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"If one slips out of the northern neck of Manhattan and flies to the left of the live Sound, one swoops in time onto the Golden River, and dodging its shining beauty, now right, now left, one comes after a hundred miles of lake, hill, and mountain, in the Old Bay State. Then at the foot of high Mt. Everett one takes a solemn decision: left is sweet, old Sheffield; but pass it stolidly by and slip gently right into tiny South Egremont which always sleeps. Then wheel right again and come to the Egremont Plain and the House of the Black Burghardts.
It is the first home that I remember.
THIS LYRIC passage was penned in 1928 by W.E.B. DuBois as an ode to his ancestral home and to a small, typically New England town of Great Barrington. At the time of his death the great intellectual probably would not have been welcome in Great Barrington, for he had renounced his American citizenship, joined the Communist Party, and gone off to Africa. Yer, although DuBois turned away from the United States in disgust, he never spoke of his birthplace without a warm vibrancy in his voice and a soft look in his eyes. Last Saturday William Edward Barghardt DuBois, scholar, sociologist, historian, editor, publisher, and racial activist in a sense returned to Great Barrington. A memorial park in his name was dedicated on the site of the Black Burghardts.
Western Massachusetts where the town is located (it is almost on the Massachusetts New York border) is very much different from the eastern part of the state. There is less congestion: fewer and smaller cities and towns. The Berkshire hills, winding northwestward across the section, are sharply-peaked and heavily forested-more majestic than their eastern counterparts. Farms dot the landscape, and, though it is Massachusetts, one firmly believes that cows outnumber humans.
The temptation to extend the differences between the two sections to the people is strong. One immediately thinks to himself: Small town America, pastoral and puritan. Such a conclusion, however, would ultimately be misleading. All the trappings-and attitudes-of modern civilization can be found in Great Barrington. It is no Shangri-La.
Yet the town was undoubtedly somewhat of a paradise for young Will DuBois, growing up there in the late 1800's. Sweeping changes were taking place in the country. A civil war had been fought and won, and then lost by the North: the American Industrial Revolution was just shifting into high gear-and with it the beginnings of American imperialism: and the country was caught in a period of public venality unequalled in its history before or since. But DuBois noticed none of this. He was even unaware of his race and did not connect certain slights he suffered with the color of his skin until years afterward.
In 1885 DuBois left Great Barrington to make his place in the world: to challenge and ultimately defeat Booker T. Washington: to found, in effect, the NAACP: and to become the father of twentieth century black intellectuals. His efforts to solve the American racial dilemma led him to take varied political positions, from black nationalism to Communism. Finally, surrendering all home in America, he want to Africa where he died in 1963. Last week a small portion of the world made its way to a small field, just off Route 23 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to pay homage to this man.
I WAS COLD in Great Barrington. The sun, as if shining through a prism of ice cast a brittle, pale yellow light on the oval field where the crowd had gathered, and the chill, biting wind that whistled through the trees encircling the lot seemed to bode ill. But the expected trouble-an attempt to disrupt the dedication ceremonies-did not come and was soon forgotten as the crowd took stock of itself and the ceremonies.
The interracial gathering was incredibly diverse. White allies of DuBois from the Socialist and Communist movements; young blacks, for whom DuBois the man is only a dim memory; older blacks who well remember the controversies that surrounded the man for most of his life; and three of DuBois's relatives-his cousin, granddaughter, and grandson-to whom he, so aristocratic and impervious to outsiders, was warm and loving and full of wit. Others, black and white, who did not know DuBois personally, knew that they were indebted to him, and so come to Great Barrington to repay a portion of that debt.
THE CEREMONY itself was very casual. A brief sketch of DuBois's life and the founding of the memorial park was given by Walter Wilson, co-chairman of the memorial park committee. And then those who knew DuBois-Ossie Davis and Horace Mann Bond and Frederick Lord (who colonized DuBois at his funeral in Africa)-spoke of the man on top of the flat gray boulder that will hold the memorial plaque to him.
It was a conversation, really, an intimate conversation among friends about a common and beloved friend. And when Julian Bond was speaking of America's racism and insensitivity, of its terrible waste of human life, one thought of the words Ossie Davis has spoken moments before, "The spirit of DuBois is not dead. Somewhere in this land, perhaps right here among us there is another DuBois to point the way. The line is unbroken."
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