anti-democratic. In particular, she and her students found that depictions of African Americans that reinforce vulgar race and gender stereotypes are more popular, and thus more prominently featured, than those promoting more positive images or cultural critique.

And this is part of my concern, even as I contribute to this participatory culture and teach students to do it as well. The uncritical replication of negative images of black males in particularly is particularly vexing, because it undermines the effort to transfer of positive values from one generation to the next. In some ways, the current environment is arguably more challenging than the pre-Civil rights era, because in those days, there were alternative, black-controlled civic institutions that promoted images that countered the stereotypes of the dominant culture.  Byron Hurt’s 2008 mini-documentary demonstrated Barack Obama’s rise exposed a deep-seated confusion and ambivalence about the possibilities of success, respect and power for black men in an era that is supposed to be “post-racial:”

I thought about this ambivalence as I watched clips from DeAndre Ramone Way’s videoblog, which has since been removed. He has been known to talk about his interests in art, education, and business along with his  “beefs” with other rappers, his jewelry and his cars.  Pop culture never was a good place for a complicated persona. When pop culture goes “spreadable,” what gets lost? Sometimes I’m afraid it’s the substance of a culture that we can’t afford to lose.

Reflections en route to the ASALH Convention

(Richmond Va. September 29 ) —
I am on an Amtrak train barreling south toward Raleigh, North Carolina for the 95th annual convention of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. It is a strange time to be in Raleigh in some ways, so near Duke University, where the towering scholar John Hope Franklin made his professional home for so many years. Next to ASALH founder Carter G. Woodson and Woodson’s contemporary WEB Du Bois, it is difficult to think of another academic historian whose work did more to correct the mistaken but popular belief that slavery was the beginning and end of the story of black people. Duke has a research center that bears Franklin’s name. ASALH’s journal archives and merchandise offerings include articles by Franklin and video interviews recording both intellectual and personal reflections on his life and work.

I expect that Franklin’s ideas and research will be everywhere at this convention, but the man will not. He died in March, 2009, as the nation was adjusting itself to the reality of having a President of visibly African descent. And yet, the historical moments that marked Franklin’s entry and exit speak volumes about the nature of history as a weapon, the lessons of past wars, and the challenge now confronting those of us who believe in using knowledge to improve the human condition.


Franklin was born on January 2. 1915; it would turn out to be a

circa 1916:  Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the 28th President of the United States who led the country through World War I. Before his term in office, he was the president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

momentous year for the United States, not just the Franklin family. If there was ever a moment that attested to the power that historians can wield, this was it. The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, held a Ph.D. in history. After promising to be a civil rights advocate to get black votes during the election of 1912, Wilson segregated the federal workforce, dismissing an appeal from civil rights leader Monroe Trotter with the contention that, “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit…

Quotes from the fifth volume of Wilson’s encylopedic, “History of the American People,” had been used by filmmaker DW Griffith to lend credibility to his cinematic bouquet to the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation. Wilson screened the film in the White House, proclaiming it, “History written in lightning!” Protests from the National Association of Colored People and black newsThe KKK, weakened during the Grant administration, once again became a force in national life, with deadly consequences. Wilson also ordered American troops into Haiti in 1915 in what James Weldon Johnson’s investigative reporting revealed as an “imperialistic venture” that became “a dark blot on the American escutcheon.” Wilson’s scholarly expertise helped him fit these and other anti-democratic actions into an argument that, as he said of America’s entry into World War I, his administration was making the world “safe for democracy.”

Franklin’s birth year also coincided with the death of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute (now University), the “Great Accommodator” who counseled blacks to patiently acquiesce to Jim Crow, develop their moral character and focus on vocational education and business development. In his autobiography, Up From Slavery Washington argued that following his advice would surely elicit the good will of the white power structure and result in fairer treatment for African Americans over time:

My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights.

As if to underscore the growing rejection of the accommodationist doctrine among African Americans and their allies, the premiere of Birth of a Nation that year occasioned wide-scale protests from both the NAACP and black newspapers such as Charlotta Bass’ California Eagle. We now know, of course that Washington himself was secretly engaged in some civil rights agitation of his own, by lending financial and material support to lawsuits aimed at attacking disfranchisment and segregated public accomodations, and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

From his earliest days, Franklin absorbed both the realities of racism and the belief that it had to be met with rigorous preparation of character and the determined pursuit of justice. The child of a lawyer father and a mother who was both a teacher and entrepreneur, Franklin was named for John Hope, then president of Morehouse College, and after 1929, president of Atlanta University. Hope had taught John Hope Franklin’s father, first at Roger Williams University, then Morehouse. had dared to envision an institution of higher learning where black youth were assumed to be capable of serious intellectual work. In this, he was allied with other black intellectuals such as the protean scholar-activist WEB Du Bois, the founder of Atlanta’s sociology department.

Like Hope, Du Bois believed that the truths revealed by rigorous research were the foundation on which public policy and civil rights advocacy should be based. Sometimes that research led to a starting and prescient view of world events, as in his May, 1915 essay, “African Roots of War.” While the US and its allies cast World War I as a battle to defend democracy, Du Bois cast it as a battle among Western powers to control the resources and markets of non-Western territories, especially in Africa:

“The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital, whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious at the division of the spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa. ‘We want no inch of French territory,’ said Germany to England, but Germany was ‘unable to give’ similar assurances as to France in Africa.”

This is the kind of analysis that would be hotly debated in the coming years at ASALH conventions, and in the pages of the journals that it would come to publish, the Journal of African American History, the Black History Bulletin. and more recently, the Woodson Review

A Portrait of the Scholar as a Young Man

Like Hope and Du Bois, Franklin would hew to this creed as part of the next generation of scholars. He would take Du Bois’ example so seriously that he followed the elder scholar’s educational path: undergraduate study at Fisk, followed by a Ph.D. in history at Harvard. In his 2005 autobiography, A Mirror to America, he wrote,

“[I]t was armed with the tools of scholarship that I strove to dismantle those [racially restrictive] laws, level those obstacles and disadvantages, and replace superstitions with humane dignity.”

Carter G. Woodson’s ASALH would prove invaluable to the fulfillment of Franklin’s quest. Woodson, the second African American to earn a Ph. D. at Harvard after Du Bois, founded ASALH to promote, create and disseminate accurate information about African Americans not only among scholars and policymakers, but in homes, churches and communities. I’ve written elsewhere about the role that ASALH’s encyclopedias played in helping me see possibilities for myself beyond my limited childhood circumstances. In his autobiography, Franklin captures part of what is special about the ASALH annual conference in this description of the first one he attended, in 1936:

“The remarkable thing about this meeting, although I did not know it at the time, was how schoolteachers and laypeople were as much a part of the organization as the professionals. Dr. Woodson, serving as executive director, cultivated the teachers, for he was as determined to see Negro history taught in the schools as he was devoted to scholarship in the colleges. Thus, several schoolteachers read papers on the inclusion of Negro History in their school’s curriculum as, indeed, did several college professors.

“Dr. Woodson likewise emphasized the importance of making the association racially inclusive. Virginia’s white superintendent of education, Sidney Hall, as well as W. Herman Bell of Hampdon-Sydney College, Garnett Ryland of the University or Richmond, and other white scholars were in attendance.”

Franklin went on to describe how Woodson encouraged non-historians to assume leadership positions in the organizations, citing the 1936 election of Mary McLeod Bethune to the organization’s presidency. Franklin reports that he found himself invited to breakfast with Mrs. Bethune and others on the morning of her election, which came while she was on leave from the presidency of Bethune-Cookman college in order to serve in the Roosevelt administration. while at the convention, Franklin received word that his mother was seriously ill in Oklahoma. Both the president of Virginia State College, which was hosting the event, and Woodson himself offer him travel money to get home.


Everything Franklin describes about the convention he attended in 1936 reminds me of what I’ve seen during my attendance at prior ASALH conventions during the past decade. One still sees active involvement of lay historians and K-12 teachers alongside emerging and established scholars. Non-historians still have prominent leadership roles (including yours truly – I have served on the organization’s advisory board alongside Dr. Franklin and such prominent scholars as Henry Louis Gates, director of the WEB Du Bois Institute of Afro-American Studies at Harvard.)

Most impressive to me, the ethic of care between older and younger scholars is still very much in evidence. Talk to young academics who come to ASALH, and it is not unusual to hear them express their delight that a luminary such as Nell Painter, Darlene Clark Hine, or John Bracey or Daryl Michael Scott took the time to come to their session,or offer advice. I still recall my own delight at the 2003 convention when I happened to find myself in conversation with Dr. Edna McKenzie, a historian who began her career as a pioneering journalist documenting segregation in World War II-era Pittsburgh.

I have spent some time discussing the open and nurturing atmosphere at ASALH because I think it is essential to understanding how scholars such as Franklin, and indeed, Woodson himself, persevered in fostering the academic study of African Americans in the face of persistent ignorance and hostility. Franklin went on to produce books such as From Slavery to Freedom: a history of African Americans, which has remained in print for more than 60 years, and to become a nationally-respected authority on race. While the study of African American history and life is more widely accepted than it was in the early days of ASALH, serious students of history again find their field subjected to political forces that would discard and distort the historical record in favor of ideology. The most egregious recent example is the Texas school board’s euphemistic description of slavery as the “triangular trade.” There have, however, been other examples, such as the Christian school in North Carolina that gave students a pamphlet excusing slavery.

So on to ASALH, and a gimpse of new tomorrows through the lenses of the past.

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Author’s note: This part of an unpublished 2002 essay, “Not the Subject but the Premise: Postcards from the Edge of Du Bois’ Black Belt,”  is reproduced here for comment and as fodder in the body of work upon which I am drawing for my sabbatical project. I consider it to be a failed work with some useful nuggets.

“‘[T]he sheriff came and took my mule and corn and furniture —

‘Furniture?’ I asked; ‘but furniture is exempt from seizure by law.

‘Well, he took it just the same,’ said the hard-faced man.'”

— WEB Du Bois in Dougherty County, Georgia

Of the Black Belt,” Souls of Black Folk, 1903.’

“It’s alright now/

alright now/

I gave it over to Jesus/

And it’s alright now.”

— sung at St. Mary’s Holiness Church in Hamlet, North Carolina, May, 2002

The Forethought: Du Bois the Journalist

Before he became a scholar, activist and would-be Bismarck of his race, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was a journalist. As a teenager in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, young Willie was a correspondent for the New York Globe, Freeman and Springfield Republican; at Fisk; he edited the school newspaper. After two commercially unsuccessful attempts to create his own journal of news and opinion, his Crisis magazine would be integral to the birthing of the modern civil rights coalition as well as the Harlem artistic movement of the 1920s.  After both of his departures from the NAACP, in 1934 and 1948, he became a regular contributor to several black and later, radical news organs.

The Souls of Black Folk is suffused with the best journalistic sensibilities: vivid description, pithy characterization, abundant but carefully chosen detail, and evocative narration. This, along with its seminal influence on racial thought, explains why the faculty of New York University gave Souls and his Crisis columns on race two separate spots on its list of the 100 best works of journalism of the 20th century. (NYU) Despite this, and the growing scholarly attention to Du Bois’ writings, the consideration of his work as journalism has been slight. Most of the attention that has been accorded has gone, understandably, to study of The Crisis.

Du Bois’ reporting was part of an evidentiary brief that, if heeded, would lead to greater support for the policies he advocated for black advancement: fair wages, rents and opportunities for land ownership investment in higher education, and physical safety. In using journalism as one of his weapons, he seems to have understood what media scholar Michael Schudson meant when he declared of 20th century reporting,

“…[T]he power of the media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in its power to provide the forms in which the declarations appear. News in a newspaper … has a relationship with the ‘real world,’ not only in content, but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestioned and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer a subject for discussion but a premise of any conversation at all.” (Lule)

This essay will consider two journalistic essays in Souls of Black Folk. Particular attention will be given to what Du Bois saw as the proper aim of journalism, and the proper role of the black journalist. The power of Du Bois’ journalism in Souls lies in the specificity with which he placed black life in the context of the social and historical forces that shaped its essential character and defined its structures of opportunity. We get a glimpse of his nascent ability to draw out the multiplicative ways in which African Americans adapted to and agitated against their oppression. However, when viewed in terms of the evolution of racial discourse however, it may be that the most profound effect of Du Bois’ journalism was his ability to demonstrate the centrality of black labor, black culture and black action to American prosperity, identity and well-being. Ironically, we shall see that it is this example that contemporary African American journalists find themselves most challenged to follow.

In Souls, Du Bois the reporter is most evident in Chapters Seven and Eight, “Of the Black Belt” and “Of the Quest of the Golden Fleece.” Both chapters are portraits of Dougherty County, Georgia. As works of journalism, they presage what Tom Wolfe preciously called the New Journalism of the 1960s — the blending of observation, contextual data and narrative technique. There is, however, another way in which the work has contemporary resonance: as a black journalist whose audience and markets crossed racial lines, Du Bois had to grapple with an oppressive and intricate racial ideology that constrained and discounted not only about such southern blacks as were found in Dougherty County, but also  educated northern blacks as himself.

Du Bois had to convince his readers that he was an authoritative interpreter of African American experience – a task made more difficult by the fact that his objective was to supplant what his readers thought they know about his subject. His task was complicated by several unique factors. One the one hand, he had to contend with those who would argue that Du Bois’ mixed racial background made him incapable of understanding the souls of real black folk. On the other, Du Bois faced the personal challenge of understanding people whose skin tones resembled his or his family members, but whose lives under Reconstruction and Jim Crow differed radically from his comparatively Edenic boyhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Finally, he had to contend with emerging standards both of scholarship and of journalism that discounted traditional rhetorical strategies employed by earlier black writers, such as appeals to emotion, biblical authority and first-person narratives.

If he faced unique challenges, Du Bois was also unique in the resources that he brought to the task of destroying and rebuilding the foundations of racial discourse. He could rely not only on his youthful reporting experience, expansive knowledge base and considerable literary gifts, but also the data collection that he was beginning to amass through his work for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and his direction of the Atlanta University studies. (Lewis, Biography, p. 195) Du Bois was a pioneer in the emerging field of empirical sociology, and the AU studies were part of his lifelong effort to build a comprehensive data portrait of every imaginable aspect of black life — from schooling to economic development to religion and family life. He had invented many of the fields’ methods of data collection and analysis during his first major sociological project, The Philadelphia Negro — among other things, he personally interviewed 3000 black residents of Philadelphia’s seventh ward.

According to Lewis, his principal biographer, Du Bois bragged that his knowledge came from having “lived with the colored people, joined their social life, and visited their homes.” He was particularly scornful of the “car-window sociologist,,, the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting a few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unraveling the snarl of centuries….” (Souls, p. 128) In other words, he practiced immersive reporting long before there was a name for it.

Above all, Du Bois struggled to hold to his sense of personal and racial mission. As one of a small number of African Americans who had access to an elite education, Du Bois believed fervently that the future of the race depended on the disciplined, clear-eyed leadership of liberally educated men and women. He had declared, early on, his intention to be one of those leaders. On his 25th birthday, alone in his graduate student quarters at the University of Berlin, Du Bois wrote in his journal, “These are my plans: To make a name in science, to make a name in literature, and thus to raise my race.” (Lewis, Biography, p. 135)

Du Bois was not alone in his efforts to expose the fetid underside of American industrial development. This was, after all, the era of combat between the muckraking journalists and the robber barons. Ida Wells had published her anti-lynching expose, The Red Record. Lincoln Steffens was exposing The Shame of the Cities. Ida Tarbell was publishing her voluminous analysis of Standard Oil.

In fact, Tarbell’s disclosures specifically motivated the Rockefellers to disburse millions to establish the General Education Board (GEB) and the Southern Education Board (SEB) — two foundations that, in the absence of federal involvement in public education, would dominate African American education policy at all levels for decades to come. (Lewis 265-268) Emphasizing ”scientific philanthropy,” the GEB directed most of its funding to industrial and moral education programs at schools such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. The GEB was composed of some of the most powerful men in America, so their positions on black education limned the boundaries of mainstream thinking on race.

Of interest: A New Sociological Critique of The Souls of Black Folk

The 1903 publication of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk is considered a watershed in the history of American arts, letters and politics. Du Bois (1868-1963), then a sociologist at Atlanta University, offered his theory of “double-consciousness” – the notion that black Americans are deprived of agency and self-awareness because survival in a racist society requires that they constantly police themselves to remain acceptable to their oppressors.

Writer W E B Du Bois

A lot has been written about Souls of Black Folk and the contemporary relevance of Du Bois’ argument. The best literary and rhetorical analysis, as far as I am concerned, is still Arnold Rampersad’s Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 1976.) Rampersad situates Souls within the context of Du Bois’ evolving framework for thinking about race, which rested on several key tenets:

  • People of African descent are one people, with great internal diversity.
  • Colonialism and slavery had a defining impact on African peoples in ways that bind them together despite their diversity
  • Contrary to Hegel, et. al, African-descended people are contributors to history (this conviction grew over time. At the time of Souls, he identified spirituals as an indication of the capacity for cultural contributions.) African-descended people have made strides in the years since slavery.
  • Strategies and policies for making progress should be built upon empirical evidence, not faith or ideology. That requires a cadre of trained and educated leaders, ergo, the “Talented Tenth

Rampersad said that if “Huckleberry Finn” is regarded as the seminal work in American literature, “Souls of Black Folk” has the equivalent place in African American literature. Subsequent generations have had good reason to use it as the point of departure from which to articulate their own views of the African American experience. Agree or disagree, one has to reckon with it.

In a new monograph, The Soul-less Souls of Black Folk: A Sociological Reconsideration of Black Consciousness as Du Boisian Double Consciousness Paul Mocombe appears to argue that WEB Du Bois’ Hegelian articulation of the black experience really was about the desire of elite black folks to be accept by elite white folks. He says Du Bois relies on essentialist biological and cultural notions of race that were prevalent among 19th century intellectuals and steeped in white supremacy. Aspects of his critique are familiar, but his analytical framework seems new and inventive.

I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Mocombe’s assertion that Du Bois was in thrall to scientific racism. I’d say Du Bois struggled with them, trying to find an alternative framework that met the scientific standards of that day. (Mia Bay’s essay, “The World Was Thinking Wrong About Race: The Philadelphia Negro and Nineteenth-Century Science” from WEB Du Bois, Race and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and Its Legacy” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) speaks to this brilliantly.

Still, I’m putting Mocombe on my summer reading list, and I’d love to know what Dr. Rampersad thinks of his thesis.

How stories and network science could improve educational equity and diversity

[This thinkpiece is from 2003.]

In all of the research, debate and analysis surrounding affirmative action, I have become convinced that we are missing a golden opportunity to be more innovative in our thinking about ways of achieving educational equality. I believe that if we analyze some of the voluminous data we have using emerging tools in networking science, interactive multimedia and social psychology, we can create effective new models for teaching, mentoring and advising students and young professionals from non-traditional backgrounds.

I write this essay to suggest how these tools might be created, and how they might be applied in ways that are less contentious than our current arguments about fairness and distributive justice. In advancing this proposal, I do not mean to suggest that such arguments are not important or necessary – because they are. I do suggest however, that if we are sincere about wanting to see each child achieve his or her full potential, science and history may be able to offer us a way we are not currently considering. And conceptually, at least, it isn’t that complicated.

A final disclaimer before I disclose my idea: I am neither a scientist nor a trained historian. I come to this conversation as an Affirmative Action baby with a quarter century of professional experience as a writer and teacher in the fields of public relations, magazine writing and interactive multimedia. This idea emerged from reflecting on that polyglot experience, and on those of my forbears, as I read Columbia University sociology professor Duncan Watts’ book, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Norton, 2003).

Watts’ book describes an emerging body of theory of how disparate phenomena are affected by their internal and external connections – whether the phenomenon under study is computer viruses, power outages, or political activism. It turns out that I am one of the thousands of e-mail users who have participated in Watts’ internet-based Small World project, which tries to ascertain whether there really are only six degrees of separation between two randomly selected individuals. In the Six Degrees project, volunteers are given the name of a “target” individual and told to get as close to that person as they can by sending an e-mail to someone they know. About two years ago, I got an e-mail from a former student asking me to help establish a connection to a person who worked at Bloomberg LP. I didn’t know the target person, but I know lots of people at Bloomberg, so I picked one of them and passed the e-mail along. Simple idea.

As Watts discloses in his book, the data from this simple experiment gives rise to some powerful and sophisticated mathematical models that, like chaos theory, can be applied quite broadly. He suggests that these models can eventually be used to predict the outcome of elections, or suggest effective job-hunting strategies or to understand and defuse terrorists’ cells. It occurs to me that we can also use these modeling techniques to understand how structures of educational opportunity are created and most effectively deployed.

W E B Du Bois

The first case study that came to mind from which hypothetical models could be developed and tested was the education of pioneering African American intellectual William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois grew up in a predominantly white, politically liberal New England town, and the town’s leading citizens funded his undergraduate education at Fisk. His academic performance at Fisk earned him the attention of the people who became his benefactors at Harvard, and that placed him in the position to learn about the fellowship that would ultimately make it possible to attend the University of Berlin. It seems to me that we ought to be able to model Du Bois’ educational trajectory as a series of small network problems. The first step would be to look at the likelihood that a poor colored boy would get a scholarship to Fisk. The second would be the leap from Fisk to Harvard, then Harvard to Berlin.

Modeling these steps seems to me to be relatively simple because the numbers of people involved are small If all of this works, it might provide a way of mapping an individual’s structures of opportunity, and of conceiving strategies for maximizing the optimal use of such small networks. I suspect that this would be a rather difficult thing to model. This is the second part of what I was thinking about. The networks that supported Du Bois were, in some cases generated, you might say, activated, by stories. By this I mean that the town fathers of Great Barrington had certain beliefs about themselves, a common story that formed part of the basis of their working relationship. Descended from one of great Barrington’s old black families, Du Bois presented himself in a way that fit their story about themselves as former abolitionists. The storytelling part of the network building becomes particularly

Rutherford Hayes

important when Du Bois tries to get his fellowship to go to Berlin. Rutherford B. Hayes, by then a former President, headed a foundation that was supposed to support black students who were pursuing advanced degrees. He gave a speech saying that they hadn’t found anyone to give the money to. Du Bois heard about what Hayes was saying, and wrote Hayes a letter saying, essentially: Hey, I’m here, and so are several other colored Harvard men, why haven’t we been given a chance to apply? Ultimately, because Du Bois was supported by such people as William James, he got to apply, and he got the fellowship. Du Bois’ network enabled him to make Hayes act in a way that’s consistent with his story.

It seems to me that Du Bois’ experience is similar to what happens to students who are successful beneficiaries of affirmative action. Much of the value of my Princeton experience is related to the small networks I have been able to join. I would submit that our access to those networks has been mediated by the stories that govern their internal behavior, the stories told about us as potential new entrants and, to a lesser extent, the stories we tell about ourselves. These stories don’t exist by themselves, of course — they are cultural products — but I am focused on their function.

One of the ways in which stories may affect the functioning of networks of educational opportunity is in countering a phenomenon that Stanford University social psychologist Claude Steele calls “stereotype threat.” According to Steele, stereotype threat occurs when an individual feels as if he or she is being evaluated according to a stereotype. Although Steele asserts that anyone can be affected by stereotype threat, he has studied the phenomenon’s effects on middle-class African American college students and women students in scientific and technical fields. Steele’s research suggests that stereotype threat accounts for academic underperformance in well-prepared students with high self-esteem.

Let me illustrate how I think the right combination of stories and networks can create opportunities while subverting stereotype threat. About 20 years ago, I had the privilege of profiling a pioneering black engineer, Dr. Walter Lincoln Hawkins for Black Collegian magazine. “Linc” Hawkins was the first black scientist at Bell Labs. Even though he came of age during the Great Depression and in an era of virulent racism, Linc came

from segregated Washington DC to graduate first, from the city’s fabled Dunbar High School, followed by an undergraduate degree from Renssalear Polytechnical Institute and a doctorate from Mc Gill University. At Bell Labs, he earned 14 patents, including one for the polymer that allows us to put telephone cables underground and at the bottom of the sea. He spent his retirement years working to create programs that help women and students of color become successful scientists and engineers.

Along the way, Linc admitted that he had encountered plenty of racism – lots of stereotype threat. He didn’t talk much about those kinds of experiences, but a few examples emerged from conversations with him and others. For example, when his mother trekked from Washington, D.C. to Canada to hear Linc defend his dissertation, she was initially barred from the meeting room because of her race. Other Bell Labs old-timers told me that Linc spent his first decade there without any lab assistants, because there were no black assistants available, his managers couldn’t envision him giving orders to a white male, and they thought that it would be unseemly for him to have a white woman working under him. Ultimately, he did get a white female assistant, but for many years, he had to wash his own test tubes and tend to his own supplies.

When I asked him about the key to his success, he credited the foundation that his high school had given him – not just academically, but psychologically and practically. First, it should be understood that in its heyday, Dunbar was an exceptional place. The segregated, selective public high school was staffed by some of the best-educated black people on the planet – including such Harlem Renaissance cognoscenti as Georgia Douglas JohnsonAngelina Grimke and Jessie Fauset. They were graduates of such schools as Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, but Dunbar was one of the few teaching jobs available to them. However, the faculty’s high-toned backgrounds gave them connections that they used to steer students into and through the kinds of schools they, themselves, had attended.

Attending Dunbar at the height of the New Negro movement, Hawkins recalled being taught African history and African American literature, in addition to the traditional elite high school curriculum of that day. He particularly remembered a physics teacher he called Prof. Weatherless, who drove a new Reo car every year as a royalty for his participation in the invention of the starter. He said that he knew he could succeed at RPI, Mc Gill and Bell Labs because he knew his heritage, and he had living examples in front of him.

The lives such people as Du Bois and Hawkins are sufficiently well documented that one ought to be able to graph the ways in which these networks and stories worked for them. However, I have no idea how to go about it.

I have discussed elements of this idea with mathematicians and social scientists who tell me that it’s worth exploring, although there isn’t a neat existing structure through which to do it. So, I am sharing my idea with the world with the hope of finding the people who can take it as far as it deserves to go.