Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst, spoke to a crowded room of honors students last Wednesday evening. As students began to line the walls and make seats for themselves on the floor, Commonwealth Honors College Dean Gretchen Gerzina delivered her opening remarks.
Gerzina noted that this was the first year the work of W.E.B. Du Bois was incorporated into Ideas that Change the World, a course all first-year honors students are required to take. “It's high time we acknowledge what we already have at our doorstep,” she said, referencing the University’s vast collection of Du Bois’ work.
Battle-Baptiste, who Gerzina called a “great expert” on Du Bois, took command of the audience and said she would try her best to live up to that title, given Du Bois wrote for seventy-three years of his life. She told students that Du Bois is at the center of everything and warned them that the night’s lecture would focus on possible triggers such as the politics of blackness, the Black Lives Matter movement, and activism.
Battle-Baptiste, who says her own identity as a scholar activist and her “unapologetic academic blackness,” have been “enhanced with (her) relation with Dr. Du Bois,” came to UMass thinking she already knew what there was to know about him. She says that assumption was wrong.
According to Battle-Baptiste, Du Bois’ passions were racial, social, and economic justice. She had the audience repeat that phrase twice over, driving home the importance of all three aspects of justice - not valuing one over the other. These prongs of justice are what activists are still fighting for today.
She described Du Bois move to Nashville, Tennessee in order to attend Fisk University, saying it was his first experience in a “segregated metropolis.” While there, Du Bois observed that the south believed an educated black man to be dangerous - Du Bois didn’t necessarily disagree with this assessment. Battle-Baptiste explained to students that education imparts a small sense of revolution saying, “change can come from what you learn.”
Battle-Baptiste also explored Du Bois concept of double consciousness and his struggle to reconcile his identity as a black man with his identity as an American citizen, she quoted his words:”An American, a Negro... two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
She brought this concept to the present, saying “teaching through Du Bois isn't just an academic exercise, it's a call to carry his message into the 21st century.” Battle-Baptiste showed images of a Black Lives Matter graffiti mural on campus as well as photographs from a Black Lives Matter protest. She compared public opinion on the black lives matter movement to that on the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She reiterated, “these things are not unrelated to Du Bois.”
Battle-Baptiste closed the lecture, reminding the audience that it was students who fought to have the tallest building on campus named for Du Bois. She repeated the questions she had asked students at the beginning of the evening: “What is your voice? What is your life’s work? What brings us to the college? To the University?”
She reminded students that concepts Du Bois developed are still relevant, saying “It is right now. Du Bois matters today. You matter today.”
After the event, a group of students walked back towards their dorms, lit up by the lights of the library discussing the legacy of the very man the building is named for.