On Being with Krista Tippett

Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Arnold Rampersad

W.E.B. Du Bois and the American Soul

Last Updated

April 4, 2019

Original Air Date

July 10, 2014

A prolific writer on sociology, history, economics, and politics, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history. His life traced an incredible arc; he was born three years after the end of the Civil War and died on the eve of the March on Washington. In 1903, he penned the famous line that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois was a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the civil rights movement and for all of us navigating the still-unfolding, unfinished business of racial justice now. We bring his life and ideas into relief through three conversations with people who were inspired by him.

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Image of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou 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.

Image of Arnold Rampersad

Arnold Rampersad 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.

Image of Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her books include Crave Radiance and her memoir, The Light of the World.


Arnold Rampersad: “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.”

Elizabeth Alexander: The perhaps most famous line from The Souls of Black Folk: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” First of all, it is prophetic. That is not something we have, as yet, resolved. He saw that. He understood that. And I think that he understood that as a soul crisis for white people, for black people, and for the polis in general.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Krista Tippett, host: This hour, we celebrate the imprint of W.E.B. Du Bois on the American soul — and the way his passionate and poetic intelligence might enliven 21st-century life on the color line and beyond it.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born three years after the end of the Civil War, and he died on the eve of the March on Washington. He was the first black man to receive a doctorate from Harvard University. He also co-founded the NAACP. He was a prolific writer on sociology, history, economics, and politics. Du Bois remains a powerful voice for many of the people who gave us the civil rights movement — and for all of us navigating the still-unfolding, unfinished business of civil rights now.

I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.

Here’s the poet Maya Angelou sharing her love of Du Bois by phone with me, just weeks before her death.

Maya Angelou: I grew up in a little village in Arkansas during the ’30s and ’40s. Everything was segregated, and so the black school, which I attended, had black teachers, and we used books about blacks when we could find them. Of course, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the great heroes in our world. We were so proud of him. Then I moved out to California to my mother. I got a scholarship to a college. And they said that Dr. Du Bois was coming to speak. I went home and told my mother, I must go, although it’s night, and she must take me. Because they had invited Dr. Du Bois, and all those people are white; they don’t know Du Bois is black. I was so sure that they had no idea.

Dr. Du Bois came up the side aisle, against the wall. Fortunately, by 15, I was almost six foot, so I could see, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, they’re going to see he’s a Negro. Will they get up and walk out?” No, they stood up and applauded. That was over 70 years ago. I have not forgotten it.

[music: “Shenandoah” by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band]

Ms. Tippett: W.E.B. Du Bois grew up in the relatively tolerant and integrated Northern town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was only when he went south, to Fisk University in Tennessee, that he awakened to what many of us think of as the iconic African-American culture of that time. He discovered what he would call, in 1903, “the souls of black folk.” Later, we’ll hear from the poet Elizabeth Alexander about the resonance Du Bois has for her and for new generations. First, esteemed scholar Arnold Rampersad. He’s the author of The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Ms. Tippett: I’m curious, just to start with — how and when did you first become aware of W.E.B. Du Bois?

Mr. Rampersad: I became aware of W.E.B. Du Bois in graduate school, I think. That’s when I first read The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’s book from 1903, and it had a very powerful effect on me. And then when I started reading what people had written about Du Bois, I didn’t think that they fully appreciated the depth and breadth of his intelligence, his sensibility, his imagination. Now, that was presumptuous of me, but it did give me a push when I decided I would devote my doctoral dissertation to Du Bois, especially to his creative work, and then later on, expanded that to do a kind of intellectual biography of Du Bois entirely. So that’s when I got to know and love Du Bois.

Ms. Tippett: Is it right that you grew up in Trinidad and Tobago?

Mr. Rampersad: I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, yes. I came to this country when I was in my mid-20s to go to college. Before then, I had never heard of Du Bois. Even in Ohio, where I went to undergraduate school, at that time, between 1965 and 1968, there were no books by African Americans on any syllabus that I was exposed to.

Ms. Tippett: I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about — you talked about how you’d been exposed to so little in the way of black intellectual writing, even through your education, and you read The Souls of Black Folk, and you were blown away. Could you say a little bit more about what grabbed you there?

Mr. Rampersad: You begin to read a book; you don’t know where it’s going to take you. In this case, The Souls of Black Folk — in a sense, it’s autobiography. But it’s an autobiography that’s close, in some respects, to your own experience of the world as a minority person. And then you see, in the case of The Souls of Black Folk, a commanding mind expanding into history, into sociology, but also into psychology and into art. Because he is continually seeing the world both as a scientist and as a lyrical being and giving voice in a very varied language to the complexity of the world. You’re seeing yourself and your own personal situation being put in a context you would like to see it put. You see your own pain, your own dilemmas, orchestrated in this marvelous way by an intelligence that you just have to stand back and admire — and that you’re profoundly grateful for because you have not seen it done by anyone else. That’s why I reread The Souls of Black Folk again and again, and it continues to this day to be able to move me as few other works can move me.

Ms. Tippett: You write a lot about him as a mass of paradoxes. Here’s one way you wrote it: “A product of black and white, poverty and privilege, love and hate. He was of New England and the South, an alien and an American, a provincial and a cosmopolite, nationalist and communist, Victorian and modern.” I think that there’s something in his multiracial, multicultural heritage and that line that he walked all of his life — that actually seems to belong, in some ways, more to our time than it did to his. Do you know what I’m describing?

Mr. Rampersad: Oh, yes, I do know what you are describing, and I think you’re quite right that, in many respects, his dilemma, his agenda, his passions, his sensibility — all of those things are very much at home in our world. But I think that you can turn your back on him only if you are determined to turn your back on history, on an understanding of the past, and also on a mind, his, that seized on the problem of blackness in America, the problem of race in America and in the modern world — because he did say, famously, that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” He had a grasp of the real world in front of him, and he anticipated our own time. No doubt about that.

Ms. Tippett: There’s this wonderful passage. It’s almost — you get the feeling — this is in his chapter called “Of the Training of Black Men.” You get this sense that the life of the mind, in some sense, helped him transcend this, as he said, this “problem,” being a “problem” as a black man. He wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

Mr. Rampersad: “So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?”

Oh, yes. His training was really quite remarkable and his sensibility also remarkable. He did have the soul of a poet but also the objective capacities of the scientist. But he was trained in history in a very severe sort of way, where the truth could be arrived at; facts were extraordinarily important; the feelings of the historian were to be suppressed. Objectivity was the goal. Come to conclusions, but make sure that those conclusions are not in any way biased by your feelings, your prejudices, whatever. It took him a long time to realize that he couldn’t live that way, that he had to, in fact, draw on his inner emotional resources that were themselves shaped by his life experience, the world about him, his fascination with language — a much looser, much more creative world that was also demanding but in a very different way.

Ms. Tippett: One of the things that started to intrigue me as I began to, in the first instance, get a sense of how he’s understood academically, is — his legacy and his intellect seem to be very secularized in a lot of the ways he’s written about and interpreted. To me, it also kind of parallels the way King’s very deep and primary grounding in theology and religion was secularized. He became, after his death, a political figure primarily and a preacher second. And, of course, the order was reverse. Now, Du Bois obviously had a complicated relationship both to black churches and to white Christianity, to Christianity in general. But it seems to me that to not take seriously, to not use the word “spiritual” and flesh that out in his life and legacy is to miss a lot of the power of what he did. Let’s just start with when he uses the word “soul,” “the souls of black folk” — what does he mean by the word “soul”?

Mr. Rampersad: That’s a very good question. It’s perhaps not what a medieval penitent would’ve meant by the word. Soul — it has something to do with consciousness, a sort of psychologically determined consciousness. He’s saying that there is this essence in us that is a combination of a will to the spirit, our experiences, our awareness of ourselves, our awareness of the world. So he talks again and again in The Souls of Black Folk about the dawn of the 20th century, about the business of the soul, and about divided souls — there being an American soul and an African soul within the African American and how they are at war with one another because they have different origins, almost, and different goals and are subjected to different forces and that the essence of black life is a kind of often heroic, sometimes disastrous struggle to reconcile these two souls.

[music: “Middle of the Night” by Wes Swing]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re experiencing the resonance of W.E.B. Du Bois for contemporary life. I’m with the literary critic and Du Bois biographer Arnold Rampersad.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s the opening lines of The Souls of Black Folk, when he writes, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eyeing me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” — which is really putting the issue of race in an existential context.

Mr. Rampersad: Yes, I like the rest of the paragraph. Or perhaps the bulk of the next paragraph where he talks of …

Ms. Tippett: Would you like to read some of that?

Mr. Rampersad: Well, I could. I mean, it’s important, really. For the first time, he encounters racial prejudice when a tall newcomer, a girl in his class, refuses to take part in a little game that everyone was playing. “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time or beat them at a foot-race or even beat their stringy heads. Alas with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine … With other black boys, the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?”

And it’s after that burst — or whatever you want to call it — that he launches into his discussion of the divided souls, the twin, warring souls of the African American, and how blacks have no true self-consciousness but always see themselves through the eyes of whites, basically, and how impossible, almost, that is, to have such a situation and to be able to become fully human, really.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, and what is so striking to me about that is how resonant it is. He was looking at a world post-Civil War when there had been, in some ways, monumental efforts made to create — well, certainly to create liberty that wasn’t there before. But he was looking at the very deep failure of that at the same time — the unfinished business of Reconstruction. And it seems to me that a century later, having had the civil rights movement, which was really taking off as he died, something that we’re pondering deeply is the unfinished business of civil rights.

Mr. Rampersad: His analysis of the dilemma facing blacks, when they all have to take into consideration when they come up against racism, when they come up against the entrenched injustice that I think African Americans face on a daily basis — his analysis was first put forward circa 1900, but, really, it still has enormous resonance because the basic factors remain the same, really. How do you maintain sanity? How do you become productive? How do you realize your complete potential as a human being when you’re constantly dealing with something that seems almost undefeatable?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You’ve written biographies of a number of very important African-American figures in American history: Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison — was it Jackie Robinson? Did you write a biography of Jackie Robinson? Right?

Mr. Rampersad: I did a biography of Jackie Robinson, yes.

Ms. Tippett: I think Arthur Ashe? You were involved in that. I wonder, with those figures and other names who come readily to mind in American imaginations, what would you want to name as Du Bois’s distinctive voice and contribution?

Mr. Rampersad: I think that he was extraordinarily intelligent, but he was also very, very well trained, and he engaged the world as a historian and as a sociologist, always aware of a profound commitment to the lives of his fellow black Americans at a time, say around 1900, when they were in profound distress. So there was always something heroic and persevering and determined to me about his career, his example.

Langston Hughes was relentless in his own way in trying to apply his poetic gift to the world around him. But Du Bois was even more dedicated, in many respects, and harder on himself, pushing, probing at every point, willing to be a pariah, finally, to be unpopular in order to carry the flag of justice to the fore, to make his life be consequential and not an ornament or an afterthought. That sets him apart. Or that set him apart as far as I’m concerned.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Wonderful. I wanted to ask you, are you aware of who Walter Brueggemann is? He’s a great scholar of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

Mr. Rampersad: No, I’m afraid I don’t.

Ms. Tippett: He talked about how the prophets are always poets, and it’s with poetic language that they rise above the merely political and have something other than merely political impact. He says that the line we all remember of Martin Luther King is actually a line of poetry. “I have a dream” is actually a line of poetry.

Mr. Rampersad: Yes, a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry.

Ms. Tippett: Is it really? It’s a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry? I didn’t know that.

Mr. Rampersad: Well, I think Langston Hughes always believed that, because he had consistently invoked the motif of the dream in his poetry, in his civil rights poetry. So he always felt that Martin Luther King owed him one.

Ms. Tippett: I see.

Mr. Rampersad: Yeah. But that’s another story.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. OK. I probably read Du Bois in college, but just the poetry, as you’re saying, of his lyricism, and how that exalts and gives this power to what he’s saying — that’s just very unusual.

Mr. Rampersad: You see, and that was almost completely left out of accounts by historians of Du Bois’s life and career. They just did not see it. They’re not trained to respond to poetry. But you’re quite right that it is in fact the poetic element in Du Bois that lifts him above only history and mere sociology to make him the influential, profoundly moving presence that he became. It’s the poetry that did it.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I wanted to ask you to read — I believe it’s the reading from him that you had at the top of the first chapter, chapter one, “The Making of the Man,” of your biography. The reading that begins, “In the folds of this European civilization I was born and shall die…”

I don’t know where it’s from. You said Du Bois, 1940.

Mr. Rampersad: That would probably be from Dusk of Dawn, his autobiography, if it’s 1940. “In the folds of this European civilization I was born and shall die, imprisoned, conditioned, depressed, exalted, and inspired. Integrally a part of it and yet, much more significant, one of its rejected parts; one who expressed in life and action and made vocal to many, a single whirlpool of social entanglement and inner psychological paradox, which always seemed to me more significant for the meaning of the world today than other similar and related problems.”

“Crucified on the vast wheel of time I flew round and round with a 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. Thus very evidently to me and to others I did little to create my day or greatly change it; but I did exemplify it and thus for all time my life is significant for all lives of men.”

[music: “Song of the Liberty Bell (For Violin and Strings)” by Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Kenneth Schermerhorn, and Nashville Symphony Orchestra]

Ms. Tippett: Arnold Rampersad is emeritus professor at Stanford University and author of The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois.

After a short break, poet Elizabeth Alexander on how Du Bois speaks to new generations and to our navigation of the ever-evolving “color line.” You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed, now with special occasional extras, wherever you like to listen.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, bringing the life and ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois into relief for the 21st century. He is one of the most celebrated black intellectuals of American and global history. He was born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation and died on the eve of the March on Washington.

I discovered the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s reverence for Du Bois in an essay she herself had forgotten, something she wrote years ago for a book called Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois from a Collective Memoir of Souls.

Ms. Tippett: I want to hear, if you can recall, your earliest memories of knowing of Du Bois growing up in Washington in the ’60s and ’70s.

Ms. Alexander: Yes, I think of the Dr. Du Bois — that was always how he was referred to in my family. And I think that was very important because he was someone to be respected, that even though African Americans had attained higher education by the time I was a child, I know that I knew he was the first African American to get his PhD from Harvard University, that it was an extraordinary thing to have become educated in the way that he did, so that we ought to give him that title. And later on, I learned, there are a number of African-American elders of a generation for whom only the letters of their names are what we know. “W.E.B.” That was strategic, a way that he could not be called William or Bill, that someone would have to call him “boy” or call him Dr. Du Bois. It forced the issue of his stature. I think that that interested me a great deal. I remember learning that when I was probably a young teenager. I didn’t read The Souls of Black Folk until I was in college. I remember very much reading it for the first time, sophomore year with Professor Michael Cooke in a big survey course on African-American literature. It was a graduate course and, at that time, the only place that Du Bois was taught alongside Booker T. Washington and other greats of the tradition. I remember thinking, “Oh, not only is he a great man, he’s a beautiful writer” — and how that felt like such a gift that these important ideas came forward to us in language that was unforgettable.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and I think that I went into this this project of investigating him — well let me just read — here’s the Wikipedia entry about W.E.B. Du Bois. “W.E.B. Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor. After graduating from Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the NAACP — in 1909.” Those are his credentials.

I started very quickly, as I was reading The Souls of Black Folk, to realize — I thought at first I was discovering this spiritual legacy of his that’s been lost. But I feel, as I’ve traced that more and more, what I’ve discovered is his lyricism and his poetry and how that is such a distinctive contribution of his.

Ms. Alexander: Absolutely, and I think that he believed that felicitous, careful language, that when you look at The Souls of Black Folk — which is a book that I teach and the book that I return to of his millions — the Bible is absolutely its antecedent. And when you look at the construction of those sentences, when you look at its rise and fall, that’s what he’s patterning himself on. And I think that the perhaps most famous line from The Souls of Black Folk, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” First of all, it is prophetic. That is not something we have, as yet, resolved. He saw that. He understood that. And I think that he understood that as a soul crisis for white people, for black people, and for the polis in general — because it is.

Ms. Tippett: Right, and even there, I feel like, yes, to the extent that anybody who has heard a quote of Du Bois, they may have heard “The problem with the twentieth century is the problem with the color line.” And they heard it as a political statement. I think it’s memorable perhaps because it has this cadence. But also, as you’re saying, what he was talking about was something much bigger than laws or rights or legal or social structures. He was talking about the human condition and not just the human condition of people who are not white.

Ms. Alexander: Absolutely. No, that’s absolutely true. And I think that, in that regard, he makes space for James Baldwin in very, very clear ways, in the way that James Baldwin talks about the race crisis as being really a crisis about the inability to imagine each other, the inability to sit in someone else’s chair, to stand in someone else’s shoes. That is all made possible by Du Bois. I think, also, in thinking for today and going back to Souls, what really, really struck me — not just because I’m an educator, but — his belief in education. It’s very easy now to say, you must get an education, and education is sacred, and education, in fact, is holy. But when you consider that he is writing in 1903, in the years leading up to 1903, he’s talking to a first generation out of bondage. OK, so let’s just situate ourselves in time there. And when he’s talking about what an education can do, what it means, he says — I marked — because he says it far better than I can. It’s so beautiful.

“We are training not isolated men but a living group of men, nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living — not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.”

It goes on in that vein and then one more quotation here. And I think this is incredible, that he’s talking about the function of the university. He’s not talking about elementary school. He’s imagining the university. And when he writes this, 1903 — no black woman will attain the PhD until 1923. So this is a dream, educating black people. And we just have to, of course, add women where he says men. Educating black people …

Ms. Tippett: And also he was very explicitly aware of women, right?

Ms. Alexander: Absolutely.

Ms. Tippett: So I think a lot of that use of the word “man,” for a lot of our forebears of all kinds, they really did mean men, but Du Bois actually had women in mind.

Ms. Alexander: I know, yes. So we’ll give him that. But I think sometimes about those folks, and I think, no one had done this. No one had imagined this. So it’s quite a vision.

Ms. Tippett: It’s quite a vision, and you’re right. It speaks in a very uncomfortable way to the kind of discussion we have now about education — and very particularly the kind of discussion we have about inequity in education and race, right? That education is the key, but it tends to be framed in terms of equipping people to get the right jobs, right? To make the right kind of living, to join the economy. And he so insistently talks about the essential struggle of becoming a full, flourishing human being. And even the way he’s talking — the way this language you’re quoting, the way he talked about education, it’s much deeper and more complicated. That work is still there for us to do in our time.

Ms. Alexander: It really is. When I teach The Souls of Black Folk — and we pause, as we must, on perhaps the second most quotable quote: “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro, two souls warring within one dark body.” It’s thrilling to see students of all kinds of backgrounds talk about double consciousness, talk about their senses of being at Yale, where I teach, and perhaps they feel like their class background is not visible in the classroom or perhaps they feel that they are a student from Ghana, and they’re interpolated into a black student body, and how do they feel about that?

Ms. Tippett: So you’re saying that his idea of double consciousness actually has many facets, that in that way it feels kind of prophetic?

Ms. Alexander: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: But what that is in the 21st century and this globalized world has all these different layers.

Ms. Alexander: I think it really does. And I think that, it seems to me when I teach this, to be such a gift to these young people. To see, oh! There can be more than one thing going on that even feels, in his language, “warring,” sometimes, in one body. But it is the work of self to not necessarily resolve it but just understand it, work with it. That’s the ongoing work of identity that we do on ourselves — not necessarily suppressing one so that the other can rise. We’re just complicated folks. He knew that.

[music: “Artifact” by Balmorhea]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Arnold Rampersad, the late Maya Angelou, and here, the poet Elizabeth Alexander in 2014. We’re experiencing the imprint of W.E.B. Du Bois on the American soul, past and present.

Some of the complicated path of Du Bois’s ideas — like Communism and Pan-Africanism — translate imperfectly in modern ears. He also had a famously contentious clash with Booker T. Washington. Washington supported a compromise with white Southern leaders that limited opportunities for Southern Blacks while enhancing basic liberties for the whole. In a sweeping essay in 1903 — eight years after he had become the first black man with a Harvard PhD — W.E.B. Du Bois championed the critical need for a black intellectual elite: the “talented tenth.” “The Negro race, like all races,” he wrote, “is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”

Ms. Tippett: In this little essay you wrote about him years ago, you wrote, in terms of Du Bois, “Even as we may walk around thinking of ourselves as racially complicated people, what does it mean to be in this post-identity era, to stand the ground of our blackness nonetheless?” “What does it mean to sit with and contemplate our complicated blackness?” Again, I feel like this — is it a challenge, an edifying challenge to the way we want to talk about race as something we’ve moved beyond? When you talk about that thrill that your students have? And again, this is not just about — I mean, he’s speaking to other conditions aside from blackness. He’s also speaking to whiteness and also what whiteness is going to be 50 years from now.

Ms. Alexander: Yes. Yes.

Ms. Tippett: I feel like, especially — and it’s intensified since Barack Obama was elected president — we have these things that happen, like, let’s say, the shooting of Trayvon Martin. And every time something like that happens, we then end up wringing our hands about how we still don’t know how to talk about this. But I feel like what Du Bois is saying is, talk about it in a complicated, reflective, contemplative way that’s about being human.

Ms. Alexander: Absolutely, and I think that also that’s what The Souls of Black Folk, as a book, as a text, that that’s what it exemplifies.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s a tiny book. It’s a little, little book.

Ms. Alexander: Tiny, little beautiful book. But I think, in the end, perhaps for me, one of the things that wins is the culture argument and that a people is not a people unless its culture is recognized — and that culture is one of the ways that we express our humanity.

So, when he says, “I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not.” I have always loved that line. First of all, because it’s a line of perfect iambic pentameter, you will note. So I feel that what he’s saying is, hey, Shakespeare, I can do what you did. I’m speaking your language.

And it is perfectly calm. He’s saying we stand on the same timeline. We are, in his phrase, “coworkers in the kingdom of culture.” Given that, again, that struggle in the academy, in curricula everywhere, is still not complete, we really need that argument from him that just says, Shakespeare, Du Bois — there, they sit next to each other. Read them.

Ms. Tippett: It was actually challenging to enter this exploration of Du Bois. And I guess, to me, that speaks to the fact that what you’re describing, which is a fuller sense of this grappling that we have to do with all that the sides of ourselves, this collage — I do feel like that’s something the 20th century kind of thought it could maybe tame or compartmentalize, that we could make it more rational.

Ms. Alexander: That’s interesting. I don’t know if this answers your question, but my 10th-grade son just wrote a paper at his wonderful school comparing Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, really? That’s so interesting, yeah.

Ms. Alexander: Yeah, he’s excited that I’m here.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, because they had quite a tempestuous — tumultuous relationship. Anyway, that’s another whole story.

Ms. Alexander: You see that what Washington was saying was, look, we’ve got a whole lot of black people who need to work, and they are not all going to write beautiful books and be college professors. So where, I guess, for me, at the end of the day, Du Bois wins — although it’s a crude — you need all these different ideas — his idea of the “talented tenth” — that language makes me very uncomfortable.

Ms. Tippett: Right, and that is one of the controversial — we haven’t actually gotten into that. Just say a little bit, briefly, about what that idea was of his.

Ms. Alexander: Well, that idea was that a race, a people, will not be led by everyone moving together — that, he says, it will be, literally, the tenth of a population that, armed with fine education, armed with opportunity, will lead the people forward. So who are those people? How do you get into the talented tenth? Who chooses? Who designates? Why a tenth? What about the class implications of that?

It’s a very, very discomfiting idea. But I do think that what’s true in that idea is that, in fact, even within egalitarian movements, even within collective movements, attention is focused on leaders, on spokespeople. So there are all kinds of important questions about how grassroots movements are organized, how decisions are made. But I believe the fact of the matter is that you don’t see every face moving forward at once. And also that not everybody wants to lead a movement.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Exactly. We act like everyone wants and needs to be a leader, and it’s not true. It’s not the way the world works. It’s stressful being a leader. [laughs]

Ms. Alexander: It’s not true. But I think Du Bois had absolutely zero anxiety about his own status and populist eliteness, if that is a thing. He had no anxiety about being a total elite. But at the same time, when you look at all the people he educated, all the lynchings he protested, all of the words he wrote, all that he gave to millions and millions and millions of people, the tools he gave people — I feel like, OK, if you’re that kind of elite, that’s OK with me.

Ms. Tippett: I just love that your son is doing this paper on — so did you discover him discovering Du Bois, or did he already know about him?

Ms. Alexander: He had heard of Du Bois and Washington from me. My mother’s a historian, so these were not unfamiliar names. But he had not read. I think his experience was to find all of these ideas really fresh and compelling. He was really interested in the idea that there always — you know, Malcolm and Martin — that there always need to be more than one idea for people to move forward. He found that very, very relevant.

Ms. Tippett: So, more than Malcolm and Martin, that it’s larger landscape.

Ms. Alexander: Exactly.

Ms. Tippett: Interesting. What else? What have I not asked you about?

Ms. Alexander: What have you not asked me about? Well, I was very happy to rediscover…

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] This lovely essay you wrote?

Ms. Alexander: [laughs] …this lovely essay that I forgot that I wrote! Well, I guess I don’t know. I could read something.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, I’d love for you to read something that’s meaningful.

Ms. Alexander: Yeah, he’s led me to so much thinking. He’s led me to aspire to write better. These are just very personal things. His productivity has made me hesitate less and try to put more out there, because I think that one of the tragedies of racism as it has affected intellectuals and learning is that we’ve had such limited opportunities and so many of our ideas are so quickly shot down that to see a Du Bois who just said, “I don’t care, I’m going to write something again tomorrow” — who just keeps doing it. That was a really, really important example.

But you started us off with this idea of the interior, the profound interior work of who we are. And that phrase, “the souls of black folk.” What are our souls? What do they look like? What are we concerned with? Do they all belong to one thing? So, here I say, “How do we teach our children to be aware, to question, to be tolerant, to be resilient and righteous? How do we nurture their brilliance and bravery? For those of us whose day-to-day experiences are racialized, we nonetheless all have dream space, private space. I don’t think that that space is raceless or that it is without markers of identity. But I do think it’s a space where those markers are rich, complicated, and not always resolved.”

So that’s what I wrote, inspired by Du Bois, and I think that that’s not an individualizing wish. That’s about, how can we do that work and then come together in our fullness?

Ms. Tippett: That’s 21st-century work.

Ms. Alexander: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

[music: “Pilgrim” by Balmorhea]

Ms. Tippett: Elizabeth Alexander is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her books include Crave Radiance and her memoir, The Light of the World. She was the fourth poet in history to contribute to a presidential inauguration — that of Barack Obama in 2009.

W.E.B. Du Bois died on August 27, 1963 at the age of 95. He died in Ghana, a center of Pan-Africanist energies and ambition in that era. And that is where Maya Angelou finally met him in person.

Ms. Angelou: Mrs. Du Bois was a friend of mine when I lived in Ghana. She had invited me and my husband to come for lunch to their house. We went there, and she came out into the living room and said, “I’m sorry, he’s not really feeling very well. He won’t be coming out to lunch, but you may come in and say hello.” So I went in with my husband, and I told Dr. Du Bois I was afraid the white people were going to find out that he was a Negro. [laughs] He laughed at that, and that was very nice. And we went back into the dining room and had lunch, and we left. And Dr. Du Bois died, I think, that same day.

Ms. Tippett: How would you want him to be remembered? And not just remembered, how do you think that his legacy …

Ms. Angelou: As one of the great thinkers. For a black man at that time, to teach and to learn and to study under those circumstances when people were being lynched, what Dr. Du Bois showed is that he had enormous courage. I would encourage young men and women, black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and all, to look at Dr. Du Bois and realize that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving — any of those — without courage.

[music: “Pilgrim” by Balmorhea]

Ms. Tippett: I had this phone call with the great writer Maya Angelou three weeks before her death.

This show is part of a rich, larger exploration of W.E.B. Du Bois’s ideas and legacy. In our podcast feed, wherever you listen, you’ll find in-depth, unedited interviews with Arnold Rampersad and Elizabeth Alexander, as well as a conversation I had with the archaeologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste. She excavated artifacts at the Du Bois homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.

[music: “Embers” by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band]

Ms. Tippett: Special thanks to Rob Cox at the W.E.B. Du Bois archives at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and to Randy Weinstein at the Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

This program is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the NEH.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.