Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander and Arnold Rampersad —
W.E.B. Du Bois & the American Soul

One of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history, W.E.B. Du Bois penned the famous line that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He is a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the Civil Rights Movement. But his passionate, poetic words and intelligence continue to enliven 21st-century life on the color line and beyond it. We bring Du Bois’ life and ideas into relief — featuring one of the last interviews the great Maya Angelou gave before her death.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Guests

was a poet, educator, and activist. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. She is most well-known for her series of seven autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies at Yale University. She wrote and delivered "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. Her memoir, The Light of the World, was published in 2015.

is emeritus professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010.

Pertinent Posts

On this Christmas day, read Dr. King's final Christmas sermon from 1967 — a prescient reminder of our interconnected world in 2015, with neighbors living halfway around the world and in our backyard today.

Selected Writings

A Deep Dive Into the Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois

On Being producers traveled to Great Barrington, Massachusetts to explore the W.E.B. Du Bois archives. We gathered enlightening correspondence, seminal essays and exchanges, photographs, and ideas for a deeper and broader exploration of Du Bois' legacy for the present. This is part of a series funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dear Dr. Du Bois: Letters with the Greats

Du Bois corresponded with many leading intellectuals of his day. See some of our favorites, along with images of his letters.

» Albert Einstein
» Mahatma Gandhi
» Martin Luther King
» Langston Hughes
» George Foster Peabody
» Jane Addams

Highlighted Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois

A collection of essays on the spiritual, political, and social thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois. In lyrical, magnetic prose he writes here on the color line, double consciousness, and more.

» "Credo"
» "Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
» "The Talented Tenth"
» "Of the Training of Black Men"

Letters: The Church and the Color Line

In 1929, W.E.B. Du Bois was invited by the Reverend A. J. Helm to speak at Bethel Evangelical Church, the former pastorate of Reinhold Niebuhr, on "Religion on the Color Line." This series of little-known letters displays in painful detail the embattled conversation on racial integration and the white church in the early 20th century.

Selected Poems

Prayers for the Worship of the Darker Americans

A gallery of eighty handwritten prayers W.E.B. Du Bois wrote for his students at Atlanta University, which he called "Prayers, A Litany and Diverse Prayers Set Down for the Worship of the Darker Americans."

First Person

Inspired by Du Bois

Many count W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal text The Souls of Black Folk as a formative influence in their lives. We ask for your stories about W.E.B. Du Bois and the impact of his writing on your life. Read others' stories; we'd like to hear yours as well.

Maya AngelouKathleen CleaverCory BookerElizabeth Alexander

Episode Sponsor

Funding was provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Episode Sponsor

Share a Reflection

19Reflections

Reflections

Articles have me thinking that an update of the Mr. Du Bois' quote might be, ". . . the lines." It seems that as the 50 or more year paradigm shift from clearly defined group morality to individualism; modernism to post-modernism has taken us to 'lines' drawn in the concrete! Absolutism. From individuals we have absolutes! It is some kind of protectivism, I suppose. But it certainly makes it even more interesting when some people gather around a person or idea and act like a community. Beauty and chaos! And - lines that divide! Actions that unite! What a time to be alive!

Thanks, Nadine. I'm half asleep so just absorbed rather than any attempt to analyze your comment. Love C G Jung's word, "individuation" as the goal of life. Being who one is or was supposed to be. Difficult since as a Buddhist I don't reallly believe in a "self", whereas Jung sees the Self as the center of the mandala with shadow anima and animus swirling around it. I like it .IT being IT, not God, A God or The God. So much sexism comes from superior "maleness". Rape and physical domination. At the absolute center of self is the heart of emptiness. Not exactly the same as nothingness, but not far either. Neti Neti Neti. Not this not that not he, not she, not it. There we have the ability to be free of all. I've experienced a few times alone, meditating or in nature. From the Christian inquisition, came religious freedom for women. St Teresa of Avila, was descended from Jews. After their conversion or hers, not sure, she was free to live alone. Cloistered. To see God as the lover. Had she remained a Jew, she would at best brought food to leave on the steps of the hall where Hassidic men danced with God's song. They sang. She drew exquisite mandalas.Quite similar to Buddhist mandalas. Was there a physical connection. Or did a flame leap from one soul to another? Meister Eckhardt says "When the soul and God become one, Both the soul and God disappear and there is only a vast desert."
Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.
We are blessed.

This program was so well done and helpful. Please continue to do these in depth profiles of great thinkers and leaders who lift the spirit with their courage, passion and insight.

This was a wonderful protrayal of Du Bois with experts, throughtful and heartfelt parallels with life in the modern world. I listen devotedly to each of your Sunday broadcasts. They provide knowledge, and inspiration at a wonderful Sunday morning hour at home.
I salute your innovative technology support on the web and on mobile devices. Your program is sanctuary in my pocket.

I find it disturbing that you heap uncritical praise on W.E.B. Du Bois.

He was an elitist who held himself above all in a "region of blue sky" and held "all beyond it in common contempt". He insisted even his friends address him as "Doctor Du Bois." While extolling the virtues of higher education for a select few blacks, Du Bois showed little faith in the capacities of ordinary black people. He stated “the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northern laborers” and cited the need for college trained “thinkers” to guide the “black lowly” and provide “careful personal guidance and group leadership to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty”. He talked of selection of “the personnel of the successful class…by intelligent culling” and of acceptance of race prejudice in the South as a fact for “several generations” until “whites can be brought to assume that…self-sacrificing leadership of the blacks which their present situation…demands.”. He felt the need for “economic and spiritual guidance for the emancipated Negro” and was willing to “admit…if representatives of the best of white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding powers” conditions would be better.

Du Bois lamented the loss of social contact between the races before the Civil War “when all the best of the Negroes were domestic servants in the best white families, (and) there were bonds of intimacy, affection and sometimes blood relationship”. He added “Nothing has come to replace that finer sympathy and love between some masters and house servants which the radical and more uncompromising drawing the color-line in recent years has caused almost completely to disappear”.

He called for universities “whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers” to send “a few white men and a few black men of broad culture” to give this “squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace”. He ends "The Souls of Black Folk" with a hope that the "Eternal Good...in His good time. shall rend the Veil and the prisoned shall go free”.

The problem of racial prejudice in America was (and remains) much more than a "squabble" that could wait for a "good time". Nor was it "men broad culture" who led the way in the Civil Rights struggle. The real struggle was led by common people (or as Du Bois would say the "black lowly"), with uncommon courage. People like John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders, the many unnamed black men and women who risked their lives to register to vote in Mississippi, and many more. By giving credit uncritical praise and credit to W.E.B. Du Bois in his lofty "region of blue sky", you disparage the real heros of the Civil Rights Movement who risked life and limb on the front lines of racial prejudice.

Hello Rick -

You certainly did an excellent job misinterpreting Du Bois visions for his race. Much of what was written applied to the times in which he lived. As a personal friend of a few of Du Bois living family members in NJ, I can attest that he is regarded as a caring individual of family and race, among them.

Now... let’s consider one of your agreements... you quoted: “the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northern laborers” and cited the need for college trained “thinkers” to guide the “black lowly” and provide “careful personal guidance and group leadership to train them to foresight, carefulness, and honesty”.
Does this not have merit? Many colored in the North lived within a freer domain that those in the South. They read more frequently, opportunities to interact with those of diverse cultures (even if only in white homes) were more prevalent, they lived and travel between Canada, were more successful in acquiring businesses and becoming entrepreneurs, etc..
With the extreme limitations afforded to the Colored in the South, if one were to learn, who then would teach them? Their white counterparts.
I am a child of integration, at age 10 in a divided Southern town I became one of small number of Colored children whose family elected to send their children to the white school as soon as the doors were made open. We fought regularly in that white school, primarily over being called "nigger"; amidst an all-white teaching staff I received my first "F". In reading - however, my grade of "A" in science contradicted what one teacher attempted to perpetuate as a fact. More than half of the Colored children were held back in their grades, indicating that they were not smart enough to merit their education levels.
Through the years it was books like Souls of Black Folks, Black Boy, Manchild in the Promise Land that gave me the courage to think at a higher level of self. These valiant writers, along with others like them were the Genesis of a “new free world concept for Colored”. Especially a little Colored “gal” being "told" that she could not read.
So I ask again, please consider the times, it is that which influences and shapes the attitudes of many. During his era, Du Bois gave of his best to make “our world” known others. It was in frustration that he elected to live the remainder of his life in Ghana.
Let me suggest that you take the energy used for resentment and focus it on things that you have the ability to influence.... as the time you "live" in possess new challenges for the now "black" race.
Let me add a Du Bois quote you neglected to highlight....
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”
― W.E.B. Du Bois

Blessings

I read his autobiography in translation to Russian in 1970. I remember the unusual feeling of freedom emanated by text. I learned the view of the life from a Human. He was certainly a world leader in initial meaning of this word. It was feeling from the program that he was privatized by “leaders of one minority”, & they picking up from his writing the things that they only like. I am sorry this situation, it is a lost for humanity.

Open a space for comments/reflections on DuBois' double consciousness (33:38). It's an intergenerational diaspora teachable moment worth sharing insights. Zadie Smith in conversation with Chimamda Adiche @ NYPL/Schomburg also addresseed this provocative question/struggle.

I listened to the uncut interviews underlying this show as I was driving from Philly back to North Carolina, and feeling myself falling back into the South as I drove and listened. Several times Krista asked interviewees for a refresh on Du Bois' comment about the problem of the 20th century being the problem of the color line. Given what I've learned from the thought and leadership of women of color, particularly queer women of color, I'd say the refresh would have something to do with intersections: of deepened pain and wisdom in the lives of people multiply oppressed, and of expanded possibility and hope as our consciousness of these intersections become places where we can connect and coalesce.

In the folds

of this

European civilization

I was

born

and shall die,

imprisoned, conditioned,

depressed, exalted,

and inspired.

I flew

round and round

with the zeitgeist

waving my pen

and lifting

faint voices

to explain, expound, and exhort,

to see, foresee, and prophesy

to the few

who could

or would

listen.

For the duration of this podcast, I transcended this world. I was elevated into a space in which I could be captivated by lyrical words and insightful ideas.To have ascended into that space one time was just enough to have my intellect pricked and my soul thoroughly stimulated. I must listen again. I must learn more.

A propos Du Bois' Talented Tenth: With a daughter applying to college, I've noticed that almost all the scholarship opportunities for low income and minority youth require evidence of leadership. So any affluent kid can go to college, but a minority kid needs to be a leader? I find this profoundly unfair.

Excellent, sensible, words, ideas, urgencies to live by

Thanks for the prompt to return again to self-reflection on my intersectional privilege-oppression that began in my youth with reading The Souls of Black Folk.

"How does it feel to be a problem?"

I translate this into my experience as a religious Jew in a world dominated by Christians and Muslims.

The Christian world seems to be moving towards accepting me for who and what I am.

The Muslim world seems increasingly to want me to go away. For them, I am a problem.

So, I was a camper back in the 50's, and one of the counselors was Ms. Alexander's dad, Clifford, and I was a student at the school where, a little ahead of me, her mother Adele was also a student. So I have a totally undeserved feeling of pride about who she is and this distant connection, and I remember how much everyone looked up to her father and mother - her father was just one of those people who stood, not just in height, head and shoulder above the rest, in morality, in intelligence, in caring and kindness and in humor - possibly also as an athlete, though I was too young to care about that. And his mother, whom I knew less, had, even in high school, a quiet and sensitive dignity - and from what I remember, was looked up to as well. The fact that I never forgot her name, though I remember only four or five of her classmates, says a lot. I have no way of imagining what their lives, both in this world we shared and the personal world they lived in, was like, but I remember them both with great affection. Perhaps next time,
she can speak of her childhood and of her wonderful parents (I missed the beginning of the show if she did do that already).

"The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." This is a very insightful statement! I was not born in the United States and as a Christian, I consider myself to be an expatriate observer of the "color line" especially in White Evangelical churches during slavery and the era of Jim Crow. Listen to this; "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind,that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2). This was not the case in white churches because they were complacent. The African American Methodist Episcopal Church was established in Philadelphia in 1787. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was founded in 1845 and Calvary Baptist Church (CBC) on Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City was founded in 1847. The birth of AME came about as a result of color line discrimination against African Americans at the predominantly white St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). Listen to this; "Officials at St. George's MEC pulled blacks of their knees while praying." In 1908, the Colored Methodist bishops appealed to white Americans, especially the church. Listen to this; "We appeal to the friends of humanity to use their influence to rid this glorious country of mob violence which is sending so many to an untimely grave."It took 150 years for Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to realized that they have erred and strayed away from the scripture. In 1995, SBC had a resolution on racial reconciliation (color line) because right from its inception African Americans relationship with them had been hindered by slavery. African Americans were not allowed into membership at CBC because of color line. In 1961, CBC leadership realized that "systematic segregation is sin and contrary to the Bible." And after 114 years African Americans were allowed into membership at CBC! These institutions ought to have know the admonition of the pioneer missionary and great explorer, David Livingstone. "Though there is antipathy in the human heart to the gospel of Christ, yet when Christians make their good work shine, all admire. It is when great disparity exists between profession and practice that we secure the scorn of mankind." What an insightful and profound statement! This is an indictment to the Christian church. I believe progress has been made to bridge the color line! But, if the Christians are unable to bridge the gap, Who can?

How are these lines drawn? The answer to this is the answer to everything. The lines are being drawn,its continuous drawing in and as all animate and inanimate diversity;the ongoing drawing in and as individual self have a movement behind the contours, this conscious stress accompanies the lines,this stress reveals the truth of being,as to How these lines are being drawn, The How, this know how is what meditation is all about, if and when absolute stress of the contours in being both internal and on the periphery of being is sensed, the sixth sense is acknowledged. To Whom this sense belongs to? This answer accompanies this sense, and in its vastness bRhat(Sanskrit) the omnipresence rests,all queries rest and the answer is lived.

I discovered actual black people that I actually talked with not until I moved from Owensboro, Kentucky to Lexington for medical school. There I started a trek that I am still on and has given me the most profoundest gifts of my life. I have come to believe that it must be my deep spirituality, that causes me to work for the healing of humanity in this way. I don't seek any recognition for this since it is a pure, innate sense. From a point of view of the natural unfolding of humanity, it makes more sense having come to know the common origin of the human race in Africa a mere 60,000 years ago. I have to credit my parents for never contaminating my pure love for humanity, that I could be always open to reaching across artificial cultural divides. There is no culture that I feel more at home around that American black people, despite being a white male. I am aware that if I keep my ego in check, I can jump in and help carry the load of constructing a just society using my own unique self and gifts. Therefore I am so full of happy anticipation about someday soon reading W.E.B. Dubois' "The Souls of Black Folk." Thank you for re-introducing him to me! I know some would wave me off with claims of cultural appropriation, but I have faith in my motives and no one could dissuade me from my purpose. I am beyond being offended, I do not need to be "comforted." I am secure in my purpose.

apples